A tour of Russian symphonies

Russian composers Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote some of their most famous symphonies far from home.

Written by Fred-Olav Vatne

Venice, photo taken in the 1860s or 1870s.

Some of the most popular symphonies in the concert hall were written by Russian composers.

However, many of the symphonies were written in countries far from Russia.

Samara, photo taken before 1944.

Join us on a symphonic tour with famous music in your suitcase!

“... every time, as the realization of being abroad is pleasant for the first moment, for me it loses its charm and starts to bring on melancholy …”

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Unknown photographer.

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Pyotr Tchaikovsky went on his first trip abroad at the age of 21, as a secretary and interpreter for a friend of the family. The journey went through Berlin, Hamburg, Antwerp, Brussels, London and Paris. The trip must have given him a taste for more, because it would be the first of many trips for the composer.

Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow in 1865 to teach at the city’s Conservatory of Music. He gradually gained increased recognition as a composer, including his first three symphonies, but he did not enjoy teaching.

In 1876, Tchaikovsky came into contact with the wealthy businesswoman Nadezhda von Meck, an influential benefactor who was very enthusiastic about his music. From 1877, she provided Tchaikovsky with a regular allowance, which enabled him to quit his job and dedicate himself to composing music full time.

In the summer of 1877, Tchaikovsky married, rather spontaneously, a former student. The marriage was a disaster for the composer and attempts to make it work culminated in a mental breakdown in the early autumn. He went on a long journey to calm his nerves, and after stays in Switzerland and Paris, Tchaikovsky travelled to Italy in the late autumn.

On 23 November, he received a long-awaited package in Rome: the sketches of his new symphony, which he had begun in the spring. He worked like mad on his symphony throughout December. On 23 December, he finished writing the first movement in Venice. On Christmas Eve, he began working on the second movement, hoping to finish writing the symphony by the new year.

When a previous agreement on another assignment threatened to interrupt his work, he wrote to a friend: “I cannot see people, I need to isolate myself from all the noise and commotion [...] Peace, peace, peace and work — these are the only two things that I need now.” On 7 January 1878, he completed the symphony in San Remo.

Working on the symphony was a welcome escape from the composer’s turbulent family and emotional life. Clearly, travelling and taking in the surroundings did not give Tchaikovsky the peace he was after. He wrote in one of his letters: “... every time, as the realization of being abroad is pleasant for the first moment, for me it loses its charm and starts to bring on melancholy …”

In the following years, Tchaikovsky led a fairly rootless life, spending most of the year travelling through Europe and spending the summers in Russia. In 1885, he began travelling less and settled in the rural countryside outside Moscow. By then, he had become internationally famous and, before his death in 1893, he had the opportunity to experience the audience’s enthusiasm when he performed as a conductor on concert tours in both Europe and the United States.

(The quotes are taken from the website tchaikovsky-research.comand from Roland John Wiley’s biography of Tchaikovsky.)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

  • Born in the Russian industrial town of Votkinsk in 1840. Moved alone to Saint Petersburg at the age of 10 to attend school. Died in the same city in 1893.
  • The first Russian composer to become famous and recognised internationally.
  • Wrote seven symphonies: No. 1–6 and the Manfred Symphony.
  • Also composed a number of successful operas, and his ballet music for The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty are almost common property in large parts of the world.

Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1906.

Unknown photographer.

“We live here like hermits: we see nobody, we know nobody, and we go nowhere.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

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A refreshing escape in Dresden

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s family belonged to the Russian aristocracy, and he was born on one of the family’s estates. But the family began to struggle financially, and when he was ten years old, the family moved into a small flat in Saint Petersburg. He was then sent to Moscow to attend school, where he laid the foundations for a unique career as a pianist, conductor and composer. He wrote most of his music at Ivanovka, his aunt and uncle’s country estate, about 500 kilometres south-east of Moscow.

Rachmaninoff’s abilities as a pianist were indisputable – he is still considered one of the best of all time. Gaining recognition as a composer proved more difficult. In 1897, his Symphony No. 1 was played for the first time in Saint Petersburg, and it was slaughtered by critics. Rachmaninoff fell into a depression and was unable to compose music for the next few years. It was not until 1901, after long periods of therapy, that he produced another composition: Piano Concerto No. 2, which was a huge success and became his international breakthrough.

Five years later, Rachmaninoff’s work as a composer stalled once again – this time nearly mired in his own success. He had an urgent need to escape the hectic concert life in his home country and find the peace he needed to compose his music. The solution was to move to Dresden with his family for three years. Rachmaninoff had previously had fantastic concert experiences in Dresden, and in the neighbouring city of Leipzig, the music scene was at an equally high level.

Another appealing aspect of Dresden was that the family barely knew a soul there. In a letter to a friend, Rachmaninoff writes:

“We live here like hermits: we see nobody, we know nobody, and we go nowhere. I work a great deal.”

This solitude bore fruit – although it also opened the door to dark thoughts and doubts about his abilities as a composer. Rachmaninoff completed Symphony No. 2 in 1907 and conducted the piece himself at the premiere in Saint Petersburg in January 1908. The symphony was a new triumph for the composer and is to this day by far the most popular of his symphonies.

For the rest of his life, Sergei Rachmaninoff spent far more time travelling than he would have liked. After the Russian Revolution, he was driven into exile and lived in the United States most of the year. He was extremely sought after as a concert pianist and travelled extensively until the end of his life. His last major orchestral work, Symphonic Dances from 1940, was largely written while on tour.

(The quote is taken from Max Harrison’s biography of Rachmaninoff.)

Sergei Rachmaninoff

  • Born on the family estate outside Novgorod in 1873, died in Beverly Hills, California in 1943.
  • Left Russia for good in 1918 and was based in the United States for the rest of his life.
  • Wrote three symphonies, No. 2 is the most famous.
  • He is considered one of the greatest pianists of all time, and his four piano concertos are very popular, especially No. 2 and 3.

Altmarkt in Dresden, 1906.

Fiery tones amid cool alps

Sergei Prokofiev spent the first years of his childhood in a rural setting in the Ukrainian village of Sontsovka. At the age of eight, he took the train to Moscow for the first time with his parents and was overwhelmed with excitement. He loved systems of all kinds, and railway tables, routes and equipment became a lifelong passion for him. Two years later, he moved to Saint Petersburg with his mother to attend school. As Prokofiev grew older, he began taking long walks in and around Saint Petersburg, often in the company of friends.

In 1918, Prokofiev moved to the United States and then to Paris, earning a living as a pianist and conductor while he continued composing. The first years were financially lean, but his situation improved towards the late 1920s. In 1927, he decided to buy a car, and after endless comparisons, he chose a used Ballot. Driving became a new passion for the composer – he planned detailed routes and took long car trips nearly every day.

In the summer of 1928, he, his wife Lina and some of their friends rented a holiday home near the French border with Switzerland and made it their base for spectacular car trips to Chamonix, Lausanne, Montreux, Lugano and a number of other cities. His wife described their trips as follows:

“Sometimes the road went through high mountain passes, for example the Furka Pass, where we met St. Bernards with little barrels attached to their collars. Sometimes we would descend into valleys as wonderful as in a fairy tale, then rise up again to the glaciers of the Rhône. We would spend the night in the most diverse spots – once on a high summit in a little hut that opened onto a magnificent view”

Sergei Prokofiev enjoyed himself with the others – but he did not take time off from composing. During the summer holidays he finished writing his Symphony No. 3, which premiered in Paris the following spring. The symphony was based on music from the opera The Fiery Angel, which Prokofiev never saw performed.

(The quote is taken from Harlow Robinson’s biography of Prokofiev.)

Sergei Prokofiev

  • Born in Sontsovka in the Ukrainian countryside in 1891, died in Moscow on the same day as Josef Stalin in 1953.
  • Left his native Russia in the wake of the revolution and lived in the United States, Germany and France before moving back to the Soviet Union in 1936.
  • Wrote seven symphonies, No. 1 and No. 5 are the most famous.
  • Other popular works are his music for the ballet Romeo and Juliet and the musical children’s story Peter and the Wolf.

Sergei Prokofiev.

Unknown photographer.

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Dmitri Shostakovich

Photo Deutsche Fotothek

“... when I got into that dark carriage with the children in Moscow I felt that I was in paradise! But by the seventh day of the journey I felt that I was in hell."

Dmitri Shostakovich

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Standing on the platform with a sewing machine and a potty

Dmitri Shostakovich also wrote one of his most famous symphonies on the road, but it was a far darker and more traumatic trip than the others mentioned here. In the summer of 1941, the Germans besieged Shostakovich’s hometown of Leningrad, a siege that was to last for almost 900 days.

Shostakovich was so near-sighted that he was unsuitable for military service, but he did help to dig trenches and worked as a volunteer firefighter. By this time, he was a world-famous composer, and the photographs of him in a fireman’s helmet made headlines around the world. The Soviet authorities were naturally aware of his international status and decided to evacuate him and his family.

On 1 October 1941, Shostakovich, his wife and their two small children boarded a small military plane, which took them to safety in Moscow. When his three-year-old son, Maxim, asked the soldiers about the flashes of light in the sky around, they told him it was German planes trying to shoot them down. Among the few essential belongings they had in their luggage were the sketches of Symphony No. 7.

Shostakovich had barely landed in Moscow before he visited his composer friends in the city, led by Aram Khachaturian, to play from the new symphony. A couple of weeks later, both composers travelled further east. Khachaturian’s niece, Karen, observed Shostakovich just before he left the train station:

“I suddenly caught sight of Dmitri Dmitriyevich on the platform. He looked completely bereft. He was holding a sewing machine in one hand and a children’s potty in the other, while his wife Nina Vasilyevna stood beside the children and a mountain of stuff.”

The big topic of discussion among the travellers was where to get off the train. Everyone had their opinion on where Shostakovich should live. After seven days on the train, they got off in Kuybyshev, the city now called Samara. At first, they had to live in a school, with eighteen people in each classroom. After a week, the family was able to move into a separate bedroom, and the composer was given a piano to use. He reflected on his experiences with a friend:

“... when I got into that dark carriage with the children in Moscow I felt that I was in paradise! But by the seventh day of the journey I felt that I was in hell. When we were settled in the classroom of the school, and what’s more given a carpet and surrounded by suitcases, I again felt myself to be in paradise; but after three days I was fed up ...”

The family eventually moved into a three-bedroom flat with a private bathroom, which soon became a gathering place for the city’s intelligentsia. Shostakovich completed Symphony no. 7 in Kuybyshev on 27 December, and it was premiered in the city in March 1942. In the summer, it was performed in New York, and on 13 August, it was performed in war-torn Leningrad – a huge achievement in itself. The symphony became a symbol of patriotism and fighting spirit and took Shostakovich to the height of his fame.

(The quote is taken from Elizabeth Wilson’s biography of Shostakovich.)

Translated from Norwegian by Samtext.

Dmitri Shostakovich

  • Born in Saint Petersburg in 1906 and lived most of his life in the city, which later changed its name to Petrograd and then to Leningrad. Died in Moscow in 1975.
  • Under Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, his music was at times condemned. His relationship with the authorities varied widely throughout his career, but he was permanently rehabilitated after Stalin’s death in 1953.
  • Wrote 15 symphonies. Among the most famous is Symphony No. 7, written during the siege of Leningrad during World War II.
  • Also composed three operas, six solo concertos, 15 string quartets and 24 preludes and fugues.