Russian art song at Carnegie hall


Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s program traces the evolution of the Russian art song over the course of the 19th century. It begins with the songs of Mikhail Glinka, rarely heard outside Russia, which, like his operatic and orchestral works, ignited the flame of a distinctive Russian sound in classical music. Fascinatingly, Glinka’s songs display as deep a grounding in the suavity of the Italian bel canto tradition as in the ruggedness of Slavic folk song, for he was a singer himself and spent three years studying voice and vocal literature in Italy as a young man.

Slightly more familiar are the songs of the two contemporaries Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Both were directly inspired by Glinka’s music, but the former gave his allegiance to the new Russian nationalist movement while the latter pursued a more cosmopolitan European path. Rimsky-Korsakov’s songs show an impressive attention to careful text setting, while Tchaikovsky favored a broader-brush style in which magnificent melodies carried the emotional meaning.


By Janet E. Bedell

MIKHAIL GLINKA dec 27, 2014 – 

Mikhail Glinka is often called the father of Russian music, for his distinctive style established a new ideal for Russian composers and profoundly influenced the works of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and even early Stravinsky. His two operas, A Life for the Tsar (1836) andRuslan and Lyudmila (1842), infused stories from Russian history and legend with compelling melodies drawn from Slavic folk and liturgical sources.



Rimsky-Korsakov is known in America today primarily for his color-saturated orchestral tone poems SheherazadeRussian Easter Festival Overture, and Capriccio espagnol, as well as for his edited and re-orchestrated versions of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Borodin’sPrince Igor, now somewhat out of favor. In Russia, he is known more properly for his own operas, which reveal the scope of his talents and his imagination much more fully. And he was a prolific and highly gifted songwriter, though these works are virtually never heard outside his native land.

Like his predecessor Glinka and his contemporary Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov specialized in the romance, the most popular song style in that country in the 19th century. This genteel genre was designed primarily for singing in cultivated Russian households and had little to do with the rougher nationalistic works that Rimsky-Korsakov’s colleagues in the “Mighty Handful” group—especially Mussorgsky—were creating.



As a born melodist, Tchaikovsky created instrumental themes that seemed designed for singing. Yet he is far better known for his operas than for the approximately 100 songs he wrote throughout his career. As biographer David Brown has pointed out, it is not only the language barrier that has stood in the way, but also the fact that Tchaikovsky wrote in the style of the Russian romance, which Brown describes as “a sentimental and soft-centered species [that] closely parallels the Victorian drawing-room ballad.” Song romances were adored by 19th-century Russians for their love-obsessed lyrics and intense emotions, but they have generally not stood the test of time as well as Classical lieder.

Tchaikovsky was less concerned with the artistic quality of the verse he chose to set than whether it evoked a strong personal response in him. Therefore, though he would set poems by great writers such as Pushkin and Alexei Tolstoy, he also selected lesser verse by amateurs like Grand Duke Konstantin Romanov. As Christian Wildhagen writes, a striking feature of his songs “is the way in which the composer identifies wholeheartedly with the message of the poems, with the result that many of his songs are personal confessions.”