Russia St Petersburg Theatre Philharmonic St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra

The St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra is the oldest in Russia. Its official birthday, 1882, is preceded by a series of events that now comprise the history of musical life in the former capital of the Russian Empire. When Peter the Great laid the foundations for the city of St Petersburg in 1703, he was determined that his new capital would be a European town. All the best that the West had to offer, in science, architecture and art, was forcibly imported into Russia, where it quickly took root. It was at this time that professional musical art was also established in Russia. Leading Italian and, later, German composers and musicians lived and created in the city on the Neva, working alongside the finest Russian minds and doing much to turn St Petersburg into one of the cultural capitals of Europe.

In 1802, a group of music-loving Russian aristocrats founded Europe’s first philharmonic society in the city. Whilst also concerning itself with charity and educational work, its principal aim was to acquaint the Russian public with German and Austrian classical music. For its concerts, the society hired a rich townhouse on the city’s main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, now the Small Hall of the St Petersburg Philharmonic. The superb acoustics and sumptuous interiors of this hall attracted performers and public alike and, up until the middle of the nineteenth century, it was the centre of musical life in St Petersburg.

To this day, the building retains the spirit of the great men who visited it at one time or another – Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Ivan Turgenev, Mikhail Glinka. The oratorios and symphony works of Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were given their Russian premieres here. Joseph Haydn was the first honorary member of the Philharmonic Society and even had a gold medal struck in his honour. One of the most important events in the history of the hall was the premiere of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on 26 May 1824. The composer sent the manuscript of the score around the world and copies were acquired by Prince Golitsyn and Tsar Alexander I.

In 1839, work was completed in the centre of St Petersburg on the construction of a Noblemen’s Assembly, now the Large Hall of the St Petersburg Philharmonic. The facade was created by the Italian architect Carlo Rossi, with the building itself designed by French architect Paul Jacot.

Three times a year, the enormous white-columned hall was used to hold sessions of the Noblemen’s Assembly. The rest of the time, it hosted balls, masquerades and official ceremonies. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the hall had become the centre of musical life in St Petersburg. An important contribution to this process was played by its outstanding acoustics. Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss all appeared on its stage. The Philharmonic Society continued its activities at the Noblemen’s Assembly in the second half of the nineteenth century, when it began to concentrate its attention on promoting Russian music.

The Imperial Russian Music Society was founded in 1859 in order to assist the development of Russian national music. Under the official patronage of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, a former German princess, the heart and soul of the society was the great Russian composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein. The premieres of many works by Russian composers – Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin – were held in the hall of the Noblemen’s Assembly. The composers themselves sometimes conducted the premieres of their works here. On 16 (28) October 1893, nine days before his death, Peter Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth (Pathétique) Symphony at the Noblemen’s Assembly. Among the members of the audience was the eleven-year old Igor Stravinsky.

The history of orchestral performance in Russia began in 1731, when Empress Anna Ioannovna issued a decree founding the country’s first court orchestra. Under Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, there were two court orchestras: one played at balls, while the other gave public concerts and participated in opera productions. According to the staff lists of the Imperial Theatres company, 115 people played in these two orchestras in 1801. The musicians also contributed to the orchestras that played at the concerts of the Philharmonic Society and the Imperial Russian Music Society. The activities of these ensembles thus constitute the pre-history of the body of musicians now famous throughout the world as the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

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