The origins of Russian orchestral dance

Think of ballet or orchestral dance music and it’s quite likely that you think of a Russian composer first. Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich – or even Aram Khachaturian, Armenian, but within the Soviet sphere.  These are all part of the legacy created by Mikhail Glinka, the father of Russian music.

Born in 1804 near Smolensk, Glinka is recognized as the beginning of a Russian national style, one that went beyond imitating European styles and techniques by introducing Russian folk themes and other nationalist idioms into his compositions. Glinka would be a major inspiration to the next generation of composers – including Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Cui, known collectively as The Five – which would build upon Glinka’s innovations. He is best remembered for his two operas, A Life for the Tsar (also known as Ivan Susanin) and Ruslan and Lyudmila, which formed the foundation of Russian-language opera. Though these works owe a large debt to European opera in their general structures and staging, they incorporate Russian folk melodies, dissonance, and other aspects of Eastern/Russian music.  These two operas are marked by a number of exuberant dances; Glinka wrote so many dance pieces for Tsar that a few needed to be cut and stand as independent pieces (Dance for Violin and Orchestra and Dance for Oboe, Cello and Orchestra). Glinka’s masterpiece, however, is Kamarinskaya, another highly influential dance piece which is the first orchestral work ever to be based completely on Russian folk music. The two Russian themes used by Glinka in this fantasy are a wedding song and the rustic lively dance Kamarinskaya, from which this piece derives its name.  Glinka plays the two contrasting sources against one another, a counterpart that alternates slow and fast passages to dramatic effect.  No less an authority than Tchaikovsky praised this work, writing that “the Russian symphonic school is all in Kamarinskaya, just as the whole oak is contained in the acorn.”

All of these works – the dances from A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila, the stand-alone dances taken from Tsar, and Kamarinskaya – are on a new album on our Alto imprint, joined by two other orchestral dances, Majestic Polonaise and Andante Cantabile and Rondo.  All recordings are of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of an all-star cast of Soviet and Russian conductors, including Mark Ermler and Konstantin Ivanov.  Please click on the cover image above (or click here) for more information on this album, or click on the icons below to link to our retail partners.