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The Five Fathers of the Russian Art Song

We all have heard versions of the idiom, “The eyes are the mirror of the heart,” and indeed the Russians have their own, “Что в сердце варится, то в лице не утаится.” But would you believe me if I told you that it’s music where the soul finds its voice? The Russian romance, one style of art song [where one person sings with an accompanist], has come to embody within its musical fabric the diverse experiences and desires of the Russian people. From evocative remembrances of Cossackian, Slavic, and Muscovite lifestyles, nostalgic songs about Russian cities, candid portrayals of life’s struggles, the natural world, and even heart-grabbing strains about love’s trials and rewards, the Russian romance has it all! Beginning in the 19th century and continuing until today, the Russian romance has helped shape the modern Russian personality in more ways than one. As Mikhail Glinka, the outstanding 19th century composer and “father” of Russian music itself, had said, “A nation creates music - the composer only arranges it.”


The Russian romance finds its stylistic roots in French, German, AND Italian influences, however a lot of inspiration comes from the Spanish cancon, where heroic tales, ballads about unattainable love, and adventures were common. Russia and Spain shared a close relationship and traded many ideas. So inspired by Spain’s pride in their musical traditions, Russia began experimenting with their own. So once the 1800s came, the Russian art song had been born! Originally sung in French, and later Russian, early composers embraced their nationalist roots and looked towards folk traditions to understand the Russian soul, русская душа. Coming in many different styles, the most popular was the poignant “elegy” [элегия], a contemplative type of art song where the speaker reflected on their life, troubles and all. For example, in the 19th c. composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s song called “I remember you heavily,” with a simple yet effective melody, the singer majestically conveys his torments at being separated from his life on the rustic Steppe.


There are about four different kinds of Russian romance [Urban, Urban, Urban, Cossak], but two overarching versions, the Classical or High Romance, coming from St. Petersburg [ex. None but the Lonely Heart by P. Tchaikovsky, Dream by N. Rimsky-Korsakov, Night by A. Rubenstein]. As you can hear, the music is very refined, and complex in its lyricism and harmonic structure. These composers were mostly highly trained and heavily influenced by European traditions. The other is the Amateur or Everyday Romance, emanating from Moscow [ex. I look at you with a smile by A. Arensky, Winter Nights by M. Yakovlev]. With these, there is a more predictable harmonic flow and an easy-to-understand melodic fluidity. Most of these composers were “Enlightened Amateurs,” those with less formal training, and more influenced by popular tunes and texts than European ones. But these worlds often came together, and in some cases it’s a difficult task figuring out which is which [Take a listen to this: Nightingale by A. Alabiev].


Now the fun part! Here are the five founders of the Russian Art song and some of their best pieces for you to listen to!


Alexander Alayebyev (1787-1851)

Best known for the song “Nightingale,” Alyebyev is the best-known composer on this list. He didn’t just have a hugely successful musical career, but a military one as well. He wrote 200+ songs, and significantly impacted how the Russian art song would develop in the future.


Take a listen to these five songs, which are some of his most beautiful songs he ever wrote!

Beggar / Нищая

I see your Image / Я вижу образ твой

Cottage Home / Изба

Village Watchman / Деревенский сторож

I loved you / Я вас любил


Mikhail Lukyanovich Yakovlev (1798-1868)

Despite his minimal training, Yakovlev impressed not only Glinka, but the 19th century esteemed poet Pushkin and his contemporaries! He began his career with administrative work, before going to literary then the musical arts, mastering the violin and composition. Although not popular today, he’s an example of the first, Russian version of an Amateur composer.


Here are five of his well-known art songs, many of them are still performed today!

Recognition / Признание

Elegy / Элегия

Orphan Girl / Сиротинушка девушка

Oh, how this Winter / Ах, как нынешняя зима

Couplets to Dion / Куплеты к Диону


Nikolai Titov (1800-1875)

Although he wrote the very first Russian romance, namely “Solitary Pine” in the mid 1820s, Titov is practically unknown. Coming from a musical family, Titov became the face of home music-making and Russian salons, hosting prominent attendees and gaining broad appeal. He completely blurred the line between the Amateur and Professional.


Here is only one of Titov’s works, as a huge amount are not recorded or have actually been lost!

Blue Scarf / Шарф голубой


Alexander Egorovich Varlamov (1801-1848)

Varlamov was a highly trained musician, entering the St. Petersburg State Academic Capella at only age nine, and was appointed Voice Teacher at The Russian Court Church in Holland. Varlamov became a highly-influential composer, performer, and pedagogue. He was praised for his incredible musicality and natural compositional style, sourced from folk and somewhat-folk material. He became known throughout Russia as the true speaker of the Russian soul.


Here are five of his songs, the first one being the most famous piece to his name!

Red Sarafan / Красный Сарафан

The Evening is Leaving / Уходит вечер

What, am I to live and grieve? / Что, мне жить и тужить?

The Lone, White Sail Goes / Белеет Парус Одинокий

Mountain Peaks / Горные вершины


Aleksander Gurilyov (1803-1858)

Born into a family of serf musicians, Gurilyov rose above his station and became a notable composer. His works are resemblant of a Tolstian observer of life, his compositions often using full piano parts, albeit with folk lyricism. His works have all been ignored in the modern canon, but his serf-to-composer legacy remains an inspiring one.


Here are a few of Gurilyov’s songs, although many others are not recorded or available to listen to!

The Gray-winged Swallow Sweeps / Вьется ласточка сизокрылая

Sundress / Сарафанчик

How I cherish a wonderful moment / Как дорожу я прекрасным мгновеньем


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