The sounds of Sochi

If you're like me, you shamelessly own a shirt saying "I Heart Russian Composers." If you're like me, the women's figure skating this week was awesome for its Russian soundtracks. And if you're also like me, you're shocked that Sotnikova won skating to a "Rondo Capriccioso" that, for some reason, had a drum beat and a bassline.

My list of top five Russian composers:

5) Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857 CE)

While not the first Russian composer, Glinka is definitely considered the first Russian composer. You're probably not going to hear too much of him in concert halls, but he was the father of a distinctly "Russian" sound. Heavily influenced by common folk tunes, he lifted Russian culture into high culture.

A next generation of composers, titled The Five—Mily Balakirev (the leader), César CuiModest MussorgskyNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin (operating from 1856–1870)—worked to cement his cultural impact.

Mikhail Glinka's "Pathetic Trio in D Minor" (1827)

4) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893): 

To me, Tchaikovsky is the Mozart of the Romantics—the perfect embodiment of the era. You may not study him in Music Hum: nothing Tchaikovsky did was expressly innovative per se. And yet his music remains ubiquitous. From his "Nutcracker Suite" to "Swan Lake" to the "Piano Concerto" and "Symphony Number 4," Tchaikovsky's darkly brooding melodies echo vibrantly throughout our culture today.

Fun fact: Tchaikovsky is suspected to be deeply closeted. He often referred to his wife as "the lizard," writing in his journal that "her breath is foul, her movement coarse and her hide thick." His "Violin Concerto" (below) is suspected to have been written for a pupil, Iosif Kotek, whom Tchaikovsky allegedly had a relationship with. Its violent and soaring melodies speak of triumph, love. and passion.

Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto" (1878)

3) Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)

In my mind, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff's composition styles always meld. They both write with simply incredible melodies that soar, brood, and, above all, never cease to inspire. They are two of the most widely performed Russian composers today, but while Tchaikovsky is perhaps better known for his ballet, Rachmaninoff was a piano virtuoso.

Interestingly, Rachmaninoff received consistently mixed reviews. At the debut of Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 1," a critic wrote of him:

"Rachmaninoff's music is monotonous in texture ... consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes. His popular success is not likely to last."

As a pianist myself, though, I adore his music and was especially pleased to hear Mao Asada skate to his "Piano Concerto No. 2" on Thursday night.

"Piano Concerto No. 2" (1901)

2) Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)

Shostakovich's music, which often seems to bridge Western baroque and 20th century Russian avante-garde, is often deeply chilling yet profoundly enjoyable. Don't dismiss him as incomprehensibly dissident. Shostakovich's sound is modern, yet his works extend the brooding, bombastic Russian character we first heard with Glinka.

This is largely a result of the intense political and cultural pressures Shostakovich experienced most of his life. Almost constantly under threat of censorship by the Stalinist government, Shostakovich's music weaves together a deeply individual sound with nationalistic hymns, propagandist celebrations, and modern influences. The result is a truly genius, multi-dimensional product.

Fun fact: Shostakovich's first opera "The Nose," tells a satirical tale about a St. Petersburg official who's lost his nose. Spoiler—the "nose" becomes a main character.

"String Quartet No. 8, Movement III" (1960) — Entire quartet written in three days.

1) Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

Widely considered the most influential composer of the 20th century, Stravinsky was capable—seemingly—of anything. His pieces range in style from late-Romantic and Modernist to atonal and serial. His collaboration with leading ballet manager Sergei Diaghilev led to his dramatic rise into the modern scene.

Stravinsky and Shostakovich, reputedly, had a running competition to compose the most boundary-pushing piece. With The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky won—definitively. The Rite of Spring fundamentally changed the way we conceive of rhythm, structure, and instrumentation.

Fun fact: Stravinsky was a world artist, collaborating with Pablo Picasso, Diaghilev, and others during his stay in France. Later, he traveled and settled in LA, where he became drinking buddies with Aldous Huxley.

"The Firebird" (1910)


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