There is no overestimating the contribution of Russian composers to the history of Western music; there have been just so many, particularly since the nineteenth century, which saw the emergence of the Russian nationalist musical style.


Here is a quick introduction to Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and their most important musical compatriots.

Best Russian composers

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

With his phenomenal talent for melody - as evident in his operatic masterpiece Eugene Onegin as it is in his much-loved ballet The Nutcracker - Tchaikovsky is probably the most popular Russian composer of all time.
Born in the small Russian town of Votkinsk in 1840, he was initially educated for a career in the civil service before entering the fledgling St Petersburg Conservatory, where he forged an unmistakably Russian style.
His life was a troubled one, marred by several personal tragedies, including the early death of his mother and a disastrous marriage, as well the burden of repressing his homosexuality. Nevertheless, he composed prolifically, arguably doing more to make classical music accessible than any composer since.

As well as being one of the best ballet composers of all time Tchaikovsky was one of the greatest composers ever

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky was one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, writing works that revealed an extraordinary gift for invention and that repeatedly broke new ground. The son of Fyodor Ignatievich Stravinsky, a bass opera singer in the Kiev Opera and the Mariinsky Theatre, he grew up in St Petersburg, studying the piano from the age of nine.

He decided to devote himself to music after meeting and befriending Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's son at the University of St Petersburg. But it was after meeting the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1909, that his career really took off. Nowadays he is probably best known for the ballets he wrote for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka and - most of all - The Rite of Spring, whose radical musical language and choreography famously provoked rioting among the audience at its 1913 premiere.

But there are many, many other pieces, among them the 1918 musical folk-story The Soldier's Tale, his neo-classical masterpiece of 1930 Symphony of Psalms and his only full-length opera The Rake's Progress - written in 1947-51, after his emigration to the US - that display his ability to embrace a huge range of musical styles with chameleon-like adaptability.

Dmitri Shostakovich

There are a lot of questions surrounding Dmitri Shostakovich. Was he conservative or radical? a communist or a dissident? Many of his works have been scrutinised for encoded anti-Soviet messages. One thing, however, is clear: he wrote some of the most powerful, haunting works of the last century, frequently responding to the repressive Soviet arts policy of his time with a musical depth that eluded many other artists in the same position.
Born in St Petersburg, Russia, he started playing the piano at the age of nine and at 13 entered the Petrograd Conservatory, where he also studied composition. Shostakovich's First Symphony, written as his graduation piece when he was 19, won him instant praise. But the rest of his career saw the composer slipping in and out of favour with the authorities, as he struggled to reconcile personal and artistic integrity with the demands of the state.

Most famous amongst his works - which tended to be characterised by their ambivalent tonality, elements of neoclassicism and a sombre kind of late romanticism - are the 5th, 7th, and 10th symphonies, as well as his shattering String Quartet No. 8, written in just three days after giving in to pressure from Khrushchev's government to join the Communist Party.

Sergei Prokofiev

The last great composer to grow up in Tsarist Russia, Sergei Prokofiev was a musically precocious only child. Aged 13, in 1904, he started studying composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where, several years younger than his fellow students, he annoyed classmates with his arrogance and his habit of keeping statistics on their errors. Stints in London, the USA and Paris saw him produce several important works, including the Third Piano Concerto and the opera The Love for Three Oranges.

Then, in the 1930s, he shocked the western world by returning to his homeland, having been homesick for some time. It was there that - under intense Soviet scrutiny - he wrote his most famous scores, including Lieutenant Kijé, his musical children's story Peter and the Wolf his fifth symphony and his wonderful ballets Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet. For a good while Prokofiev enjoyed celebrity as a leading composer of the Soviet Union.

In 1948, however, he fell foul of the regime, and was accused, along with Shostakovich and several other composers, of renouncing the 'basic principles of classical music' in favour of 'muddled, nerve-racking' sounds that 'turned music into cacophony.' He died on 5 March 1953, on the same day as Stalin. But the popularity of his music - a distinctively bitter-sweet blend of ferocious dissonance and intense lyricism - remains unvanquished.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

One of a group of five composers known as the Mighty Handful, who worked together to create a national style of music, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is best remembered today as a master of orchestration. Born in Tikhvin, east of Saint Petersburg, into a Russian noble family, he started composing before he was ten years old. He later received musical encouragement and mentoring from Mily Balakirev, then aged 24 and already the leader of a group of young composers including Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin and César Cui.
The five of them would critique each other's works, with Rimsky-Korsakov frequently polishing up his colleague's orchestrations. What might have helped him was his synesthesia (the ability to 'see' musical notes as vivid colours) - a condition that might also help to explain the intensely colourful quality of his most famous works, among them Flight of the Bumblebee, his opera Sadko and his exotically-flavoured tone poem Scheherazade.

Modest Mussorgsky

Another member of the Mighty Handful, Modest Mussorgsky started out as a piano prodigy, giving his debut aged only nine years old. Four years later, in 1852, he enrolled at the Imperial Guard's cadet school. But he was an undisciplined pupil, and, in 1863, a cash flow problem forced him to take a job as a clerk in the civil service.
He died young, aged only 42, of a heart condition brought about by chronic alcoholism. And his legacy was far from assured: like the man himself, the music he wrote lacked discipline and was, according to his friend Rimsky-Korsakov, marred by 'absurd, disconnected harmony, ugly part-writing, sometimes strikingly illogical modulations, sometimes a depressing lack of them'.
What redeemed it, however, was its originality - a characteristic not lost upon Rimsky-Korsakov, who smoothed over the rough edges in his colleague's music, in some cases providing colourful orchestrations. It was in this revised form that works like A Night on a Bare Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition gained popularity. Though many have argued that Rimsky-Korsakov's touched up version of Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov lacks the brutal intensity of the original.

Alexander Borodin

Though better known today as a composer, in his day Borodin worked primarily as a scientist, composing music in his spare time. He was born in St Petersburg as the illegitimate son of a 62-year-old Georgian nobleman, Luka Stepanovich Gedevanishvili, who - due to the circumstances of his birth - had him registered as the son of one of his serfs Porfiry Borodin.

Despite his status as a commoner, he was well-educated and, in 1850, enrolled in the Medical–Surgical Academy in Saint Petersburg, marking the start of a career mostly devoted to research, lecturing and overseeing the education of others. His musical interests flourished after 1862, when he began taking composition lessons with Mily Balakirev. Nowadays his popularity far surpasses Balakirev's, thanks to some colourful and infectiously melodic works, among them the symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia and the Polovtsian Dances.

Sergei Rachmaninov

Arguably the most popular composer of the early twentieth century, Sergei Rachmaninov was the last representative of the Romantic style in Russia. Born into a musical family, he studied the piano at the Conservatoire in St Petersburg from the age of nine. His hand-span, famously, was enormous, and he capitalised on it by writing piano works of extreme virtuosity.

But this was not virtuosity for its own sake. Rather, his aim was to fully explore the potential of the piano - and he achieved it in works of heart-on-sleeve melodiousness and expressivity. Best known amongst them is surely the mighty 2nd Piano Concerto, not least because of its association with the 1945 classic film Brief Encounter.

But the Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto vie for second place, and there's a whole host of other works, including the Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No.2, Isle of the Dead, and Moments Musicaux, that reveal his prodigious talent.

Alexander Scriabin

Much has been made of Alexander Scriabin's synaesthesia, largely because he included in his 1910 piece Prometheus, a clavier a lumieres which, played like a piano, projects coloured light into the concert hall. But that's only one of this composer's many unusual facets.
Posturing as a sort of Messiah character, he had a habit of describing his dreams while standing on chairs. He once attempted to walk on the waters of Lake Geneva. For his very last piece, Scriabin planned a performance to last seven days in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas, with bells suspended from the clouds, whose vibrations would shatter the universe. That piece was Mysterium, and, for better or worse, it was never completed: Scriabin died too soon.

But he did leave a legacy of several other colourful and eccentric pieces, which, despite the composer's traditional Russian background (he was born into a family of aristocrats in 1871 and studied with Rachmaninov's teacher Nikolai Zverev) have nothing very 'Russian' about them. The early pieces, such as the Piano Sonata No. 1 , sound a little like Chopin. The later works, including Piano Sonata No. 9 (nicknamed 'Black Mass') are intensely chromatic, dark, even nightmarish, composed against the backdrop of political turmoil. As a whole, his output makes for an unsettling listen. But it's certainly memorable.


10. Sofia Gubaidulina

Now 90 years old, Sofia Gubaidulina spent much of her life kicking back against the stranglehold of the Soviet regime. Born in the Tatarstan capital of Kazan in the early 1930s, she studied composition and piano at the Kazan Conservatory. After graduating, she consorted with dissidents, attended unauthorised western music festivals and wrote works that were blacklisted and described as 'noisy mud instead of real musical innovation.'
But instead of going into exile, like many of her blacklisted colleagues, she saw it as a chance to write whatever she wanted, given that her music wouldn't be performed anyway. And so she embraced 12 tone serialism, folk music improvisation, post-serial microtonal Russian music, always led in her artistic experiments by her strong sense of spirituality. Among her many compelling and emotionally charged works, The Light at the End (2003), the Pushkin-inspired Feast During a Plague (2006) and her second violin concerto In Tempus Praesens (2007) are a good place to start.


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.