As Russia’s capital of culture, St Petersburg’s theatres and music halls are guaranteed to impress with spectacular ballets, dazzling operas and world-class concerts. But it’s not only in classical entertainment that the city excels. This Russian metropolis is also home to the St Petersburg Conservatory, a music school that has produced countless international stars.
A glance at the alumni of the Rimsky-Korsakov St Petersburg Conservatory leaves little doubt that this 157-year-old establishment has been integral in shaping the landscape of classical music. The school is at least partly responsible for beloved favourites such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, not to mention scores of much-loved symphonies and concertos.
Occupying the site of the former Bolshoi Theatre on the grand Theatre Square, St Petersburg Conservatory is an aptly imposing tribute to the talent it has nurtured. Visit the Opera and Ballet Theatre to enjoy an inspired programme of productions, showcasing the conservatory’s extraordinary talent, with exquisite performances and stunning costumes. Here’s an overview of some of the greats that have blossomed under the guidance of St Petersburg Conservatory.
Thank the inexhaustible talents of Russia’s first great symphonist for melodic scores such as The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. The legendary Tchaikovsky was one of St Petersburg Conservatory’s initial students and graduated with a silver medal in 1865, three years after the school opened. There was little promise of a musical career in Russia during Tchaikovsky’s youth and so, despite being musically inclined and excelling at piano from the age of five, he had initially trained as a civil servant. As soon as the conservatory opened, he enrolled, aged 21… and the rest is history.
Notable in St Petersburg Conservatory’s alumni for being its youngest scholar at only four years old, Clara Rockmore – then Reisenberg – was a prodigious violin player. Her talent accelerated under the tutelage of legendary Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer. However, as a teen, Rockmore developed tendonitis in her arm, which prevented her from playing. It’s thanks to Léon Theremin and his ground-breaking eponymous invention – an electronic instrument that sounds similar to a violin and is controlled by subtle hand gestures and arm movements – that Rockmore could play again. She went on to become a virtuoso performer of the theramin.
One of the 20th century’s most celebrated composers, Prokofiev’s prolific repertoire includes such popular works as the ballet Romeo and Juliet, the opera The Love for Three Oranges and the symphonic children’s fairy tale Peter and the Wolf. He enrolled at St Petersburg Conservatory in 1906, having been scouted by composer Alexander Glazunov, also director of the school and one of its most prestigious teachers. Prokofiev was younger than his classmates, and notoriously precocious. After graduating three years later, he developed a reputation for being a boundary-breaking musical rebel. Nevertheless, his controversial, experimental compositions were consistently received with praise and applause by the public.
Five times the recipient of the prestigious State Stalin Prize, which recognised Russia’s most prominent achievements, Nikolai Myaskovsky bears the mantle of Father of the Soviet Symphony. Despite his early passion for music, he was discouraged from indulging it and instead signed up for the army. However, in 1896, he encountered Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, which inspired him to set his goals on studying at St Petersburg Conservatory. At 25, he was the oldest in his class, but it wasn’t long before he formed a friendship with the youngest member – Sergei Prokofiev.
He may not officially be a former student of St Petersburg Conservatory, but composer Alexander Glazunov deserves a mention for his role as director of the school for 30 or so years from 1905. Glazunov composed his first masterpiece aged 11, and studied privately under the conservatory’s legendary director Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, despite never attending the school. Apart from an extensive music legacy, Glazunov famously tutored Dmitri Shostakovich and Ukrainian virtuoso violinist Nathan Milstein.
While his three older sisters all graduated with distinction from the Moscow Conservatory and opened their own music school in the capital, Mikhail Gnesin chose an entirely different route. He enrolled at St Petersburg Conservatory under the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov, a bronze bust of whom now marks the entrance to the conservatory. Gnesin was expelled for striking alongside his fellow students during the 1905 revolution, but the musician was reinstated a year later, with one of his first works, Vrubel, going on to win the Glinka Prize soon after. His most famous operas, the 1921 Maccabees and Abraham’s Youth are strongly influenced by the Jewish folk melodies of his heritage.
Murder, intrigue, crime and punishment… St Petersburg has it all. Those fascinated by the more ghoulish side of history will love these significant spots from fiction, and real life.