When encountering a work of art with which I am unfamiliar, I have always found it helpful to place the work in something of a historical context – not only within the milieu of the events of the day, but also within the context of the other arts with which the present work is contemporary. I imagine that most people do this, if they are artistically and historically aware, to the extent that they are able. For me, most often this means that I consider the present work in the context of the music being produced at that time. In the case of The Brothers Karamazov, therefore, I have been considering the music of Russian Romanticism in the late nineteenth century, occasionally even listening to this music while reading Dostoevsky’s novel.
The music of the Russian Romantic period differs from that of, say, Germany in that the Russian composers of the time were not only Romantics but they were also among the first Nationalists. Nationalism in music – the conscious reliance by a composer on his nation’s body of native folk music – became a powerful force in the late nineteenth century, with the Russians forming the most famous "bloc" of nationalist composers. This is what gives the music of composers like Glinka, Balakirev, Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov its distinctively Russian character; even when these composers are not using actual folk tunes in their compositions, their music still carries that folk flavor.
One possible reason why the Russian Romantic composers were also Nationalists may be the fact that Russia was very late in developing its own musical tradition – in fact, Russia was very late in developing beyond a medieval society in the first place. The Russian musical scene up to the mid-eighteenth century was dominated by foreign music, primarily that of Italy. There are no important Russian composers of note from the Baroque or Classical periods. It was not until Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) that Russian music began to blossom on its own, with his opera A Life for the Czar. Russia's tardiness in musical development meant that there was no musical establishment for Russian composers to follow as the nineteenth century marched on; without the resulting sense of tradition and academic constraints upon the compositional process (Russia had no conservatory of music as late as 1850), the budding Russian musical movement was thus enchanted with the freedom offered by Nationalism, as first displayed by Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. The Russians were not the first Nationalists, but Russia was the first place where Nationalism truly became a force in music.
I don't want to give the impression, though, that the music of Romantic Russia is concerned exclusively with folk-songs and ethnic character and not with traditional musical elements like form, harmony and orchestration. Nationalism in music does not necessarily refer to the use of actual folk music, but rather on a character that is folk-like, even while the Russians were using traditional forms in their compositions – symphonies, concertos, et cetera. Leonard Bernstein once put it this way: "Tchaikovsky's symphonies are German symphonies with vodka substituted for beer." That's a good way of putting it.
Tomorrow I will post a bit on specific Russian composers whose music I particularly admire.
(I am indebted to the book The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg for some of the material in this article.)