Nationalism in Russia: Musical Orientalism

The Romantic era is so rich with variety that it is difficult to have a sense of chronological motion but also to cover the sheer number of key concepts that can help to inform one’s listening of music from this time. There were also composers from all over Europe exploring these concepts in different ways. Last entry focused on the early signs of Nationalism in music with Chopin. Before we talk about too much else in Western Europe, I can’t leave behind a towering and influential example of Nationalism we have not yet mentioned.

Russia, the most immense country in the world by a significant margin, has its geography to thank for facilitating the development of its fascinating culture. Through these opposing forces of East and West, and the intensity of isolation, it’s no surprise that Russia’s political, cultural and artistic climate have been unique and not quite compatible with anyone else’s. But its sheer size have made this single viewpoint very influential throughout history.

Russia’s relationship with the rest of Europe has always been tenuous at best and this entry isn’t meant to focus on that. What I care about is how composers in Russia took their musical education, similar in content to the harmony, theory and voice leading that European composers were taught, and used it to express a unique set of cultural ideals and struggles.

A longstanding debate for a Russian artist or composer is how “European” they consider themselves. Some composers, like Tchaikovsky, went relatively Westward in their aesthetic. For now, let’s look at the composers who looked East for their inspiration.

Alexander Borodin: Polovetsian Dances

Alexander Borodin (1833-1847) is on a short but interesting list of composers who, despite their enduring success, pursued music as a hobby alongside a different profession. Borodin was a chemist and a doctor by trade, and made substantial contributions to organic chemistry. Borodin considered himself first and foremost a scientist; music was only a hobby. Would he be surprised to see the fame his music has brought him after his lifetime?

Prince Igor, Act II: Polovetsian Dances

Like all of his other compositions, Borodin wrote his opera, Prince Igor, in his spare time or when he was ill. This melody has since become famous; it is performed without choir as an orchestral overture, and it was even made into the show tune Stranger in Paradise.

The A section is tuneful and evocative, perhaps accompanying a beautiful and effeminate dance. The melody covers a wide range of pitches in a slow tempo, and trill-like ornaments give it an exotic quality as well. To me it evokes movement, optimism and excitement, but all within a sense of serenity.

The B section is very much the opposite—raucous, rhythmic and non-diatonic. Borodin uses a highly chromatic scale, which sounds very unlike either the major minor scales to the Western ear, to outline the melody in this B section. The sound gets its harshness by focusing on low, loud instruments. Lower strings bark out interjections, brass is overpowering, and rhythm is frenzied. Clearly whoever is dancing is masculine and aggressive.

Polovetsian Dances as seen in the opera, Prince Igor.
Polovetsian Dances as an orchestral suite.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

A master of orchestration, a poster-person for “musical orientalism” (the use of nonwestern harmonies and folk melodies) and a passionate nationalist for Russian folklore, language and traditional music, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is a culminating figure for the “Russian sound” of the 19th century. His famous orchestral work, Scheherazade, encompasses all of his greatest talents and the musical orientalism that he championed.

Scheherazade tells the story of 1001 Nights, or Arabian nights. The young bride Scheherazade is married off to the king of Arabia who has a bad reputation for killing all his wives after their first night together. Smart and resourceful, she begins to tell him stories every evening, fantastical adventures of conquest, love and loss, anything she can think of to keep him interested in the story instead of killing the storyteller. She manages to keep him curious about the cliffhangers 1001 times, and for this the king rewards her by deciding to keep her alive.

The first movement depicts her first story, a great ship sailing at sea. The second movement is about the adventures of a prince and the evil Sultan (subtle) out to get him. The third is a love story between a prince and princess, and the fourth is a festival and shipwreck followed by the peaceful conclusion of the real-life evil Sultan granting Scheherazade her life.

This is very programmatic music, with several orchestral instruments or groups of instruments representing different characters or aspects of the stories. The most prominent is the solo violin, representing Scheherazade herself. Each movement opens with a substantial violin solo, and as the movements go on, the solos become more emphatic. By the final movement, in which the violin solo is particularly wild and angry, Scheherazade seems to be sick of all the storytelling and fed up with her impudent husband. Other notable storytelling instruments include:

  • First movement: lower strings represent flowing ocean waves
  • First movement: brass represent a ship floating over the ocean
  • Second Movement: solo woodwinds represent the young prince
  • Second Movement: brass and low strings represent the evil Sultan
  • Finale of the piece: Both the Schererazade and Sultan melodies are played together, the Sultan melody quietly and as if pacified as the Scheherazade melody riseing up above it, out of reach.

Other than instruments, many melodies represent characters, and these are repeated to create the formats of each movement. One criticism could be that this piece is just the same few melodies over and over again, but they are great melodies, so RK gets away with it. He also uses the excessive repeats creatively. By repeating smaller and smaller aspects of melodies, especially at the end of second movement, and rote repetition becomes a tool for building musical tension.

Scheherazade is a staple in the orchestral repertoire for a reason; enjoy listening to such a colorful and evocative adventure transferred into music!

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Another staple for the piano and orchestral repertoire, Pictures at an Exhibition is a musical setting of the Modest Mussorgsky’s walk at an exhibition of art. Mussorgsky (1839-1881) had a deep friendship with painter Viktor Hartmann, and both of them were dedicated to finding an intrinsically Russian style of art, distinct from both Europe and Asia. Saddened by his friend Hartmann’s sudden death, Mussorgsky attended a memorial exhibition of Hartmann’s paintings and was inspired to write this piece. Its unique format, a spinoff of the rondeau (ABACADAE etc), reflects Mussorgsky walking in between each painting as well as the paintings themselves.

The titles of Hartmann’s paintings that are featured in the work also delineate sections of the piece. Here are the titles as they appear in order in Mussorgsky’s music; read them along as you listen to each section. Knowing the titles will help the music depict the paintings even more vividly.

  • Promenade (Mussorgsky walks into the exhibition)
  • Gnomus (a scary, ugly Gnome or monster)
  • Promenade (Mussorgsky walks to the next painting)
  • The Old Castle (a stately, mysterious melody)
  • Promenade
  • Cattle (a cattle driver approaches and walks past, then onward, with his cattle)
  • Promenade
  • Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (fast, spritely and energetic, just like chicks peeping!)
  • Samuel Goldenberg and “Schmuÿle: Two Jewish Men, One Rich and One Poor
  • Promenade
  • The Great News at the Market (a bustling, gossiping, crowded market)
  • Catacombs (Roman Tomb)
  • Scrolls in a Dead Language
  • The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga, a monster of Russian folklore)
  • The Great Gates of Kiev (Finale)

You will hear lots of scales and melodies that sound different from simple major/minor relationships. You’ll also hear huge changes in range, such as very low and very high pitches in unison with nothing in the middle, and sudden changes in dynamics (loud-soft) that are made even bigger by dramatic changes in range. The low register is used extensively to create scary, aggressive sounds, but also mysterious sounds, such as the accompaniment to the Old Castle. The upper range typically plays the promenades and the more songful melodies, but also the skittering notes of the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.

Mussorgsky’s original composition was for solo piano, and it is still performed often this way. It’s both a technical challenge to play as well as a musical one; a single performer on one instrument has to convey ten different paintings, some with more than one character in them.

Another very popular way to listen to this piece is with orchestra. Maurice Ravel, a blog-worthy composer for later in our chronology, was a master orchestrator just like Rimsky-Korsakov, and he assigned all of the piano score’s pitches and rhythms to instruments of a symphony orchestra in his 1922 transcription of Pictures. All of the contrast is magnified when different instruments are at the composer’s disposal. Ravel includes Saxophone, a rare addition to the orchestra, as well as giving creative roles to percussion, orchestral piano and other instrument groups.

In the recording below, original paintings by Hartmann are included when possible but some of the paintings referenced in the music have since been lost.

Whichever version you prefer, both of them are rich with contrast, excitement and color. All of the entries in today’s blog highlight strongly programmatic music from a Russian sound palette. There is still lots of contrast to explore in Russia during the 19th century, so next time we will look at how Tchaikovsky, another towering name in music, fits into all of this.

2 thoughts on “Nationalism in Russia: Musical Orientalism

  1. […] be at personal odds with his taste for European music and his own identity as a Russian composer. Nationalistic composers had a tenuous relationship with him. Instead of picking a side, Tchaikovsky developed a distinctly […]


  2. […] unlike the trend in Germany, Austria and Russia. The orchestration (reminder definition here) choices he makes are shimmering and atmospheric. Grieg’s fame was widespread, and he toured […]


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