Traditional Russian musical instruments include the domra, a three-stringed instrument plucked with the fingers, the gudok, a three-stringed instrument played with a bow, the gusli, a multi-stringed instrument strummed with the fingers, the garmoshka, a sort of accordion, and the balalaika, or three stringed guitar.
Among the Pagan East Slavic tribes there were bards who composed and sang songs. These are thought to be the forerunners of the medieval Russian skomorokhi, or wandering minstrels. These minstrels and the byliny and historical songs which they performed, were at times banned by the Orthodox Church. Peasants also composed and sung a large number of folk songs, famous for their lyrical-melancholy quality.
Most official music after the Christianization was religious in nature, inspired by the sacred chanting of the Byzantine church. It was only after Peter's reforms that Western styles of secular music began to be patronized by the Russian upper classes. In the 19th century Russian composers would produce a wonderful array of masterpieces which combined Western styles with Russian cultural themes and musical motifs.
The first notable Russian composer was Mikhail I. Glinka (1804-57), who wrote in the Romantic style then prevalent in Western Europe. Glinka was the first to incorporate the rich sounds of Russian folk songs into his opera scores. His operas, which influenced following generations of Russian composers include A Life for the Tsar (1836), a story about patriotism, Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), based on Pushkin's fairy tale in verse. Glinka is sometimes compared to Pushkin as the father of Russian orchestra music and opera.
Glinka's successor was Mily Balakiriev (1836-1910), who further developed orchestral music by incorporating native Russian motifs. He is known for his piano composition Islamey, an exotic mixture of Eastern and Russian themes. Balakiriev's best contribution, however, was his organization of other young composers into a group called the Mighty Handful, or Big Five. These were composers who were to make Russian music famous throughout Europe. The group included, in addition to Balakiriev, the following five composers, all of whom were influenced particularly by the Slavophile idea that "music, like any other human language, must be inseparable from the people, from the soil of the people, from its historical development . . .":
A. P. Borodin (1833-87), known for the heroic opera Prince Igor. Also known for the emotional warmth and lyricism evident in his compositions.
N. A. Rimsky Korsakov (1844-1908), known for his striking and sonorous harmonies. Wrote several famous operas, including The Snow Maiden (1881), The Golden Cockeral (1907).
Modest Musorgsky (1839-81), famous for his opera Boris Godunov (1869, revised 1872). Musorgsky strived for a naturalism in his compositions, so much so that many of his songs include street language and peasant expressions. His music, known for its originality and dramatic intensity, was least understood and appreciated by contemporaries. Musorgsky died an alcoholic.
C. A. Cui (pronounced KOO-ee)(1835-1918), the least known of the group, best known for the editorials he wrote in the St. Petersburg Gazette in behalf of the group. His writings show that the Mighty Handful had many disagreements both about politics and about musical form; but all were united in their desire to elevate Russian music to European fame without betraying the sensibilities and tastes of their native Russia in the process.
While the Mighty Handful worked primarily in St. Petersburg, another composer acquired fame in Moscow, Pyotr Chaikovsky (1840-1893), whose name is often written with its German spelling "Tschaikowski". Chaikovsky was one of the first graduates of the St. Petersburg Conservatory founded in 1862 by Anton Rubinstein and has become perhaps Russia's most famous composer. He is known for such pieces as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker Suite, The Slavonic March, and the1812 Overture.
Twentieth century Russian composers include Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), famous for his ballet The Firebird (1910); Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-75), who wrote music in the so-called Constructivist Style, designed to remove the difference between the world of the artist and that of the common worker. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), composer of numerous operas and piano pieces including Cinderella (1944), as well as the cantata Aleksandr Nevsky (1944), and the musical fairy tale Peter and the Wolf (1933); and the Armenian-born A. I. Khachaturian (1903-78), famous for his Sabre Dance(1942).
Musicians after 1917 suffered from unprecedented pressures to conform to state-set standards of aesthetics. Much of Shostakovich's work was re-edited by official censors. Such musicians as composer Sergei Rakhmaninov (1873-1943), cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1924- ) and pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1904-1993) were forced to flee to the West.
Famous Russian folk songs still popular today include: Moscow Nights (composed in the 19th century), Clear Rings the Bell, Dark Eyes (a gypsy love song), Katyusha (a WW2 song), Arbat (composed by modern bard Bulat Okudzhava).
Today in post-Soviet Russia there is a great expansion of participation in all styles of music, including Jazz, Acid Rock, and Heavy Metal screeched out with apocalyptic Russian lyrics. Most of these styles are simply poor copies of music found in the West. But each awaits its "Pushkin", a genius to meld the foreign Western influence with the richness of traditional Russian culture. The best known pop musicians of the past two decades include Alla Pugacheva, who sings soft rock, and Zhanna Bichevskaya, who sings traditional Russian folk songs accompanied on the guitar.