A discussion of Russian composers

Edmonton Opera Blog

A discussion of Russian composers

Inspired by the 30-Day Opera Challenge done by Austin Lyric Opera, the staff at the Edmonton Opera have taken on a 30-question challenge of their own. Each week, we'll post answers from staff members about various aspects of opera, whether it's their favourite aria, an opera house they'd like to visit, or an open-ended question about what they would do if they conduct, create, etc., an opera.
We welcome comments with your own take on the question, either on the blog or via social media. 

While writing the biography for the Eugene Onegin playbill, we found definitions of Tchaikovsky's style — "a combination of his formal Western-oriented training with the Russian style he had been exposed to all his life." Tchaikovsky is called one of the world's greatest/one of the great Russian composers, and with Eugene Onegin in mid-April, we wanted to discuss Russian operas in general. 

What do you like about Tchaikovsky's style that other composers don't do? What is missing in his style that is standard for other Russian composers?

Michael Spassov, artistic administrator & chorusmaster: I'm crazy about Russian music, and there are so many great operas by Russian composers. There's lots of opportunity for us at Edmonton Opera to expand our repertoire when it comes to Russian opera. You can see this dichotomy between the Western and the Russian in Onegin: The peasants’ chorus in Act 1 is a traditional form of Russian folk poetry called a “Chastushka” — humourous poetry that’s sort of a Russian cross between a limerick and rap.  But then we have a story about the love lives of aristocrats, and all these fancy upper-class dances like the waltz and the polonaise. The scenes between Tatiana and her nurse are an interesting example of the split — we see the two styles side by side: Tatiana’s very sophisticated chromatic music of longing, and the Nurse’s direct phrases drawn on Russian folk music. There are so many incredible Russian operas we could look at for the future: Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky), The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky), Love of Three Oranges (Prokofiev), Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Shostakovich), Prince Igor (Borodin), The Tsar’s Bride (Rimsky-Korsakov), Life with an Idiot (Schnittke) — and these are just the greatest hits!

Mickey Melnyk, stewardship officer: In contrast to “The Mighty Five” (Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov) who promoted romantic Russian nationalism (reaction to domination of imported European culture), Tchaikovsky found a more cosmopolitan voice of his own, composing deeply tragic love operas. I think Tchaikovsky’s music has more universal appeal from all of the Russian composers; he is definitely one of the greats! However, there are other Russian composers who composed beautiful melodies as well: Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.

Amanda MacRae, education and community outreach manager: While Tchaikovsky met with composers from "The Five," his musical style was very different from that of many of his Russian colleagues. He not only incorporated elements of Russian folk music, but was also largely influenced by his conservatory training and Western styles. 


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