The famous Kukolnik “musical-literary evenings” began around 1836 and focused on the self-appointed brotherhood of the playwright Nestor Kukolnik, the painter Karl Briullov, and the composer Mikhail Glinka. The biggest Kukolnik gatherings, Senkovsky writes, saw as many as seventy or eighty guests, “a mosaic of regulars and a kaleidoscope of newcomers and occasionals. It featured a motley assortment of editors, writers, hacks, professors, artists, publishers, booksellers, and printers. It was an ever-changing marketplace of ideas and inspiration as well as a whirlpool of social intercourse gossip, intrigue, and gargantuan drinking.”
Mikhail Glinka: Capriccio on Russian themes
The Kukolnik brothers owned a large flat on Fonarny Ally, picturesquely located between the twisting canals of St. Petersburg. Nestor Kukolnik had written a number of patriotic historical plays, novels, and tales. His all-night salons have become notorious in music history for allegedly pushing Glinka into decline. The twice-weekly gatherings featured Kukolnik reading his latest essay, with Glinka singing and playing his own works on the piano. Glinka was on the verge of divorce from his wife, and these brotherhood gatherings offered a refuge alongside copious amounts of alcohol and various free-spirited women.
At one evening in 1842, a large crowd gathered to honor a special guest, Franz Liszt. Glinka made a little speech ending with the words “The intelligentsia of this world are one big family, a Gypsy Bohème, and it Gypsy king in our time is none other than Franz Liszt.” Also attending that particular meeting was the composer Aleksandr Dargomïzhsky (1813-1869), the musical link between Glinka and the St. Petersburg-based “Russian Five.”
Aleksandr Dargomïzhsky: Vlyublyon ya, deva-krasota (I am in love, my maiden, my beauty)
The 1850s and 60s were watershed years for Russian music as education became more widespread and the role of music grew accordingly. And at the center of this new trend were the brothers Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein, active in St. Petersburg and Moscow, respectively. During his lifetime, Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) was “regarded as perhaps the only pianist worthy to be compared with Franz Liszt.” Following a number of highly successful concert tours of Europe, Rubinstein studied composition in Berlin, and on his return to St. Petersburg in 18848 caught the attention of the Grand Duchess Helena Pavlovna, sister-in-law of the Tsar, who invited him to come to her palace on Kamenniy-ostrov to accompany singers in her salon. He was quickly drawn into the musical life of the city and publically appeared in a number of collaborations with Vieuxtemps. And he numerously featured in the houses of wealthy patrons of the arts. His compositions beautifully express the intimacy of the salon milieu. The Akrostichon of 1856 spells out “L-A-U-R-A,” and identifies an early love interest of the composer.
Anton Rubinstein: Akrostichon No. 1, Op. 37
By 1858, Anton Rubinstein had been appointed Imperial Concert Director in St. Petersburg. One year later he founded the “Russian Music Society,” and the St. Petersburg Conservatory opened in 1862. Rubinstein served as its first Director, and he was responsible to “choose the professors, appoint the subject to be taught and the classes and the periods of study; he is to keep watch over the method and manner of teaching and the success achieved by the students.” And that also meant, that the language of instruction was Russian!
When Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was denied promotion in the civil service, he applied and was accepted at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862. His principal teacher was Anton Rubinstein, and he was part of the first graduating class of 1865. The relationship between teacher and student was fraught with tension, however, Rubinstein eventually recommended Tchaikovsky for the post of professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky’s music for solo piano, as much as he might have wanted to, never fully managed to escape the salon as so clearly evidenced in his Morceaux Op. 9.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Three Morceaux, Op. 9