A Timeline of Russian Classical Music

Peter I
Peter I

In the 18th century, Peter I brought in reforms introducing western music fashions to Russia. During the subsequent reign of Empresses Elisabeth and Catherine, the Russian imperial court attracted many prominent musicians, many from Italy. They brought with them Italian traditions of opera and classical music in general to inspire future generations of Russian composers.

Dmitri Bortnianksy

A number of Russian composers received training in Italy or from these recent Italian émigrés and composed vocal and instrumental works in the Italian Classical tradition popular in the day. These include ethnic Ukrainian composers Dmitri Bortniansky (1751-1825), Maksim Berezovsky (1745- 1777) and Artem Vedel (1767- 1808) who not only composed masterpieces of choral music, but also included operas, chambers works, and symphonic works.

Mikhail Glinka

Mikhail Glinka 1804 – 1857: the first great Russian composer to exploit native Russian music traditions into the realm of Secular music. Composed the early Russian language operas Ruslan and Lyudmila and A Life for the Tsar. They were neither the first operas in the Russian language, nor the first written by a Russian, but they gained fame for relying on distinctively Russian tunes and themes and being in the vernacular.

The Mighty Five

Russian folk music became the primary source for the younger generation to composers. A group that called itself “The Mighty Five,” headed by Balakirev (1837- 1910) and including Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Borodin (1833-1887) and César Cui (1835-1918), proclaimed its purpose to compose and popularize Russian national traditions in classical music. Among the Mighty Five’s most notable compositions were the operas The Snow Maiden, Sadko, Boris Godunov, Prince Igor, Khovanshchina, and symphonic suite Scheherazade. Many of the works by Glinka and the Mighty Five were based on Russian history, folk tales, and literature, and regarded as masterpieces of the romantic nationalism in music.

Anton & Nikolay Rubenstein

This period also saw the foundation of the Russian Musical Society (RMS) in 1859, led by composer-pianists Anton (1829- 1894) and Nikolay Rubinstein (1835- 1881). The Mighty Five was often presented as the Russian Music Society’s rival, with the Five embracing their Russian national identity and the RMS being musically more conservative. However the RMS founded Russia’s first Conservatories in St. Petersburg and in Moscow.


The Russian Music Society’s St. Petersburg Conservatory trained the great Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840- 1893), best known for ballets like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. He remains Russia’s bestknown composer outside Russia.


Easily the most famous successor in Tchaikovsky’s style is Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who studied at the Moscow Conservatory where Tchaikovsky, himself, taught. He is regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the third wave of Russian classical composers, including Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Igor Stravinsky (1882- 1971). They were experimental in style and musical language. Some of them emigrated after the Russian revolution, though Prokofiev eventually returned and contributed to Soviet music as well.


Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century. His compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. Achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev and performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913).

Russian Revolution

1917 – The Russian Revolution – dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the eventual rise of the Soviet Union. The Russian Empire collapsed with the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II and was replaced by a provisional government. Later that year the provisional government was removed and replaced with a communist state.

After the Russian Revolution, Russian music changed dramatically. The early 1920s were the era of avant-garde experiments, inspired by the “revolutionary spirit” of the era. Enthusiastic clubs such as the Association for Contemporary Music proposed new trends in music, such as music based on synthetic chords.

In the 1930s, under the regime of Joseph Stalin, music was forced to be contained within certain boundaries of content and innovation. Classicism was favored, and experimentation discouraged. The Union of Soviet Composers was established in 1932 and became the major regulatory body for Soviet music.

With time, a wave of younger Soviet composers, such as Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998), Alfred Schnittke (1934- 1998), and Sofia Gubaidulina (1931- present) took the forefront due to the rigorous Soviet education system.

Reprinted with permission by San Diego Repertory Theatre Literary Assistant Rachel Mink; edited by Literary Manager Danielle Ward.