Mikhail Glinka & Mily Balakirev


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The Five may have been looked upon as lesser musicians by members of the musical establishment in Russia. For instance, Mily Balakirev did refuse appointments because he had little formal training. I spent the most important years of my life in academic establishments and have seen colleagues finding fault with other colleagues. So, the Russian Five may been ridiculed.

However, I would like to point out that Mikhail Glinka (1 June 1804 – 15 February 1857) respected Mily Balakirev (2 January 1837 – 29 May 1910), the leader of The Five, and that Tchaikovsky applauded Balakirev.

The Five took their lead from him Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka, who could be called the father of classical music in Russia. Moreover, Mily Balakirev befriended Glinka and they composed music together. When Glinka and Balakirev’s patron, Alexander Ulybyshev (Oulibicheff) (1794-1858) died, Balakirev lost support that was vital to him.

In other words, The Five did not oppose classical music. Their wish was to give Russian classical music its Slavic character. As we have seen, Rimsky-Korsakov sent Tchaikovsky ten fugues he had composed, which Tchaikovsky (7 May 1840 – 6 November 1893) examined and found “impeccable.” (See RELATED ARTICLE.)

As for Tchaikovsky himself, let us read:

“Tchaikovsky’s training set him on a path to reconcile what he had learned with the native musical practices to which he had been exposed from childhood. From this reconciliation he forged a personal but unmistakably Russian style—a task that did not prove easy.”
(See Tchaikovsky, Wiki2.org.)


Nikolay Kuznetsov‘s portrait of the composer Tchaikovsky, 1893

A National Effort

I should also note that in 1867, after hearing a concert given by Slavic composers, critic Vladimir Stasov wrote an article entitled Mr. Balakirev’s Slavic Concert. Composers included Mikhail GlinkaAlexander DargomyzhskyMily Balakirev, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The concert was performed for visiting Slav delegations at the “All-Russian Etnographical Exhibition” in Moscow.

God grant that our Slav guests may never forget today’s concert; God grant that they may forever preserve the memory of how much poetry, feeling, talent, and intelligence are possessed by the small but already mighty handful of Russian musicians.

— Vladimir Stasov, Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti, 1867

A Consecration

Vladimir Stasov’s article was consecration for The Five and Slavic composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky. Their work now belonged to an all-Russian effort to express Russia’s distinct and distinguishable Slavic roots.

Similarly, the great Glinka, associated with Romanticism, recognized The Five. He and Balakirev composed The Lark.

It could be said that The Five were a baudelaireian frisson nouveau: a new shudder. But were it not for The Five and Tchaikovsky, would classical music have inherited its internationally-acclaimed Russian répertoire?

Glinka drawn in the 1840s, portrait by Yanenko (Wiki2.org.)


Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (29 November 2018)


Love to everyone 💕

Glinka – Nocturne In E-flat major – Valeri Kamyshov, piano


Mikhail Pletnev plays Glinka-Balakirev The Lark – live 1982

© Micheline Walker
17 December 2018

On Mily Balakirev, not to mention all the scales


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We have already seen the above image. It represents The Five  Slavophile composers, including their leader Mily Balakirev (1837 – 1910) and unidentified figures. The Five were: Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov.

This post was to contain a discussion of the three gentlemen portrayed below, but I divided my subject matter, so that we would first be acquainted with changes brought about by The Five. How did they express an Eastern Russia? There had to be technical departures from traditional harmony and counterpoint. 

It also seemed important to feature the music composed by Mily Balakirev, the rather troubled leader of The Five. Balakirev had a fine piano teacher in Karl Eisrach. Through Eisrach, he found a patron in count Alexander Ulybyshev, Alexandre Oulibicheff FR, and a kind predecessor in Mikhail Glinka. But Bakakirev was not born to a well-to-do family and, at times, he lacked tack. When the opportunity arose to work as a director of the Russian Musical Society (RMS), replacing Anton Rubinstein, his expressed preference for modern composers alienated Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, the conservative patron of the RMS. He was dismissed. 

It would seem, however, that the greatest disservice Balakirev did to himself was to refuse formal instruction in harmony and counterpoint. It could be that tuition fees were unaffordable, but even less affordable was his disdain for such disciplines. He would turn down possible appointments because he had not studied theory: harmony and counterpoint, yet say that formal instruction was unnecessary. Truth be told, he knew harmony and counterpoint, but could not, for instance, put little numbers identifying chords. (See the example in Wiki2.org.’s entry on Figured Bass.)

An example of figured bass in context. Taken from Beschränkt, ihr Weisen, by J. S. Bach (BWV 443) (Wiki2.org.)

At any rate, when Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov started purchasing paintings from contemporary artists, he also called for portraits of eminent contemporaries. Ilya Repin heard the request and included the Slavic composers, The Five, several portraits of authors, Tolstoy in particular, and various prominent figures in the world of visual arts,  music, literature, or culture in general. Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov is the founder of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which he donated to the Russian nation in 1892.

I wanted to discuss the three gentleman featured at the centre of Ilya Repin’s Slavic Composers. The next post features Mikhail Glinka, a predecessor and collaborator to Mily Balakirev. In the middle, smoking a cigar, is Prince Vladimir Odoyevsky. Vladimir Odoyevsky was an aficionado of Gothic fiction, a music critic, and more. He published The Living Corpse, in 1844.

Portrait of (left to right) BalakirevVladimir Odoyevsky and  Mikhail Glinka by Ilya Repin. The painting is somewhat anachronistic – Balakirev is depicted as a man approaching middle age, with a full beard; however, Glinka died in 1857, when Balakirev was only 20 years old. (Balakirev, Wiki2.org.)

Traditional Scales

One may skip the technical information.

The following are useful sites: Diatonic and Chromatic scales (Wiki2.org, and Chords, Wiki2.org.)

The C major scale

The C major heptatonic (7) scale consists of two identical tetrachords (4) c-d-e-f and g-a-b-c. A tone separates c & d, but e & f are placed next to one another on a keyboard. They are a semitone. C major has no sharps ♯ or flats ♭. On a keyboard, it is played entirely on the seven white keys. The second tetrachord, g-a-b-c-, is the beginning of the following scale in one sharp ♯.  The scale following C major is G major (f ♯ ).  It starts on the dominant (5th degree) of  C major. These scales contain sharps (♯).


The F major scale has a key signature: b♭. The next scale following the F major scale begins on the fourth note (the subdominant) b♭. Both tetrachords (4 notes) are identical. The scale following B♭ major begins on e♭. It is E♭ major or E-flat major. Its key signature has three flats ♭ (b♭, e♭, a♭).

There are seven ♯ and seven ♭.

The A minor scale

Each major key has a relative minor key located a tone and a half lower than its relative major key. Students play the A harmonic minor scale, but there are a natural A minor scale and a melodic A minor scale.

The Keyboard: 12 keys

A keyboard has seven (7) white keys and five (5) black keys: 7 + 5 = 12. A scale may begin on all twelve keys. J. S. Bach composed The Well-Tempered Clavier, 48 Preludes and Fugues. (See Chromatic scale, Wiki2.org.)

Whole-Tone Scales

The Five did not hesitate to use different scales, such as whole-tone scales and other scales. The did so systematically. Whole-tone scales consist of full-steps (tones rather than semitones). European and Russian composers started to experiment with new scales. Whole tones had been used in Western music, but not systematically. To know changes made by The Five, see their Wiki2.org entry.

Whole-tone scale (Wiki2.org.)

1947 coloring book (Wiki2.org.)

After The Five, several scales would be developed: octatonic, pentatonic, twelve-tone technique… Inspired by The Five, European and Russian composers started using other scales or made change to certain degrees of scales: major, minor, sharp and flat. The Five exerted enormous influence on Western composers: Maurice Ravel, Olivier Messiaen, Claude Debussy, and Russian composers. Maurice Ravel arranged Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a remembrance of Viktor Hartmann 🎶(Viktor Hartmann) ten suites for the piano, for an orchestra. Paul Dukas’ L’Apprenti-sorcier 🎶(The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) is “Russian.” French composer Hector Berlioz has been looked upon as a precursor of Russian music. Sergei Prokofiev‘s Peter and the Wolf 🎶is a delightful Russian composition.

New scales do not necessarily yield better compositions. I have often run back to Tomás Luis de Victoria.

Balakirev’s Islamey &  Ouverture on 3 Russian Themes

Mily Balakirev’s Islamey, an Oriental Fantasy is western music with departures that give pieces Slavic flavour. It is a very difficult to play. To make it simpler, or more difficult, one may use and ossia, an alternative rewriting. The word ossia (ou soit; or else) is associated with Balakirev’s Islamey.

However, consummate virtuoso pianists, such as Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) and Vladimir Horowitz (1903 – 1989) could play such pieces without encountering difficulties. We will listen to Horowitz’s interpretation.

Love to everyone 💕
I apologize for the delay. It’s bronchitis. I cannot speak.

Vladimir Horowitz plays Balakirev’s Islamey

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev: Overture on 3 Russian Themes ❤

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The Church in Plyos by Isaac Levitan, 1888 (Wikiart.org.)

© Micheline Walker
15 December 2018





Shostakovich, Preludes & Fugues


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A spring day by Alexei Savrasov (Wikiart.org.)

Alexei Savrasov (24 May  1830 – 8 October 1897) was Isaac Levitan‘s (1860 – 1900) mentor. He created the “lyrical landscape.” I have already featured Savrasov, but deleted the post inadvertently. A new post is under construction.

We are still listening to Russian music and looking at the works of Russia’s artists. The piece of music I have inserted below is a lovely interpretation of one of Shostakovich‘s (25 September 1906 – 9 August 1975) Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues on the chromatic scale. Chromatic scales contain twelve semitones (C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – A# – B). J. S. Bach wrote 48 preludes and fugues on each scale, The Well-Tempered Clavier. These exemplify equal temperament, an invention of Vincenzo Galilei, Galileo’s father.

On equal temperament, see:

Our cellists are renowned French cellist Gautier Capuçon and Québec cellist Stéphane Tétreault. Few renditions of this Prelude, one of Shostakovich’s Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, are so sensitive and touching. The pianist is Oleksandr Gaydukov.

Love to everyone 💕

Prelude – Duo pour violoncelles – Shostakovich (1950-51)

Pines on the shores of lake by Alexei Savrasov, 1890 (Wikiart.org.)

© Micheline Walker
11 December 2018





The Art of Isaac Levitan


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Quiet Cloister  by Levitan 1890 (Wikiart.org.)

Isaac Ilyich Levitan (30 August 1860 – 4 August 1900: aged 40) was one of Alexei  Savrasov‘s (1830 – 1897) students. Savrasov created the “lyrical landscape.” As for Levitan, he aimed to produce “mood landscapes,” a form of “lyrical” landscapes.

From Lithuania to Moscow

Levitan was born in Lithuania, now Russia. He was the son of Elyashiv Levitan, and the grandson of a rabbi. In 1870, the Levitan family moved to Moscow and, three years later, Isaac entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Levitan’s mother died in 1875 and his father fell ill and died two years later, in 1877. Levitan’s family was then impoverished.

Autumn Day. Sokolniki, 1879

Impoverishment did not prevent 17-year-old Levitan from attending school.  He was awarded a scholarhip. His teachers were Alexei SavrasovVasily Perov and Vasily Polenov. Isaac Levitan’s paintings soon proved favourites in group exhibitions and, in 1880, famous philanthropist and art collector Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov, the founder of the Tretyakov Gallery, purchased Levitan’s Autum DaySokolniki, shown below.

Autumn daySokolniki by Levitan, 1879 (Wikiart.org.)


The Peredvizhniki

Alexei Savrasov, Levitan’s mentor, had joined the Peredvizhniki, in 1870. Members of the Peredvizhniki, or wanderers, were a group of landscape painters, wishing to free themselves from the restraints of Academic painting. In Russia, however, artists and writers also wished to avoid government censorship. Levitan joined the movement in 1991. In 1884, Levitan participated in a travelling exhibition by members of the Peredvizhniki and, in 1891, he joined the movement in 1891. This organization would be succeeded by the Association of Travelling Art Exhibits. (See Peredvizhniki, Wiki2.org.)


In the forest at winter by Levitan, 1885 (Wikiart.org)

An attempt on Alexander II’s life: Jews deported

Russian Jews were the victims of pogroms, massacres. So Levitan had to leave Moscow when Alexander Soloviev attempted to assassinate Tsar Alexander II, in May 1879.[1] The failed attempt triggered a “mass deportation” of Jews living in Russia’s larger cities. Levitan’s family left for Saltykovka, a suburb. (See Isaac Levitan, Wiki2.org.) Levitan was soon returned to cities. In 1898, two years before his death, Levitan, then famous, would be elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Levitan loved the “lyrical charm of the Russian landscape.” (see Levitan, Wiki2.org.)  Moreover, as a gifted artist, he befriended élite members of the world of art and literature. In 19th-century Russia, talent was often recognised. Moreover, artists and authors formed communities where ethnicity and creed had little significance, which benefited both artists and authors. Levitan had already met author Anton Chekhov and artist, or future artist, Nikolai Chekhov. In the early 1880s, Levitan provided illustrations for the magazine “Moscow,” published by the Chekhov brothers. (Levitan, Wiki2.org.) 

Levitan and Anton Chekhov became very close friends. Isaac Levitan spent his last year and died at Anton Chekhov’s home in YaltaCrimea. Anton was a medical doctor who died of tuberculosis in 1902, two years after Levitan’s death.


Sunset. Forest Edge by Levitan, 1890 (Wikiart.org.)


Spring. High Waters by Levitan, 1897 (Wikiart.org.)

“Lyrical” & “Mood” landscapes

We have seen that Russian musicians composed programmatic” music or music that told a story: words and music. Savrasov’s “lyrical” landscapes and Levitan’s “mood” landscapes were an attempt to unite painting and poetry.

In 19th-century Europe, musicians composed Symphonic poems. The Symphonic poem is “a piece of orchestral music in a single continuous section (a movement) in which the content of a poem, a story or novel, a painting, a landscape or another (non-musical) source is illustrated or evoked.” (Symphonic Poem, Wiki2.org.) In other words, it is “programmatic.”

The Symphonic poem

The Symphonic poem can be associated with Symbolism in art as well as French literature. Symbolism was a European rather than national movement. The Symphonic poem is the German Tondichtung, first used by Carl LoeweFranz Liszt coined the term “Symphonic poem.” 


A discussion of Isaac Levitan differs, to a rather large extent, from a dicussion of The Five. Although Pavel Tretiakov wanted to create a Russian Art Gallery and members of the Peredvizhniki painted the Russian landscape, they did not attempt, at least not primarily, to give their art an Eastern appearance. Orientalism pervades 19th-century art, but in Russia, Orientalism was expressed by composers mainly. I suspect, however, that Russian communities of artists and writers would include composers. All were creative minds. Ilya Repin portrayed the Slavic composers, meeting at the Moscow Conservatory.

As for “mood” and “lyrical landscapes,” these could stimulate more than one sense, as in synesthesia, but they could simply be evocative and melancholic. Romanticism was an important movement. Vanishing points, are a common feature in the visual arts. But when roads and lanes vanish into the distance, we know not where they lead.

At the end of Rachmaninoff’s All-night Vigil, Vespers, 🎶 one can hear a basso profondo or profundo. This vocal range is more common in Russia and Eastern Europe than in most countries.

Love to everyone


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Church in Plyos, 1888 (Wikiart.org.)

Feodor Chaliapin sings Jules Massenet‘s Élégie (op. 10 no. 5)


Moonlit Night by Levitan (Wikiart.org.)

© Micheline Walker
8 December 2018


December …


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Forest violets and forget-me-nots by Isaac Levitan, 1889 (Wikiart.org)

We associate artist Isaac Ilyich Levitan (30 August 1860 – 4 August 1900: aged 40) with mood or lyrical landscapes, but he also left lovely paintings featuring flowers.

I am very tired and must rest, but I am thinking of you.

Love to everyone 💕

The music is Rachmaninoff‘s (1873 – 1943)

Rachmaninoff Vespers – 3 Blessed is the Man (Psalm 1)


Isaac Levitan, Self-Portrait (Wikiart.org.)

© Micheline Walker
2 December 2018

Nikolay Rymsky-Korsakov


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Portrait of Nikolay Rymsky-Korsakov by Ilya Repin, 1893 (Wikiart.org)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (18 March 1844, near Novgorod – 21 June  1908) was one of the The Five and not the least. We know him as the composer of the Russian Easter Festival Overture. 🎶 Easter is/was a very important feast in Russia. You may have seen painted Russian eggs and a few of the 50 jewelled “Imperial” eggs Fabergé created for the Tsar’s family.

Rimsky-Korsakov was/is the most scholarly member of The Five and, consequently, their editor, Mussorgsky’s editor mainly. However, although his music exemplifies The Five’s attempt to express the Slavic roots of Russia’s music, he infuses into the music of Russia the sophisticated polyphony of European music, developed over centuries. Conversely, Russian music, the music of The Five and other Russian composers, would have a very real and important impact on western music.

Nijinsky in Scheherazade by George Barbier

Scheherazade “combines two features typical of Russian music and of Rimsky-Korsakov in particular: dazzling, colorful orchestration and an interest in the East, which figured greatly in the history of Imperial Russia, as well as orientalism in general.” (See Scheherazade, Wiki2.org.)

“American music critic and journalist Harold C. Schonberg wrote that the operas “open up a delightful new world, the world of the Russian East, the world of supernaturalism and the exotic, the world of Slavic pantheism and vanished races. Genuine poetry suffuses them, and they are scored with brilliance and resource.” (See Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Wiki2.org.)

The quotations above point to the exotic nature of the music of the Slavic composers,  The Five: the Russian East. We have heard Alexander Borodin‘s In the Steppes of Central Asia (Mongolia). 🎶 Russia reaches from Europe to the Orient. The Five used folktales, a characteristic of 19th-century music and literature. These tales, many are fairy tales, were not necessarily Russian – Scheherazade isn’t, but they were the Russian expression of tales that overrode nationalism and belonged to a very distant past, millennia. Rimsky-Korsakov put his superior knowledge of orchestration, polyphony, blending many voices (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), into the service of a local idiom.


Besides, although the Slavic composers attempted to express the Slavic and exotic aspects of the music of Russia, Romanticism, a 19th-century movement, was characterized by a degree of exoticism. Rimsky-Korsakov composed Capriccio Espagnol, 🎶 and Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) wrote the poem Les Djinns, published in his 1829 collection of poems, entitled Les Orientales. Yet, Hugo also wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris), published in 1831, locating France in the Middle Ages, which he considered a more genuine and national past, than the plays of Jean Racine (1639 – 1699). He also modified the alexandrine, the “noble” twelve-syllable verse borrowed from the 12th-century French Roman d’Alexandrefeaturing Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia. As well, Hugo ensconced French literature into Gothic fiction, a characteristic of Romanticism.


Rimsky-Korsakov’s birthplace in Tikhvin (Wiki2.org.)

Almaz1863 (2)

The Russian military clipper Almaz in New York Harbor in 1863. Rimsky-Korsakov served as a midshipman on this ship and later wrote about this cruise. (Photo and caption credit: Wiki2.org.)

A Musical Career & a Naval Career

Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 -1908) had a passion for the sea, which he had yet to see when he joined the Imperial Russian Navy. But his older brother, Voin Rimsky-Korsakov (1822 – 1871), had travelled to lands far away. Voin graduated from the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in Saint Petersburg, and so would Nicolai who admired his brother. However, Nicolai would combine two careers. He would be a naval officer and a composer, and, as a musician, he would introduce the Russian East into European music. That would be his gift to classical music. As we have noted in posts about enlightened despots, Russia looked to Europe. Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers, The Five, are less European than Tchaikovsky, but they composed music where east and west interact.

“Teacher, Conductor, and Editor” (Britannica)

In 1873, Rimsky-Korsakov “assumed charge of military bands as inspector and conductor. He therefore left the naval service.” (See Britannica.)

Henceforth, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov would be a teacher of composition (1 & 2) and a conductor (3 & 4):

  1. St. Petersburg Conservatory (1871 – 1908)
  2. Free Music School in St. Petersburg (1874 – 1881)
  3. Conductor of concerts at the court chapel from 1883 to 1894
  4. Chief conductor of the Russian symphony concerts between 1886 and 1900.

We have noted that Rimsky-Korsakov differed from other members of The Five, and must note it again. Rimsky-Korsakov was very interested in the study of harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. He delved into the European tradition, a rich tradition we can trace back to the Middle Ages. That would be his gift to The Five. Polyphony unfolded over centuries of liturgical and secular (the Madrigal and songs) compositions:

“Eager to complete his own musical education, he undertook in 1873 an ambitious program of study, concentrating mainly on counterpoint and the fugue. He ended his studies in 1875 by sending 10 fugues to Tchaikovsky, who declared them impeccable.”[1] 

On 2 March 1874, Rimsky-Korsakov conducted the first performance of his Symphony No. 3. That same year, “he was appointed director of the Free Music School in St. Petersburg, a post that he held until 1881.”[2]

Rimsky-Korsakov and Slavophiles

By turning to European music, Rimsky-Kosarkok’s relationship with the four of Slavic composers became that of editor. Had he not revised and enriched Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina, it may no longer be performed. We have heard at least one segment of the introduction to Khovanshchina. Dawn over the Moscow River 🎶 is magnificent. One could suspect that Rimsky-Korsakov’s editing miffed his colleagues. I doubt it. He may be best described as a big brother to brilliant composers who were less learned than he was.

Writers often need a good editor, and the same is true of musicians. Rimsky-Korsakov would not have edited Mussorgsky, had Mussorgky’s music not been the product of a genius.

We now find ourselves returning to Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (1909 – 1929)

“In 1889 he [Rimsky-Korsakov] led concerts of Russian music at the Paris World Exposition, and in the spring of 1907 he conducted in Paris two Russian historic concerts in connection with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.”[3]


Russian composers are specialists in the composition of music for ballet and for opera. Their music is “programmatic,”  in that it has a narrative. It therefore differs from “absolute music,” a non-representional form of music. Russian composers also love rhapsodies and contrasts. The programmatic pieces to which I have referred constitute Rimsky-Korsakov’s best-known compositions and they blend the Russian East and the fine polyphony of the European West. Favourites are:

Other favourites are The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Sadko, The Snow Maiden (1882) and other folktales and tales. 

But I have selected his Procession of the Nobles as today’s choice. Rimsky-Korsakov was a member of the nobility.


Sources and Resources

Love to everyone 💕
[1] Nicolas Slonimsky and Richard Taruskin, “Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov”
Encyclopædia BritannicaEncyclopædia

[2] Loc. cit.

[3] Loc. cit.

[4] Image
Encyclopædia Britannica

Nikolai Golovanov conducts Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles”

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, detail of a portrait by V. A. Serov; in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
H. Roger-Viollet [4]

© Micheline Walker
29 November 2018





The Emancipation Reform of 1861


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A 1907 painting by Boris Kustodiev depicting Russian serfs listening to the proclamation of the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861 (Wiki2.org.)

Much of Russia’s history has been a grim tale of the very wealthy and powerful few ruling over a great mass of their poor and powerless compatriots.[1]

According to the writers of the Encyclopædia Britannica, serfdom in Russia did not end when Emperor Alexander II of Russia (29 April 1818 – 13 March 1881) issued the Emancipation Manifesto of 3 March 1861:

Serfdom endured well into the modern era; the years of Soviet communist rule (1917–91), especially the long dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, saw subjugation of a different and more exacting sort.[2]

Serfdom & Slavery

For our purposes, the emancipation of serfdom in Russia occurred in 1861, and it was “the first and most important of liberal reforms passed during the reign (1855-1881) of Emperor Alexander II of Russia.”[3] 

Serfdom was a medieval institution and [t]he vast majority of serfs in medieval Europe obtained their subsistence by cultivating a plot of land that was owned by a lord. This was the essential feature differentiating serfs from slaves, who were bought and sold without reference to a plot of land. In theory, serfs were not slaves, but in practice, many were.[4]

Serfs & Private Estates

In Russia, serfdom dated back to 1649.  In 1861, there were two types of serfs:

  1. those living on the land of private landowners and their domestics
  2. those living on state lands, under control of the Ministry of State Property

However, only those who worked on the land of private landowners were called serfs. They constituted 38% of the population.

The Emancipation Reform of 1861 freed 23 million serfs working on private estates as well as domestic household serfs. (See The Emancipation reform of 1861, Wiki2.org.)

Peasants: Mir or Obshchina

Altogether, three-quarters of the Russian population were peasants, a total higher than serfs who worked on the land of private landowners.

There was, in fact, a third group of peasants living on communes. These peasants lived in village communities called a Mir or an Obschchina. These were communes and they predated serfdom. Mir peasants cultivated one or two strips of land. Holding more strips would have increased a peasant’s tax burden. They belonged to 100,000 landowners. They did not belong to members of a commune, or Mir,’ or Obshchina. (See The Emancipation reform of 1861, Wiki2.org.)

The Mir & the Collectivization of the USSR

These communes were idealized by August von Haxthausen in a book he published in 1847. It was also praised by Karl Marx. (See Obschchina, Wiki2.org.) Mir and Obschchina were destroyed by the Stolypin agrarian reforms (1906–1914), “the implementation of which would lead to the Russian Revolution and subsequent collectivization of the USSR.” (See Obschchina, Wiki2.org.)


Obshchina Gathering, by Sergei Korovin (Wiki2.org.)


It appears Tsar Alexandre II abolished serfdom to keep up with western European countries. Western Europe remained the model.

“My intention is to abolish serfdom … you can yourself understand that the present order of owning souls cannot remain unchanged. It is better to abolish serfdom from above, than to wait for that time when it starts to abolish itself from below. I ask you to think about the best way to carry this out.”

— Alexander II’s speech to the Marshalls of the Nobility, 30 March 1856. (See The Emancipation reform of 1861, Wiki2.org.)

I should note that:

“[m]any bureaucrats believed that these reforms would bring about drastic changes which would only affect only the ‘lower stories’ of society, strengthening the autocracy. In reality, the reforms forced the monarch to coexist with an independent court, free press, and local governments which operated differently, and more freely, than they had in the past. This new form of local government involved in each area an assembly called a zemstvo.” (See The Emancipation reform of 1861, Wiki2.org.)

The Tsar and his advisors wondered whether freed serfs should hold the land they had tilled. Given that a large number of insurrections that had taken place in western Europe in 1848, it was decided that freed serfs could own land. (See Revolutions of 1848, Wiki2.org.) However, the land was not given to them. Some serfs had money and could buy land. But, by and large, they couldn’t. Some continued to work for a landowner to earn money. Others, if not most, borrowed from the government and made redemption payments, of which they were relieved in 1905, the year of the massacre of Bloody Sunday

“The peasants remained ‘temporarily bonded’ until they redeemed their allotments.”[5]

Ironically, redemption payments transformed former serfs into slaves. Debt bondage is a form of slavery. As for those serfs who found employment in factories, as we now, their wages were low and their working hours, very long: some 15 hours a day. Workers went on strikes, which led to Bloody Sunday.

We do not know how many people were killed on Bloody Sunday (1,000 – 4,000), but we know that the reprisals were gruesome:

“It is estimated that between October 1905 and April 1906, 15,000 peasants and workers were hanged or shot, 20,000 injured, and 45,000 sent into exile.” (See Bloody Sunday, Wiki2.org.) It was a peaceful demonstration. Workers were carrying a petition. As of Bloody Sunday, Russians ceased to see their Tsar as a father to the nation.


The abolition of serfdom was good in itself. As Tsar Alexander II stated ,“the present order of owning souls cannot remain unchanged.”  Serfs were emancipated in 1861. Landowners could no longer own serfs, domestic or farmers. Furthermore, Russia’s economy grew after the serfs were freed. Many former serfs were working in factories, domestic serfs especially. They could not own land.

“A significant measuring stick in the growth of the Russian economy post-reform was the huge growth in non-gentry private landownership. Although the gentry land-holdings fell from 80% to 50%, the peasant holdings grew from 5% all the way to 20%.”

Yet, there was social unrest (strikes, etc.) and, after Bloody Sunday (1905), confidence in the Tsar having waned, the Bolchevik party had an opportunity to take over. We then suffered through the Cold War.

But the greatness of Russia remains. As a child, the librarian could not let me borrow certain masterpieces of French literature. Several were on the Index of prohibited books. She directed me to the Russian literature shelves of the Public Library. I read Leo Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I wish I could thank that librarian. The first piece of music I was introduced to was Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

This post contains many quotations. I did not want to make errors. However, I have left out the Crimean War. Russia’s defeat is a factor in the emancipation of serfs and the role Tsar Alexandre II played in liberating Bulgaria. (See The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Wiki2.org.) Tsar Alexander II was killed by a bomb in 1881. His legs were torn off and he was otherwise fatally injured.


Sources and Resources

The Emancipation Reform: the full text.  ↩


Love to everyone 💕


[1] “Russia,” Nicholas V. RiasanovskySergey Arsentyevich Vodovozov and Others (See All Contributors)  Encyclopædia Britannica

[2] Op. cit.

[3] The Emancipation Reform of 1861, Wiki2.org.

[4] “Serfdom,” Encyclopædia Britannica

[5] “Russian Empire,” The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica,

The peasants remained ‘temporarily bonded’ until they redeemed their allotments. The redemption price was calculated on the basis of all payments received by the landlord from the peasants before the reform. If the peasant desired to redeem a plot, the government paid at once to the landowner the whole price (in 5 percent bonds), which the peasant had to repay to the exchequer in 49 years. Although the government bonds fell to 77 percent and purchase was made voluntary, the great majority of landowners—often in debt—preferred to get the money at once and to end relations which had become insupportable. By 1880, 15 percent of the peasants had not made use of the redemption scheme, and in 1881 it was declared obligatory. The landowners tried, but in vain, to keep their power in local administration. The liberated peasants were organized in village communities that held comprehensive powers over their members. Nominally governed by elected elders, they were actually administered by crown administrative and police officials.” (Britannica)


Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) wrote a Symphony based on Bloody Sunday, his Symphony No. 11, subtitled The Year 1905.

However, I have selected an excerpt from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the Andante, or 2nd movement.


Tsar Alexander II (Wiki2.org.)

© Micheline Walker
23 November 2018

Mussorgsky & Repin: a New Dawn


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They did not expect him by Ilya Repin, 1884 – 1888 (Wikiart.org)

“It is generally believed that by depicting various reaction of young man’s household Repin tried to show diverse but mostly positive attitude of society toward revolutionary movements of that time. Actually, under strict censorship of Czarist Russia, it was a political declaration disguised as an everyday genre scene.” (Wikiart.org.)

The Russian Revolution

In the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, Russia changed dramatically. The Emancipation of serfdom, in 1861, led to a major social upheaval. Ironically, several former serfs had to pay for the piece of land they had been cultivating for centuries, but more importantly, an agrarian society was industrialized. (See Industrialisation of Russia, Wiki2.org.) Many Serfs became factory workers whose working conditions were unacceptable.

Matters culminated in a massacre known as Bloody Sunday, 22 January 1905. From 3,000 to 50,000 factory workers marched towards Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace to deliver a petition (←text) to Tsar Nicholas II. Some 4,000 demonstrators, an approximate number, were gunned down or injured by the Imperial Guard. Others were arrested.

By the end of Word War I, there would no longer be a Russian Empire. Two revolutions occurred in 1917: the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, took over during the October Revolution, sometimes called the Bolshevik Coup.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (18 May [O.S. 6 May] 1868 – 17 July 1918) had abdicated on 2 March 1917. He and his family were executed during the night of 17 – 18 July 1918.

The painting above is immensely foreboding.

But let us listen to another part of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, its introduction.


Mussorgsky’s Dawn on the Moskva-River
Introduction to Khovanshchina

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin, 1873 (Wikiart.org.)

© Micheline Walker
19 November 2018

Mussorgky’s Old Castle


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Modest Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin, 2 – 5 March 1881 (Wikiart.org.)

I eliminated my post on the Emancipation Reform of 1861. Although the Emancipation Reform of 1861 had deleterious effects on many Russians, Mussorgsky (21 March 1839 – 28 March 1881) became an alcoholic because extreme behaviour was fashionable in his days. (See Modest Mussorgsky, Wiki2.org.)

However, those who turned to the “worship of Bacchus” did not necessarily become alcoholics. Mussorgsky did, and it led to his death.

Repin‘s portrait of Mussorgsky, the eyes in particular, is one of his finest paintings.

Love to everyone 💕


The Old Castle 

Une larme (A Tear)


Above the Eternal Tranquillity by Isaac Levitan, 1894 (Wikiart.org.)

© Micheline Walker
17 November 2018

Frederick the Great


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Frederick the Great by Anton Graff, 1781

We are looking at our last and perhaps most prominent enlightened despot, Frederick the Great of Prussia (24 January 1712 – 17 August 1786). Frederick the Great was a member of the Hohenzollern dynasty. He was a warrior who inherited a very large army from his father: 80,000 soldiers. Mirabeau would say that Prussia was not a country that had an army, but an army that had a country:

« La Prusse n’est pas un pays qui a une armée, c’est une armée qui a un pays. »
(See Frederick the Great, Wiki2.org.)

The Monarch as a Young Man

Frederick was the son of Frederick William I of Prussia a disciplinarian who did not shy away from beating his son. Young Frederick attempted to flee to England with a friend, Hans Hermann von Katte ( 1704 – 1730), intending to work for George II of Britain. George II was the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover). Flight was impeded. Frederick William I had the two lads imprisoned, at Küstrin. King Frederick William I spared his son’s life, but Hans Hermann von Katte was beheaded and Frederick William I insisted that his son watch the execution.


Although Frederick married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel-Bevern when he was crown prince, he did not live with his wife. It appears he was not attracted to women. As a very young man, he may have been attracted to boys, but one can only speculate on Frederick the Great’s sexuality. Although he was not attracted to women, Frederick made sure his wife lived comfortably. He was succeeded by his nephew, Frederick William II of Prussia.

Frederick the Composer

Frederick’s passion was his “profession,” to quote Catherine the Great of Russia. He was an aristocrat and “born to rule.” Other than his “profession,” Frederick was an excellent musician. He played the flute and was a surprisingly prolific composer. Harmony, counterpoint and form are demanding disciplines. Additionally, one’s melodies are the product of inspiration. Frederick was gifted. Frederick the Great (Wiki2.org) provides a list of Frederick’s compositions. It may not be a complete, but it is very impressive: 100  sonatas for the flute as well as four symphonies, etc. Frederick had a music room at Sanssouci, his castle in Potsdam, and his flute teacher was no less than Johann Joachim Quantz (30 January 1607 – 12 July 1773). 

The Flute Concert of Sanssouci by Adolph Menzel, 1852, depicts Frederick playing the flute in his music room at Sanssouci as C. P. E. Bach accompanies him on a harpsichord-shaped piano by Gottfried Silbermann. (Frederick the Great, Wiki2.org.) 

Voltaire in Prussia

King Friedrich der Große admired all things French, Voltaire especially. Frederick, who learned French as a child, initiated a correspondence with Voltaire in 1736, before Frederick William I’s death. In the 1750’s, Voltaire moved to Prussia, at Frederick’s invitation. He was named chamberlain and appointed to the Order of Merit. Voltaire also received a salary of 20,000 French livres a year. He had rooms at Sanssouci (without worries), Frederick the Great’s castle at Potsdam, and also lived at Charlottenburg Palace. French was spoken at the Prussian court. Voltaire spent three years in Prussia. A misunderstanding separated host and guest, but the two reconciled. Frederick the Great was delighted to have known Voltaire. (See Voltaire, Wiki2.org.)  

Die Tafelrunde by Adolph von Menzel: guests of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci, including members of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and Voltaire (third from left). Next to Voltaire, wearing red, is Casanova. (Frederick the Great,Wiki2.org)

The Anti-Machiavel

The influence of French philosophes and British intellectuals led Frederick the Great to write an “idealistic refutation” (Wiki2.org.) of Niccolò Machiavelli’s 16th-century’s Prince, entitled the Anti-Machiavel, published in 1740. Voltaire edited Frederick the Great’s Anti-Machiavel, also providing footnotes. A combined edition was published. Summarizing the Anti-Machiavel would be difficult, but, basically, it describes the king as “the first servant of the state.”

Peter the Great and Catherine the Great westernized Russia, but they also organized it. As for Frederick the Great, the most enlightened of despots, he modernized Prussia. All three despots also promoted, to a greater or lesser extent, religious tolerance. King Frederick the Great joined Freemasonry, as did many of his contemporaries.

In Prussia, the heart of the future German Empire, it became possible to occupy positions formerly reserved for the nobility. Bourgeois could be judges and senior bureaucrats. Frederick welcomed immigrants and he allowed freedom of the press and literature. Moreover, not only was he a musician, but he was also a patron of musicians and artists.  He reformed the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Although it is incomplete, one of Frederick’s finest achievements was the Prussian Civil Code. Civil codes organize a nation. Catherine II the Great of Russia also worked on devising a code of laws.


Frederick the Great was a fine and well-educated leader. He believed, however, that his “profession” had made him what he was. It hadn’t. One does not need to be an aristocrat to govern well. In short, Frederick was an exceptional leader and an extremely gifted gentleman, brilliant, who happened to be a king, and a despot. 

Yet Frederick was also convinced that the Prussian landed noblemen, the Junkers, were the backbone of the state, and he continued accordingly to uphold the alliance between crown and aristocracy on which his kingdom had been built.


Sources and Resources

  1. Britannica’s Video on Sanssouci (without worries)
  2. Frederick the Great, Wiki2.org.
  3. Voltaire, Wiki2.org.
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica
  5. Concert for Flute at Sanssouci by Adolph von Menzel


Love to everyone 💕

Friedrich II der Große. Concerto for flute and string orchestra in G – Allegro 1/3

Frederick the Great (Frederick the Majestic)

© Micheline Walker
15 November 2018