It’s interesting to note that while all of the aforementioned developments were happening in Western Europe, Russia was going through the process of finding its musical identity as distinct from the West. This process was first sparked by Mikhail Glinka, a composer now half-forgotten in the West but acclaimed in his homeland as “The Father of Russian Music”. Glinka was best known for his Operas and their overtures, particularly Ruslan and Ludmilla and A Life for the Tsar, and while his music was very deliberately drawn from domestic Russian folk influences, the subject matter and structure of his Operas was clearly based on the Grand Operas popular in Europe at the time. Glinka’s compositions are not much heard in the Western world these days, but his work has still aged more gracefully than that of, say, Meyerbeer, and his gift for Neoclassical melody with a distinctly Russian flavor still holds up quite well.
Glinka’s innovations were picked up by the so-called “Mighty Five”, a collective of composers that included among their members three of Russia’s greatest Classical giants, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky. Rimsky-Korsakov’s best-known attempt at musical storytelling is his signature composition, Scheherazade, a Tone Poem based on the Arabian Nights legends. It showcases his trademark gift for orchestral color and tone painting, and features some of the best musical evocations of the storm-tossed seas since Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.
Rimsky-Korsakov also wrote rather a number of operas, but with the possible exception of The Golden Cockerel, most of them are generally only heard today in the form of excerpted orchestral suites not particularly different from Scheherazade. Like that work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Operas were mostly fantasy narratives that resembled a Russian equivalent of the supernatural-themed German Romantic Operas such as Weber’s Die Frieschutz.
Borodin did write one fairly important opera (also in the Grand Opera format), Prince Igor, but it has since been overshadowed by Kismet, a modern musical based on his themes that has ironically proven to be far more popular than anything he actually wrote himself. Ultimately, the only really enduring operatic masterpiece by the “Five” was Mussorgsky’s legendary Boris Godunov, based on a historical play by Alexander Pushkin and the greatest of all Russian operas. Boris Godunov was another subversion of the Grand Opera formula…the same historical subject matter, spectacular staging, and epic scope, just executed in a way meant to disturb and devastate rather than entertain.
Structured as a series of self-contained musical scenes, it told the story of a child-murdering Czar and the sorrows of the Russian people, not necessarily in that order of importance. The story was even darker and bleaker than that of Don Carlos, and the original draft barely contained any of the recognizable Operatic tropes at all. When Opera producers balked at this version, Mussorgsky reluctantly added some half-hearted attempts at traditional Operatic flourishes, but even these are highly subversive in nature. Take, for example, the Opera’s “love” story, a mutual manipulation between an imposter “Prince” who’s thinking with his hormones and a calculating Polish princess who only wants to be Czarina of Russia.
As for the music, it is in a highly distinctive avant-garde style reportedly based on research into Russian speech patterns, and in its original form, it is some of the most brutal and terrifying music in all of Opera. This score makes Wagner at his most alienating sound like Felix Mendelssohn. So outrageous was this score, in fact, that for years it had to be performed in a revised and reharmonized version masterminded by Rimsky-Korsakov in order to soften its sheer brutality to avoid scarring the audience. Fortunately, that version has fallen out of favor, and audiences today generally get to experience the full impact of this shattering work.
One of the more frustrating changes Rimsky-Korsakov made to the work was reversing the order of the last two scenes so that the Opera ended with the title character’s Macbeth-like downfall and death, thus putting the emphasis on him rather than the Russian people collectively and making the work as a whole feel far more like a conventional operatic tragedy. Mussorgsky was wise enough to close the Opera with the common people’s reaction to these events, thus making it clear that this is the tragedy of the Russian nation rather than the tragedy of one man. The wrenching lament that ends this final scene, the title of which translates as “Flow, flow, bitter tears”, has become a kind of unofficial anthem for the Russian people over the years, for reasons that should be obvious if you’ve read any Russian history.
The other real staples of the worldwide Musical Theater scene to come out of Russia were the work of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky gets a good deal of scorn from the really extreme Classical snobs, who sneer at him as a ‘Pop composer’ because of his accessible melodies and open emotional appeal. And maybe that’s true in some sense, but if he’s a Pop composer, he’s the greatest Pop composer who ever lived, with the possible exception of Verdi, and I’d say there’s no shame in that.
Tchaikovsky wrote a total of ten operas but is largely known today for his great symphonic music and ballet scores. That said, the heartrending Eugene Onegin and the eerie, hallucinogenic The Queen of Spades (both of which were, like Boris Godunov, based on the writings of Alexander Pushkin) have held up extremely well and are both fairly strong staples of the operatic repertoire, and his final Operatic work, the atmospheric fantasy Iolanta, is slowly gaining ground outside of its home country.
Eugene Onegin, which was based on one of Pushkin’s poems, is consequently rather short on action, being more of an extended meditation on longing than a story. But what it lacks in plot motion it more than makes up for in its many extended passages of yearning, emotional music, most of it concerning the unrequited love of young ingenue Tatiana for the title character, which he comes to reciprocate too late after she gets married. There’s also an anguished aria for baritone followed by a chilling canon duet, as two best friends prepare to fight a duel to the death even though neither of them really wants to go through with it. The Opera is one of the most moving compositions Tchaikovsky would ever write, no mean feat if you’re familiar with his catalogue, and if he had stuck more to this kind of thing and not tried so many heavily-plotted stories in his other Operas, he probably would have had more success in the field.
The Pushkin novel that served as the source material for The Queen of Spades had been about a cold-blooded, sociopathic gambling addict who manipulates a young noblewoman in order to get his hands on some kind of infallible secret trick for winning card games (the concept never gets explained very clearly). But calculating sociopaths don’t make particularly effective Opera protagonists, given that Opera is all about emotional expression, and centering on an utterly unfeeling character would be somewhat counterproductive, especially for an emotionalistic composer like Tchaikovsky. So Tchaikovsky reconceived the character as an (initially) relatively normal, if somewhat unbalanced character who slowly descends into full-fledged madness: he begins the Opera as a passionate if dangerously intense romantic who wants to win money so he’ll be worthy of the young noblewoman he’s in love with, and ends it as a delusional wreck who commits suicide to escape his hallucinations. The Opera tells this story with less emphasis on traditional Operatic arias than Onegin had, focusing more on hyper-dramatic musical scenes, although there are still (of course) a number of vintage Tchaikovsky melodies.
However, Tchaikovsky’s greatest contribution to the Musical Theater was in pioneering the art of ballets that had so much compositional and dramatic integrity that they were essentially non-vocal operas, creating an entirely new genre of Music Theater that managed to tell its stories without vocals or lyrics.
Swan Lake was the first of his three ballets, and thus by far the most groundbreaking of his works for the theater. The importance of Tchaikovsky’s influence on the ballet form cannot really be overstated. The truth is that ballet music wasn’t really an art form in itself before Tchaikovsky’s three landmark ballets. Most ‘Classical’ ballet music before that was just serviceable background noise for the dancing, basically the Classical equivalent of bad Disco; the idea that someone would want to listen to a ballet score on its own, without the dancing, was almost unheard-of. Note that the only ballet scores from before Tchaikovsky that anyone really still performs today are a few pieces by French composer Delibes (particularly Coppelia), one of Tchaikovsky’s main influences.
Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, wrote ballet in much the same way as he wrote symphonic music, and while, somewhat predictably, critics at the time dismissed his score for Swan Lake as ‘too complicated’ for a ballet production, it proved to be the ultimate game-changer for the format, inspiring such later giants as Stravinsky and Ravel to write dance music that was as much at home in a symphonic concert hall as a ballet theater.
Tchaikovsky’s music has always been the music of the tortured manic-depressive he was in real life, swinging wildly between deep sadness and wild, almost insane joy. Of the three ballets, Swan Lake is easily the most melancholy and emotional, and the only one where the plot ends in tragedy. It’s essentially the ballet equivalent of a tragic opera…like many operas of the time, especially in Russia, Germany and Eastern Europe, it is an atmospheric fantasy that taps into deep psychological truths.
The plot, by the way, has varied a great deal in the various productions the work has received over the years. After all, even classic operas are constantly being reset in bizarre contemporary or futuristic locations, and the lack of actual words makes the scenario of a ballet much more flexible than that of an opera. We’ve seen an acclaimed version that played Broadway where the Swans are male and the Prince a closeted gay man, and there was even a questionable Australian production that tried to make it an analogue for the Prince Charles adultery scandal.
Still, one thing that has kept the scenarios from straying too far from the original outline is the fact that virtually every respectable production tries to use as much as they can of the famous choreography traditionally associated with the piece. Of that choreography, all that can be said is that it is some of the most exquisitely delicate and romantic dance that has ever been conceived for the stage, and totally worthy of being wedded to Tchaikovsky score.
The Nutcracker was even more of a late-blooming success than Swan Lake. As late as 1940, when the Disney film Fantasia was made, that film’s narrator states that the orchestral suite compiled from the score lives on, but that no-one actually performs the ballet anymore (which was presumably still true at that point).
It wasn’t until the great George Balanchine created the iconic choreography seen in virtually all modern productions that this became the biggest commercial juggernaut in the ballet field. In contrast to those comments from 1940 (which sound laughably dated when Fantasia is viewed today), The Nutcracker is now the most popular ballet in the world, and its annual Christmas performances sometimes seem to be the only times ballet companies actually turn a profit anymore.
The Nutcracker is essentially the Classical equivalent of a holiday extravaganza, and as such does not always get the respect it deserves. The truth is that there have been many, many Christmas-themed Musicals, Operas and Ballets for theater and film…from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve and Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and the dual musical adaptations of A Christmas Carol by Leslie Bricusse and Alan Menken, all the way to the modern-day seasonal Broadway fare like the musical versions of Elf and How the Grinch Stole Christmas…and not a single one of them can measure up to The Nutcracker. The music lacks the depth of Tchaikovsky at his absolute best, but it is one of the most tuneful and delightful scores ever written for any theater piece, infused with a glowing sense of sheer joy. It clearly caught the famously bipolar Tchaikovsky in one of his manic moods, but unlike some of Tchaikovsky’s uptempo work, its cheer comes across as genuine rather than desperate and hysterical. It’s also loaded with unforgettable melodies even by Tchaikovsky’s standards, arguably containing more take-home tunes than any other single composition by the composer…there’s a reason so many of its melodies are easily recognizable even to those with no interest is Classical Music or Ballet.
Tchaikovsky also wrote a handful of Tone Poems, the most famous of which is his symphonic dramatization of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. As a composition, it really isn’t significantly different from his ballets, apart from its shorter length and lack of visual staging (and indeed, while it was not written for that purpose, it has been used as accompaniment to Ballet performances on multiple occasions). And in its musical idiom, which alternates between an ecstatically lyrical recurring love theme and almost brutal portrayals of the violence that tears the young lovers apart, it serves as the most direct predecessor to Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story. It has been observed before that most Russian symphonic music pretty much sounds like dance music to begin with, and to support this point, several compositions by Tchaikovsky’s student and de facto successor Sergei Rachmaninoff (Isle of the Dead, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, the Symphonic Dances) were also turned into ballet scores “after the fact”, so to speak.