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I've been recently listening to some late Romantic Russian music (Lyapunov, Kalinnikov, Tchaikovsky, etc.) and was wondering how best to mimic this style. So far, I've observed a handful of shared tendencies, such as a propensity for stepwise melodies which change direction several times throughout their duration to produce an almost "winding" feel (Kalinnikov does this a lot in particular). Non-diatonic scales are prominent within Russian melodies of this period (such as the oboe solo at the start of Kalinnikov Symphony 1, Movement 2; I still have yet to identify the specific scale here). Obviously, whole-tone and octatonic scales are prominent.

The Russians of this period also seem to place a large focus on melody, which makes sense given the push to develop a unique style of music with folk songs as the principal inspiration. Unlike a lot of Romantic music, I rarely notice periods in Russian Romantic pieces that lack an identifiable melody. Over the course of a given piece, these melodies will remain largely stagnant, with minimal development, though certain composers (Tchaikovsky especially, though you could argue about the extent to which he could even be classified with the other Russians of the period) definitely depart from this tendency. The emphasis on counterpoint seems less strong than in the remainder of Europe, but one could, again, dispute the extent to which this was universal.

Another component that particularly stuck out to me was the emphasis on low voices. One could speculate about why this became a fixture of Russian music. My first instinct was to attribute it to the relatively recent addition of extremely low voices to the orchestra; while the rest of Europe had ingrained tendencies to give melodies to upper voices and had more experience doing so, Russians, getting seriously into orchestral composition for the first time, weren't burdened with this orthodoxy to nearly the same extent. Conversely, one could attribute the proclivity to write for low voices to traditional features of Russian singing, which placed greater emphasis on low voices (e.g. basso profundo) than the rest of Europe. I remember reading a linguistic paper which posited that features of the Russian language made speakers more inclined to speak in low registers and thereby develop that register, though the data it cited to corroborate the claim that Russians spoke in deeper voices to begin with is heavily disputed. Regardless, it's interesting as a potential explanation.

In terms of harmony, I'm not entirely sure what to make of Russian music. The basis in folk songs would make me inclined to think that Russian harmonies would remain relatively simple (largely tonics and dominants), but, from the limited number of pieces I've analyzed, harmonies seem far more complex than I'd initially anticipated. There is definitely a tendency for modulation, though.

Anyway, this is based exclusively on an beginner's analysis of only a handful of Russian pieces. I'd definitely like to hear what some more experienced theoreticians have to say. In terms of melody, counterpoint, harmony, development, structure, orchestration, etc., what features make late Russian Romantic music unique? How can I write a characteristically Russian-sounding melody?

Adittionally, if anyone could link any good analyses of Kalinnikov Symphony I or Lyapunov Symphony I, I would be grateful. Thanks for all the help.

  • I am no master theoretician, but what strikes me the most about the Russian romantics is their use of dynamics and melody. I have no real evidence for this, but I feel like the basis for a lot of their melodic content comes from Russian folk music, and it has this sort of circular feel like everything is winding around and around and around in this circle then within that circle, there are smaller circles. Again, I'm no expert and this is just the feeling I get from listening to the music. – meganoob May 18 at 12:26
  • They also seem to use a lot of chromaticism, particularly leading notes, which gives the music a haunted sort of feel. You are definitely right in that modulation is a big part of their writing, and I think that contributes to the circular feeling I mentioned. Anyway, just my thoughts, I don't think I'm qualified to write an answer so I have just added this comment. – meganoob May 18 at 12:28
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This isn’t a very helpful or complete answer but Tchaikovsky wrote a harmony book. It might not cover everything about his technique in particular - it was intended as a text for him to teach from - but you can at least get valuable insight to what he was thinking, particularly where he disagreed with the classical masters. The only example I can think of off the top of my head is that he claims melody notes, just like bass notes, do not need to stay within an octave of the other voices. By now a very old fashioned observation, but he felt the need to point it out.

One thing you might consider too is that some of these things you are discussing, the expanding register of the orchestra, the use of folk music, the application of Germanic modulation techniques to generate form, these are all aspects of Romantic music in general and not necessarily strictly a Russian phenomenon.

There are probably a bunch of books on the styles of specific composers or the russian style in general.

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