Presentation for the Russian Musical Society

The Russian Musical Society was founded in St. Petersburg in 1859, and this event attracted the public’s attention because of perspectives that could open for Russian musicians, composers, and listeners as representatives of different social classes (Sargeant 54). In order to focus on the social context related to the establishment of the Russian Musical Society, I should state that voluntary associations played an important role in the development of a cultural life in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and the founders of the Society discussed the organization as the first step to educating the public in the country. I can agree with the opinion that the goals of the Russian Musical Society were rather ambitious, and they reflected the founders’ desires to spread the ideals of music among all the classes in Imperial Russia.

According to Sargeant, the purpose of the Russian Musical Society was to focus on “promoting the performance of good music … developing the taste of the Russian people, disseminating music education throughout the empire, and fostering the creativity of native composers and performers” (54). In spite of the fact that such goals seem to be rather unrealistic, and they cannot be attained within a short period of time, the history demonstrated that the Society significantly contributed to the development of music in Imperial Russia (Dunlop 18). Thus, it is important to focus on answering the following questions: What features of the Russian Musical Society made it one of the most successful voluntary organizations in the country? What factors affected its development as the most influential musical organization in Imperial Russia?

The first cause of the Society’s success was the remarkable contribution of its founders to the realization of the organization’s initiatives. The Russian Musical Society was founded by Anton Rubinstein, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich, Matvei Vielgorsky, and Dmitry Stasov. I should state that these persons had the desire and capacities to influence the development of music in Imperial Russia. Anton Rubinstein was the famous composer and pianist whose ideas regarding the musical culture in Russia were actively supported by the public (Sargeant 58). Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna and Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich were patrons of different cultural societies and organizations, the purpose of which was to contribute to the cultural progress in the country (Soroka and Ruud 22). As a result, it is possible to note that these persons were not only inspirers and promoters of musical trends in the Russian society, but they were also sponsors of realizing the most important ideas in the world of the national music. These patrons had the impact not only in cultural circles but also in political ones, and this factor contributed to the development of the Society as the important force in the cultural life of the country (Sargeant 59). Therefore, it is possible to ask whether the activities of the Russian Musical Society could be so remarkable without such influential patrons.

The imperial family was also interested in the development of the organization, and the Russian Musical Society even received the imperial title that was assigned in order to accentuate its significant role in forming the cultural life of the nation. The imperial title provided the Society with the higher public’s recognition, but it was not a state institution, and financial questions were resolved by the patrons (Sargeant 70). In addition, the founders of the Society and its patrons also financed the establishment of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and then, the formation of the Moscow Conservatory. From this point, the Russian Musical Society functioned as any other voluntary organization in the country, but its purpose was to develop and influence other musical institutions in Imperial Russia. Thus, the founders of the Society developed its purpose and formed the charter, as well as the governing board, while following examples of other state institutions and organizations (Sargeant 66). Still, the Society remained to be independent in its activities, and this unique position created a lot of benefits for the founders who could develop the Society’s regulations and principles. From this perspective, the second important feature was the organizational structure and status of the Society in the country (Smetannikova 90). Many proponents of the ideas of the Russian Musical Society quickly organized their circles in other cities of the country, and much attention was paid to the development of the Moscow branch of the organization.

However, what about the Society’s ideology and activities? The activists of the Society began to pay attention to organizing concerts for the purpose of educating the public. It is important to focus on an interesting fact: visions of the Society’s leaders regarding the program for such concerts differed significantly. As a result, the Society’s activists were divided into those ones who supported a focus on the Russian musical compositions and those ones who accentuated the necessity of including the works of Italian and German composers in concert programs (Sargeant 68). Why did some of the leaders of the Society focus on the idea that only Russian compositions could be performed at the organized concerts? The answer is in the purpose of organizing the Russian Musical Society.

The Russian elite planned the formation of the Society not only to educate the public in terms of musical principles and trends but also to promote the Russian composers and musicians. The critics noted that “the new society promised to further the progress Russian music had already made toward independence” (Sargeant 67). It was important for representatives of music circles to avoid following the European tendencies and standards. As a result, there were many debates regarding the programs for the first concerts as the leaders could not agree on compositions that would educate listeners and promote their understanding of the Russian music. For instance, Serov, the Russian critic of that period, noted that the Society failed to popularize the Russian music (Sargeant 68). Thus, I can state that there were supporters of both ideas in the Society: those who viewed the idea of musical education to be broad and complex and those who discussed the role of the Russian Musical Society as a protector of the Russian music in the country.

In this context, I should focus on more details related to organizing concerts in the Russian Musical Society. Debates regarding the list of compositions to perform at concerts can be discussed as inappropriate in the situation when only a few persons who desired to attend the concerts could afford buying a ticket (Sargeant 69). The problem was in the fact that only the members of the Society and representatives of the elite who had paid for a ticket could visit the concert. In spite of all attempts of the Society’s leaders, only the nobility received an opportunity to listen to new musical compositions, and the masses remained to be uneducated. For instance, students and young musicians could not afford visiting the Society’s concerts (Nelson 38).

Those people who organized those concerts paid much attention to supporting the culture of visiting such significant events, and different rules were adopted. Still, the problem was in the fact that representatives of the elite quickly became tired of visiting many concerts, and representatives of lower classes did not receive an opportunity to listen to the compositions that were actively discussed by the nobility. I should state that, on the one hand, the Society did not realize its goal regarding the promotion of music among the wide audience. On the other hand, new approaches to organizing concerts and promoting education of talented performers and composers contributed to the development of the Russian music significantly. Therefore, the leaders of the Society seemed to follow their plan regarding the development of the musical culture in the country, but not all of the proposed steps were successful.

This situation accentuated the problem that the Russian Musical Society did not complete such aims as the education of the masses. Still, the patrons focused on supporting young musicians, and they sponsored the establishment of conservatories, as well as the organization of concerts for unknown musicians. The Russian Musical Society also conducted competitions in order to award the best young composers and performers. From this point, the goal regarding the promotion of the musical art was achieved because the members of the Society were interested in supporting new talented performers. It is important to note that the Society focused on establishing conservatories in order to provide future musicians with formal training and guarantee the development of the unique national music (Sargeant 86). Therefore, the significant support of the elite contributed to the growth of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and the Moscow Conservatory.

Nevertheless, the patrons of the Russian Musical Society could not agree on the ideology according to which conservatories were developed. Rubinstein emphasized the necessity of creating these institutions as “temples of art” where students could develop their musical tastes and skills, and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna followed the idea that conservatories could provide “a practical training ground for orchestral musicians” (Sargeant 115). In reality, the approach proposed by Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna was more appropriate for the context of the Russian music education, and the idea to develop practical skills in musicians was actively supported by the public. Fishzon discussed this problem while accentuating the fact that “financial needs forced Romantic visionaries like Rubinstein to admit well-off middle-class female pupils pursuing musical training as a means to advantageous marriage, social advancement, and bourgeois respectability” (384). During that period of time, attitudes towards female students and Jews in St. Petersburg and Moscow changed significantly. One of the noticeable achievements of the Society was the increased interest in music among young women who were sent to conservatories by their families in order to develop their musical talents and views.

However, I should pay attention to the fact that the development of conservatories in order to promote the national music in Russia faced a barrier associated with the lack of qualified instructors. For instance, there were only a few “Russian names among the proposed faculty” (Sargeant 87). From this perspective, debates regarding the national musical tradition in Imperial Russia continued to develop with the focus on practices adopted in the conservatories. In addition, there were many debates regarding the admission of females and Jews as students in these institutions.

The active development of the music education in the country led to the necessity of accepting the fact that musicians and composers should have been recognized as professionals. In this context, the Russian Musical Society contributed significantly to developing professions of a musician and a composer (Sargeant 88). These professions became accepted in the Russian society, and the goal regarding the expansion of the music impact on the public was achieved. From this perspective, the establishment of the Russian Musical Society can be discussed as not only a trigger to provoke the development of the national musical tradition but also as the contribution to developing the national identity and spirituality in the context of the Russian culture.

While discussing the role of the Russian Musical Society in the cultural life of Imperial Russia, it is important to return to the connections between the elite and the imperial family more and more in order to understand how the Society could influence both the nobility and the public. In this context, Fishzon accentuates that the Russian Musical Society was “a robust voluntary association that played a significant part in expanding Russia’s public sphere and invigorating its cultural life throughout the empire without posing a direct challenge to autocracy” (385). Is it possible to find a paradox in these roles of the Society? I can state that the answer is ‘no’. The reason is that, in Imperial Russia, the nobility could significantly influence political courses and social events. Therefore, the high impact of the independent organization sponsored by the elite on the cultural life in the country was an expected situation. While supporting the initiative related to the establishment of the Society, the imperial family contributed to education of the Russian masses in different regions, and the prestige of the organization also grew.

Therefore, it is important to conclude that the establishment of the Russian Musical Society became an important event in the cultural life of Imperial Russia. The development of the Society contributed to attracting the public’s attention to music trends, and the focus was on educating different social classes. In spite of the fact that not all of the set goals were achieved, the Society played a significant role in developing the public’s visions regarding the national music. The activities of the Society demonstrated that the Russian musicians and performers could also achieve significant heights if they were provided with the appropriate education and support. However, the development of the Russian Musical Society and its connection with many debates regarding the role of music in the Russian culture allowed for asking the following questions: Did the Russian Musical Society achieve its goal regarding the promotion of music in masses? Did it achieve its goal regarding the socialization of the music education and tradition? How could the debates regarding the promotion of the European and Russian music influence the public? Did the Russian Musical Society contribute to establishing the new national musical tradition in the country?


Dunlop, Carolyn. Russian Court Chapel Choir: 1796-1917. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Fishzon, Anna. “When Music Makes History.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 14.2 (2013): 381-394. Print.

Nelson, Amy. Music for the Revolution: Musicians and Power in Early Soviet Russia. Boston: Pennsylvania State Press, 2010. Print.

Sargeant, Lynn. Harmony and Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Smetannikova, Anastasia. “The Rostov Branch of the Imperial Russian Musical Society: The First Decade of its Work.” Music Scholarship 1.2 (2015): 89-94. Print.

Soroka, Marina, and Charles Ruud. Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and her World (1807–1873). New York: Routledge, 2016. Print.