For most of my life I have loved and been obsessed with classical music.
My favorite composers are from a medley of nationalities including Italian, Polish, German, French, Hungarian and Czech, as well as Russian composers.
Much of my favorite classical music is Russian classical music. Some of my favorite violinists are Russian or of Russian descent, such as David Oistrakh (Давид Ойстрах) and Jascha Heifetz (Яша Хейфец). My favorite piece of music is the violin concerto in D major, Op. 35 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский). There is no other piece of music I have listened to more than this concerto.
There are other composers that are my favorite as well, such as Shostakovich (Шостакович) who incorporated elements of Jazz (a genre of music I’m very fond of, particularly from the 1920s-1940s) into his music. Shostakovich pushed the envelope against the dictates of the kremlin by using political satire such as in The Nose (Нос) which was based on Nikolai Gogol’s (Николай Гоголь) story, but which was used to satirize government clerks and bureaucracy.
Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, I would listen to Classic FM 102.7 – a local radio station dedicated to playing classical music. But they only had a handful of Russian composers, as is normal for classical music stations outside of Russia. They mostly played the popular works of the more well-known Russian composers Prokofiev (Прокофьев), Mussorgsky (Мусоргский), Tchaikovsky (Чайковский), Stravinsky (Стравинский), Rachmaninoff (Рахманинов), Shostakovich (Шостакович).
I have always felt a powerful emotional pull to Russian music. When I was in high school I would buy CD’s with birthday money, of composers like Glinka, Borodin, Cui and later LP’s from charity stores and hospice shops.
I even had a C.C.C.P recording of The Queen of Spades (Пиковая дама) which sadly was stolen in one of the numerous house break-ins that my mother had – which you can read more about in my post about crime in South Africa. It was a libretto with English and Russian side by side. I have fond memories of listening to it for hours on end, I cannot count how many times I listened to that particular recording.
The music I have come to like the most over the years is of a collective known as the Mighty Five (Могучая кучка). This mostly amateur collective of musicians came from different backgrounds such as a chemist, and a military officer. They were bound together by a unique mission. They sought to create classical music that contained the essence of Russia and its people. Their music drew on the folklore, and folk melodies or historical events of Russia, in contrast to the style and tastes and subjects that were in vogue in Europe.
The Mighty Five were:
- Mily Balakirev (Милий Балакирев)
- César Cui (Цезарь Кюи)
- Modest Mussorgsky (Модест Мусоргский)
- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Николай Римский-Корсаков)
- Alexander Borodin (Александр Бородин)
A Personal Goal
Last year I set out to listen to every Russian opera that I could find, and discover and discover composers that I had not listened to before.
I would love to be able to experience the works without using a translated libretto and to read the literary works which they are based on – which is why I am trying to learn Russian. Such as Ruslan and Lyudmila (Руслан и Людмила) or the or Golden Cockerel (Золотой петушок) by Alexander Pushkin (Александр Пушкин) which were adapted into operas by Tchaikovsky, and Mikhail Glinka (Михаил Глинка).
Or Gogol’s Christmas Eve (Ночь перед Рождеством) and The Fair at Sorochyntsi (Сорочинская ярмарка), which were adapted into operas by Rimski-Korsakov and Mussorgsky or Mikhail Lermontov (Михаил Лермонтов)Demon (Демон) or the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Фёдор Достоевский) and Leo Tolstoy ((Лев Толстой) that were adapted into operas such as War and Peace (Война и мир) by Prokofiev.
Even in Russia some of these works are rarely performed and difficult to find. Even if you look at the programs of some of the biggest theaters and opera houses in Russia, you find that some of these operas are rarely performed.
I was inspired by this when I did rock climbing and came across an elite rock climber who had a philosophy to never climb one route or more than once. When I asked him why he explained that “you only live once and there is only so many routes you will ever climb”. Once he was made it up a route, he never does it again and had been doing this for many years.
This had a lasting impression on me.
For many of these, when I found an opera that I was particularly fond of, I searched for different recordings of the same opera. I enjoy listening to them performed in different time periods, by different orchestras, and under different conductors. I tried where possible to only listen to Russian productions as the prosody of foreign singers is not always correct, plus it was a bonus challenge and for the most part I was able to find soviet recordings or performances by Russian orchestras and conductors, either in Russia or abroad.
I prefer the sound of older recordings and there was less editing and post production than modern day recordings, plus it’s engaging with history.
I kept a log of every opera I listened to and every date with the version notes of who the conductor was, the orchestra, how many times I listened to it.
These were not all novel as I had been listened to Russian music and opera for many years but many of these were firsts, some just confirmed that my favorites really are my favorites and I found a few new favorites.
The focus on this post is Opera and vocal works but there are non-vocal works like ballets and symphonies and orchestral suits that I really enjoyed as well that I came across.
For some of these, multiple composers wrote an opera or work with the same name. In the case of Frencesca da Rimini for example, both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov wrote an opera / symphonic poem of the same name.
Some of these operas were composed for movies and were used in famous movies of the time. Such as Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible conducted by the legendary director, Sergei Eisenstein. And the soundtrack for The Cranes Are Flying (1957) by Mieczysław Weinberg (Моисей Вайнберг).
I found these by a collection of reading through forum posts on Russian operas and looking for ones I had not come across and by organically searching for them.
I had only started keeping a log from 29 September 2023 so there are many that I missed earlier in the year. I hope this list is helpful to others who love Russian opera and might also find a new favourites or some that that would otherwise not have come across.
I have included the names of the works and composers in both English and Russian as sometimes, depending on where you search using the Cyrillic helps find them.
The format of the list is as follows:
- Russian title of work, English title of work [by] Russian composers name, composer’s name in English.
I have split them up into those that are operas and those that are oratorios, cantatas, sacred church music or lyrical poems or song cycles or other type.
I listened to 25 operas, 36 other vocal works.
Russian Opera List
- The Fiery Angel (О́гненный а́нгел) by Sergey Prokofiev (Сергея Прокофьева).
- Semyon Kotko (Семён Котко) by Сергей Прокофьев (Sergei Prokofiev)
- The stone guest (Каменный гость) by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (Александр Даргомыжский)
- Rusalka (Русалка) by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (Александр Даргомыжский)
- Esmeralda (Эсмеральда) by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (Александр Даргомыжский)
- A life for the Tsar (Жизнь за царя) by Mikhail Glinka (Михаил Глинка)
- The Nose (Нос) by Dmitri Shostakovich (Дмитрий Шостакович)
- The Fair at Sorochyntsi (Сорочинская ярмарка) by Modest Mussorgsky (Модест Мусоргский)
- Doctor Zhivago (Доктор Живаго) by David Krivitsky (Давид Кривицкий)
- Krechinsky’s wedding Свадьба Кречинского) by (Свадьба Кречинского (фильм, 1974))
- Distant Seas (Далёкие моря) by Sergei Prokofiev (Сергей Прокофьев)
- The Gambler (Игрок) by Sergei Prokofiev (Сергей Прокофьев)
- Story of a Real Man (Повесть о настоящем человеке) by (Сергей Прокофьев)
- Mozart and Salieri (Моцарт и Сальери) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Николай Римский-Корсаков)
- The dawns are quiet here (Зори здесь тихие) by Kirill Molchanov (Кирилл Молчанов)
- Snegurochka (Снегурочка) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Николай Римский-Корсаков)
- Maid of Orleans (Орлеанская дева) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский).
- The Enchantress (Чародейка) by Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (Пётр Ильич Чайковский)
- May Night (Майская ночь) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Николай Римский-Корсаков)
- The Maid of Pskov (Псковитянка) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Николай Римский-Корсаков)
- Oprichnik (Опричники) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский).
- White Nights (Белые ночи) by Yuri Butsko (Юрий Буцко)
- The Nightingale (Соловей) by Igor Stravinsky (Игорь Стравинский)
- Quiet Flows the Don (Тихий Дон) by Ivan Dzerzhinsky (Иван Дзержинский)
- A Life for the Tsar (“Жизнь за царя) ) by Mikhail Glinka (Михаил Глинка)
Cantata, Oratorio, Choral works and Song cycles, Musical Drama and more.
- I Am Sad (Мне грустно) by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (Александр Даргомыжский)
- Complete Romances (Полное собрание романсов) by Sergei Rachmaninoff (Сергей Рахманинов)
- The Bronze Horseman (Медный всадник) by Reinhold Glière (Рейнгольд Глиэр)
- Songs of Alexander Dargomyzhsky (Александр Сергеевич Даргомыжский )- various
- Winter Bonfire (Зимний костёр) by Sergei Prokofiev (Сергей Прокофьев)
- At the Reading of a Psalm (По прочтении псалма) by Sergei Taneyev (Серге́й Тане́ев)
- Songs of Our Days (Песни наших дней) by Sergei Prokofiev (Сергей Прокофьев)
- Ballad of an Unknown Boy (Баллада о мальчике, оставшемся неизвестным) by Sergei Prokofiev (Сергей Прокофьев)
- Coronation Cantata (Коронационная кантата) by Alexander Glazunov (Алекса́ндр Глазуно́в)
- Twelve Russian Folksongs (Обработки русских народных песен) by Sergei Prokofiev (Сергей Прокофьев)
- Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom No. 1 (Литургия святителя Иоанна Златоуста № 1) by Alexander Grechaninov (Алекса́ндр Гречани́нов)
- Ah, This Evening Anniversary concert by Maxim Dunayevsky (Макси́м Исаа́кович Дунае́вский)
- Complete Songs (Полное собрание песен) by Sergei Rachmaninoff (Сергей Рахманинов)
- Liturgia Domestica (Литургия Доместика) by Alexander Grechaninov (Алекса́ндр Гречани́нов)
- The All-Night Vigil by Alexander Grechaninov (Алекса́ндр Гречани́нов)
- The Bells (Колокола) by Sergei Rachmaninoff (Сергей Рахманинов)
- Requiem (Реквием) Vyacheslav Artyomov (Вячесла́в Артё́мов)
- Moscow (Москва) by Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (Пётр Ильич Чайковский)
- The walk of the Virgin Mary in the throes (Хождение Богородицы по мукам) by Nikolai Tcherepnin (Николай Николаевич Черепнин)
- Songs And Dances Of Death (Песни и пляски смерти) by Modest Mussorgsky (Модест Мусоргский)
- Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (Литургия святого Иоанна Златоуста) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский)
- Hymn to the Cherubim (Херувимская песнь) performed by The Russian Patriarchate Choir under the direction of Anatoly Grindenko (Анатолий Гринденко) and Dimitri Tchesnokov (Дмитрий Чесноков)
- How long shall the kite fly? (Сколько летать воздушному змею? by Yuri Shaporin (Юрий (Георгий) Александрович Шапорин))
- Wedding Songs (Свадебные песни) by Yuri Butsko (Юрий Буцко)
- Work Song (Рабочая песня) by Yuri Butsko (Юрий Буцко), poems by V. Mayakovsky (from the cantata “We Bear the Name of Lenin”)
- Canon to Guardian Angel (Канон Ангелу-Хранителю) by Yuri Butsko (Юрий Буцко)
- Six Spiritual Concertos (Шесть духовных концертов) by Dmitry Bortniansky (Дмитрий Бортнянский)
- Alexander Nevsky (Александр Невский) by Сергей Прокофьев (Sergei Prokofiev)
- Seven, They Are Seven (Семеро их) by Sergei Prokofiev (Сергей Прокофьев)
- Stepan Razin (Степана Разина) by Alexander Glazunov (Алекса́ндр Глазуно́в)
- The Execution of Stepan Razin (Казнь Степана Разина) by Dmitry Shostakovich (Дми́трий Шостако́вич)
- Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution (Кантата к двадцатилетию Октября)by Сергей Прокофьев (Sergei Prokofiev)
- On Guard for Peace (На страже мира) by Сергей Прокофьев (Sergei Prokofiev)
- Ivan The Terrible (Иван Грозный) by Сергей Прокофьев (Sergei Prokofiev)
- The Gadfly (Овод) by Antonio Spadavecchia (Антонио Спадавеккиа)
- Francesca da Rimini by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский)
The opera I listened to the most was The Life of a Tsar (Иван Сусанин). I listened to the full opera – which is almost 3 hours – 11 separate times. That is over 30 hours for one opera. While I enjoyed it quite a lot, it is not even my favorite. If I had 24 recordings of Eugene Onegin, I would listen to them all!
A Russian Legacy and Multicultural Influence
Although a later arrival on the classical music world, Russia has produced some the finest and most memorable works of classical music that has left an enduring legacy on classical music.
Russian composers wrote music to reflect not only what was happening in Mother Russia but also scenes from outside of Russia. Russia actually has a wide exposure of cultures outside of their borders – partly due to the many different nationalities that lived together and were part of the Soviet Union (C.C.C.P), and partly due to a curiosity in other cultures (I believe). Tchaikovsky for example, composed Caprice Italian when we went on holiday to Italy and was inspired by the Italian folk music that he encountered there. There is also Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, or Glinka’s Spanish Overtures. Or Prokofiev’s Egyptian nights and Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, or Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini – which has it’s subject drawn from Dante’s Division Comedy. Russia has around 190 ethnic groups and a rich culture with many influences and a turbulent political history which makes it very interesting.
Russia plays a lot of music from the West, but the West rarely plays Russian music, let alone Russian operas. It is a niche field even within opera as Italian, French and German have a longer history and are more popular.
Russia is very multicultural and has been interested in the cultures of borders outside of it. Just to give two examples, the Indian song Jimmy Jimmy, Aaja Aaja from the soviet era film Disco Dancer (1981) is very popular among Russians, and so was jazz in the 1920s before it got censored…
Jazz experienced a late flourishing during the Khrushchev Thaw, as the influx of foreign cultural products increased.
Some operas were heavily censored under the soviet regime and were only published or allowed to be played decades later or after the composer’s death – such as Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда). Which was banned in 1936 and only staged again in 1962 after it was renamed Katerina Izmailova (Катерина Измайлова) and several changes were made to it.
However, there were works that were celebrated and endorsed by the state such has Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) which premiered in (Kuybyshev) Samara which was notable because it marked an alliance with C.C.C.P state with America paving a way forward for international co-operation.
The Lives of Russian Composers – Tragic and Sad
Sadly, under the oppressive regime, many composers became alcoholics, desperately trying to cope with harsh conditions and persecution. Some left the country and never returned home, such as Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky.
It is tragic to think of some of the greatest musical minds creating some of the most beautiful music only to die in poor health and poverty and even relative obscurity. Mussorgsky died at 41 in a state hospital with much of his work unfinished or unpublished. Tchaikovsky had a controversial death by cholera.
Some composers only had their works made public decades after their death, due to soviet censorship.
Whether it was besides or in addition to state persecution, many of the greatest composers Russia produced had mental health problems. Scriabin – who died at 43 in poverty form blood poisoning from an untreated lip ulcer – suffered from the alcoholism. Tchaikovsky had a miserable marriage and was depressed. Rachmaninov suffered depression, as did Shostakovich.
My Favourite Russian Operas and Pieces
These are some of my favorite operas;
- Snegurchka (Снегурочка) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
- Boris Godunov (Борис Годунов) by Modest Mussorgsky
- Khovanshchina (Хованщина) by Modest Mussorgsky
- The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (Сказание о невидимом граде Китеже) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
- Eugene Onegin (Евгений Онегин) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
- Rusalka (Русалка) by Alexander Dargomyzhsky (Александр Даргомыжский)
- Pique Dame (Пиковая Дама) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
- Ruslan and Ludmila (Руслан и Людмила) by Mikhail Glinka
When I listen to an opera I typically I first listen to it to get a feel of the music, and then find the libretto to print, and then do a second listen at a different time where I read line by line with a translation. This usually takes a few listens to be able to do as a language sung operatically sounds quite different than how it is spoken.
Many who have English as a first language will struggle with some English opera even, if you are not used to it.
With these operas it has been quite difficult to find the librettos. I manage for a few, but for me ultimately as long as I have a general understanding of the story and plot that is enough as opera for me is about the sound and music – I don’t need to understand every remark by a character and understand the rich cultural references or political satire. I listen to it because the music is beautiful.
I’m tempted to do a similar thing for French operas as I love Bizet’s Carmen and Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) as well as Léo Delibes, Lakmé.
This was a great way to discover other works, not only operas. Once I found an opera that I really liked I would look up other orchestral pieces by the composer. For example, Reinhold Glière’s ballet The Red Poppy – which is a favorite as is his symphonic poem The Bronze Horseman which is inspired by Pushkins poem of the same title and which is about about the founding of Saint Petersburg – which was the capital from 1712 to 1918.
In doing this I found some new favorites that I would never have found if I stuck to what I had known.
I was surprised that were not actually more that were easy to find, there are over 60 notable composers but finding their works is difficult and not all of them wrote operas.
I am now satisfied with the range of what I have covered and would like to see some of these in person one day, which would be a dream. Either at the Marinsky or the Bolshoi theatre, or in the countryside and experience some folk acapella groups and choirs. I would also love to see the The Pyatnitsky Russian Folk Choir.
It should be noted that some of these operas the composer had to write and likely did not want to under the stifling censorship of the communist party, some operas like Semyon Kotko (Семён Котко) are considered state propaganda, but I still listen to them from a historical and cultural perspective to hear what people in the classical world of Russia were listening to behind the Iron Curtain.
Classical music was one of the few art forms not to have its artists executed by the state, or die as a result in prison. This fate happened to authors such as Osip Mandelstam who died enroute to a labor camp and theatre directors, the composers like many others at the time faced intense political pressures to conform to party guidelines in their work and the mental health of many artists during the soviet era suffered, whether is Shostakovich or Vladimir Vysotsky.
My wife pointed out a couple speaking Russian while we were out shopping this past weekend. I’ve played so much Russian opera and folk songs at home that she can hear Russian. Bless my wife’s patience.
For 2024 my focus is on discovering new violin concertos and works that I haven’t found so far.
“A song is not a sparrow; once it flies out, you can’t catch it.”Russian folk proverb