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Military Music and Tradition in Imperial Russia

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The history of Imperial Russia's army and navy is rich in glory and battle honors, and their musical heritage was formed by some of Russia's greatest composers, musicians and soldiers - with substantial contributions from the German-speaking world.


The history of military music in Russia begins with the reign of the Tsar and Emperor Peter the Great (*1672-†1725). Following the death of his half-brother and co-ruler Ivan V, and his assumption of the sole power of the throne in 1696, Peter instituted a series of modernizations that extended to all aspects of Russian political, military, administrative, religious and social life. At this time, concurrent to a general reorganization of the army, the first Russian military bands in the modern sense were organized along German lines, which meant that fifes and drums (used for command-and-control functions) occupied the dominant position in Russian martial music. 

Indeed, Peter's favorite instrument was the drum; as a boy, he had personally banged out cadences for his playmates, who he organized into the “droll regiments” that became the basis of the first units of the Russian Imperial Guard. These formations, the Preobrazhensky- and Semenovsky Regiments, took their names from the royal estates near Moscow where the young Peter had rallied the sons of local nobles in his elaborate war games, and with them the first Russian regimental bands came into existence.

Whenever the Tsar dined at the Admiralty in his new city of Saint Petersburg (where, as a trained shipwright, he personally oversaw the construction of warships in the adjacent yards), his frugal midday meals of naval rations were accompanied by fifers and drummers who serenaded him from the Admiralty Tower. Likewise, whenever he hosted conferences of his generals and ministers at the spartan, Dutch-style palace he had built for himself nearby, army musicians provided musical accompaniment.

Following his victory over the Swedes at Poltava in 1709, Peter further influenced the development of Russian military music by ordering trumpets and timpani introduced to all army regiments, as well as to the fleet- and ship’s bands stationed at Saint Petersburg, Kronstadt, Archangelsk and Reval. In 1711, he further decreed that each army regiment be outfitted with a German-style oboe ensemble of nine- to eleven members each.


Emperor Peter I, "The Great" (*1672-†1725)

Following Peter's death, the army he had built continued to grow and develop its traditions. By the fourth decade of the eighteenth century, its musical instruments had begun to acquire an honorific significance in their own right, as was already the case in the various German- and other European armies of the period. It was during the reign of Peter’s niece Anna Iannovna (who ruled from 1730 to 1740) that the Russian tradition of awarding silver trumpets to distinguished military units originated. In terms of precedence, these instruments (which were often elaborately engraved) ranked third in a regiment's honors after medals and banners. 

The first examples awarded date from 1731, when Anna bestowed twenty silver trumpets and silver timpani to the Life-Guard Horse Regiment (the former Leib-Dragoner Regiment of Prince Menshikov that she had elevated to guards status the year before). The first silver trumpets to be conferred as actual battlefield honors, however, were awarded in 1737, when a battalion of the Life-Guard Izmailovskii Regiment received several for valor in the fighting for the Turkish fortress of Ochakov. Following the institution of the Order of Saint George in 1769, these instruments were henceforth emblazoned with this highest of all Russian military decorations. The very last silver trumpets awarded were conferred upon units that served in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05; in the entire period between 1731 and 1917, these instruments were awarded to only 120 regiments, battalions or detachments of the Imperial Russian army and navy.

A uniquely Russian contribution to wind music dates from the reign of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna who ruled from 1741 to 1762: the “horn orchestra” or horn chorus. The first of these ensembles appeared in 1753 in Saint Petersburg on the initiative of Prince Semyon Kirillovich Naryshkin (*1710-†1775). Naryshkin, the head huntsman of the Imperial Court, directed the Czech Waldhornist Johann Anton Maresch (who had arrived in Russia in 1748) to establish a wind band with selected musicians from the Court Chamber Orchestra. They were trained to play thirty-seven specially-cast instruments of varying sizes, which were modeled on old Russian hunting horns; each instrument produced only one note, but their effect when played in unison soon attracted broad interest. The first public performance of Maresch's horn orchestra took place in 1757 at Izmailov, the Imperial hunting lodge near Moscow, and private horn choruses soon proliferated throughout the Russian Empire. 

Due to the disruptions of the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the invention of the valve in Germany in 1814, interest in Russian horn orchestras slowly waned, but in a deliberate bow to tradition horn bands were specially organized for the coronations of Tsars Alexander III (in 1883) and Nicholas II (in 1896). The last state performance of a horn band in Imperial Russia took place during a concert of the Court Orchestra in 1904 that was organized to celebrate the birth of the Tsarevich Alexey Nicolaevich, the only son and heir of the last Tsar. It appropriately concluded with the triumphal "Slavsya" chorale from M.I. Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar.

The short reign of Tsar Peter III (which lasted but a few days in 1762) was a brief interlude that influenced Russian military music but little. This grandson of Peter the Great was born in Kiel in 1728 as Karl Peter Ulrich, the son of the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, and he was brought to Russia in 1742 as the heir presumptive to the throne. Peter's personal eccentricities soon became notorious, but more significant was his bringing to Russia of his Prussian-style "Holstein-Korps" which ultimately amounted to fourteen regiments. Upon the death of Empress Elizabeth in 1762, the now Emperor Peter III announced plans to prussianize the uniforms, drill and training of the Russian Imperial Guard, as well as to introduce Lutheranism as a state religion to Russia. This, along with his withdrawal from the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the ceding of the Russian territorial gains from that conflict to Prussia, precipitated a palace coup - led by the Imperial Guard - that resulted in his death and the proclamation of his wife Catherine as Empress.        

During the reign of Catherine II or "the Great" (which lasted from 1762 to 1796), the size of Russian regimental bands was increased, though without substantially altering the mix of instruments inherited from Peter's era. Martial music played an important role in the Russo-Turkish wars of this period, and it was Field Marshal Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov (*1729-†1800), that great captain of Russian military history who never lost a battle, who uttered the famous dictum: “Music cheers the hearts of the soldiers and keeps them in step. It doubles and trebles the strength of the army. I captured the Fortress of Izmail with unfurled banners and loud music.” 

Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin (later "Prince Tavrichevsky"), Catherine's general and paramour who in the Second Turkish War of 1787-1792 wrested the Crimea and north shore of the Black Sea from the Ottomans, was himself an ardent lover of music. The long-time patron of a host of favorite musicians and composers, after his victory at the Second Battle of Ochakov in 1788, Potemkin ordered a Te Deum performed in his bivouac which featured a large orchestra with trumpets and timpani, bells, a battery of cannon and a Russian horn band.  

Catherine's son and successor Emperor Paul I (who ruled from 1796 until his murder in 1801) loathed his mother and sought to vindicate his father, the murdered prussophile Tsar Peter III. As Tsarevich he had already rigorously trained and drilled his Prussian-style personal guard at his estate at Gatchina outside Petersburg. He now issued a staccato series of decrees that introduced Prussian drill - including the goose-step or Stechschritt - friderician mitres, Prussian-style uniforms and even Prussian pigtails to the whole Russian army. He also initiated the custom of conducting military parades on religious and state holidays, and since these too were based on the Prussian model, they were officially referred to as Vahktparady in the regulations. 

Paul at this time also ordered infantry regimental bands reduced in size and variety of instrumentation, in effect returning them to their earliest form of organization as fife-and-drum corps. These now acquired (in addition to their conductors) a drum major wielding a Tambourstock, another borrowing from Prussia. Paul’s reforms also limited Russian cavalry regiments and their squadrons to only one or two “Staff Trumpeters” (Shtabs-Trubachi) each; and apart from the Chevaliers Garde- and the Life-Guard Horse Regiments, which continued to deploy one kettle drummer each, the use of percussion instruments by mounted units was prohibited. 


Tambourmajor, Life-Guard Preobrazhensky Regiment. Reign of Emperor Alexander II.


During Paul I's reign, the Russian army’s Vechernaya Zorya ("Evening Tattoo") came into general usage. This ceremony, which served as the basis of the Prussian Grosser Zapfenstreich, involved the assembly of troops in regimental parade order with a military band and featured a choir that sang religious hymns, usually the prayer Kol Slaven (“How Glorious”) with lyrics by Mikhail Kheraskov and music by Dmitri Bortnyansky (*1751-†1825). Bortnyansky, a renowned composer of operatic and ecclesiastical music, was named director of the Imperial Court Chapel Choir in 1796 by Paul, and he would retain that office until his death in 1825. 

Bortnyansky's setting of Kol Slaven was used as the unofficial anthem of the Russian Empire from 1796 to 1816, and until the October Revolution of 1917, its melody sounded every day at midday from the carillon of the Savior's Gate in the Moscow Kremlin. During the Napoleonic Wars in 1813 the King of Prussia, in the company of his ally Tsar Alexander I, witnessed the Vechernaya Zorya while touring a Russian bivouac in Silesia, and on hearing the prayer he was so impressed that he ordered it adopted by the Prussian Army. With lyrics taken from the poem Ich bete an die Macht der Liebe ("I Pray to the Power of Love"), the melody of Bortnyansky's Kol Slaven was thus transformed into the prayer of the Prussian soldier.

The reign of Emperor Alexander I (*1801-†1825), Paul's son who reversed some of his father's "Prussian" army reforms while retaining many of the others, is best known for the Russian victory over Napoleon and the advance of Cossack armies to Paris - but the period also coincided with dramatic new developments in wind instrument construction and renewed imperial interest in military music. German musicians in particular would play a crucial role in Russian band music throughout the nineteenth century, beginning in 1802 with the arrival in Saint Petersburg of a wind ensemble consisting of the Bohemians Dörfeldt (who played first clarinet), Fischer (on second clarinet), Köhler (on oboe), Rudolph (on bassoon) and Fuchs (on French horn).

Anton Dörfeldt (*1781-†1829), the leader of the group who had been invited to the capital by Prince M. I. Kutuzov, immediately attracted the attention of the Tsar, who enlisted him in his plans for the modernization of the bands of the Russian army. Dörfeldt was ordered by Emperor to take over the reorganization and training of all the bands of the Russian Imperial Guard, as well as those of the Saint Petersburg military district. In 1809, Dörfeldt’s proposal for the establishment of an academy for the training of military musicians was approved, and the Alexander appointed him the first director of the newly-founded “Saint Petersburg Military Music School.”

Simultaneously, Dörfeldt began assembling the scores of all the Imperial Guard’s regimental marches, which he sorted and organized according to their function. This collection was then reprinted in a concise edition by the “Dalmas” firm of Saint Petersburg and issued to the bands of the Imperial Guard. He also expanded the march repertoire to include new slow- and quick marches for the guard’s everyday use, borrowing some from neighboring Prussia, and commissioning others from Russian composers such as Iosif Kozlovsky (*1757-†1831) and Alexei Titov (*1769-†1827), a gifted violinist who happened to be an army general. Dörfeldt further augmented the collection by rearranging works by Mozart and Glück and adding others by French and Italian composers, but mostly by writing many of its pieces – thirty one in all – himself. The final result was the “Imperial Russian Army March Collection,” which by 1815 included seventy distinctive works for both infantry and cavalry formations. Tsar Alexander gave a complete set of their scores to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, which would serve as a basis and inspiration for the Prussian Armeemarschsammlung of 1817.

Of all the pieces included by Dörfeldt in this collection, perhaps the most "durable" has proven to be the anonymous March of the Yegersky Regiments. Under the title Marsch der freiwilligen Jäger aus den Befreiungskriegen, this piece has traditionally been viewed as a German composition ever since it was added to the Prussian Army March Collection as AM II, 239 in 1911. In fact, there is evidence that the march was already in general use by the Russian army during the eighteenth-century campaigns of Count Alexander Suvorov. During the Napoleonic Wars, it was in fact known as the Suvorov March or, alternately, the March of Emperor Alexander, which suggests a Russian origin of the piece. It was listed under the title March of the Jäger Regiments from 1812-1814 in the 1901 edition of the Imperial Russian Army March Collection, and during the Second World War it was the only parade march in general use by both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht.

Russian military music in the first half of the nineteenth century was strongly influenced by another German, the Silesian Ferdinand Haase (*1788-†1851), who succeeded Dörfeldt as music director of the Imperial Guard in 1830. Haase’s résumé reads like a page from Tolstoy's War and Peace; already an established musician who had achieved a considerable reputation in Europe, he had served in Napoleon’s Grande Armee during its 1812 invasion of Russia and was taken prisoner by Cossacks during the great winter retreat from Moscow. 

Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich, Tsarevich and brother of the Tsar, had heard of Haase and was present on the battlefield when he was captured; he delivered this young musician from his guards and subsequently became his patron, eventually bringing him to Warsaw to serve as the bandmaster of that city’s Russian garrison when he was appointed governor of Poland in 1816. After the Polish Uprising of 1830, Grand Duke Constantine was dismissed from his post and Haase was transfered to St. Petersburg to take over the position of Kapellmeister of the Guards- and Grenadier Corps, where he remained until his retirement in 1850. 

Early in his Russian career, Haase created the arrangement of the March of the Life-Guard Preobrazhensky Regiment (which features the Lemberger-Lied in its trio) that has come down to us to this day. By the reign of the last Tsar, this tradition-steeped but anonymous composition, which is known to have been widely played in Russia since the early eighteenth century, served as the presentation march of the Imperial Russian Army and Navy. Haase also composed numerous new marches that were added to the Russian and Prussian march collections, and following his retirement, he was succeeded by the forty-year old Anton Dörfeldt the Younger (*1810-†1869), who served as director of the bands of the Imperial Guard and the Saint Petersburg Military District until 1869.

The early years of Emperor Nicholas I’s reign (which lasted from 1825 to 1855) witnessed the emergence of such key figures in the history of Russian music as Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Alexander Alabiev and Mikhail Glinka, which gave impetus to the creation of new and original works for brass band, particularly after the invention of the new and improved piston valve by François Périnet in 1838.


A Russian Line-Infantry Regiment and its Band. Reign of Emperor Alexander III.

In 1833, Tsar Nicholas ordered Count Alexey Fyodorovich Lvov (1799-1870), the violinist and army general who was his court composer and aide-de-camp, to compose new music to replace the air that since 1816 had served as the music for the Russian Empire's Anthem God Save the Tsar, namely Henry Hugh Carey’s God Save the King. The lyrics of God Save the Tsar (Bozhe Tsarya Khranii) date from 1815 and came from Prayers of the Russian People by Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky (1783-1852), an officer and poet who served as tutor to the Tsarevich Alexander Nikolayevich, the future Tsar-Liberator Alexander II.

After some initial creative difficulties, the melody that would serve as the anthem of the Russian Empire for the remainder of its existence came to Lvov in the course of a single night’s inspiration; he succeeded in creating a work of majesty and power that was suitable for the army, the church and the people – indeed, for the entire realm. None other than the great Alexander Pushkin himself reworked Zhukovsky’s verses to adapt them to Lvov’s new hymn. It was the first national anthem in Russian history to feature music and lyrics by Russian authors.

Upon hearing its beautiful strains for the first time, Nicholas I ordered the work repeated several times. At the close of the final rendition, the Tsar - a stern and military-minded ruler who was to be vilified by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as the "Gendarme of Europe" for his crushing of the forces of revolution wherever they appeared - clasped the composer's hand with tears in his eyes and uttered the single word: "Splendid!" 

The public premier of God Save the Tsar took place on 6 December 1833 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, where it was performed by a choir of one hundred singers and two military bands. At Christmas that same year, by the Tsar’s personal order it was performed by military bands in every hall of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. A week later, the Emperor issued a decree declaring the anthem a “civil prayer” to be performed at all parades and official ceremonies. As was the case with the Preobrazhensky March, the most widely-used arrangement for military band of God Save the Tsar was created by Ferdinand Haase; it was the shortest anthem in the world at eight lines, and it remained the Russian Empire’s national hymn until the February Revolution of 1917.

Another patriotic song that figured prominently in Russian history and the repertoire of Russian military bands (both Imperial and Soviet) was likewise created during the reign of Nicholas I: Glory, Glory to our Russian Tsar (Slavsya, Slavsya nash russkii Tsar). Its words and music are taken from the triumphal chorus heard in the finale of Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka’s (1804-1857) nationalistic opera A Life for the Tsar, which premiered in St. Petersburg on 27 November 1836. Originally titled Ivan Susanin, it recounts the historical tale of a hero who, during the “Time of Troubles” in the seventeenth century, refused to disclose the whereabouts of the first Romanov Tsar to Polish troops dispatched to capture or kill him so they could place a Polish impostor on the Russian throne. Feigning friendship for the invaders, Susanin led the Polish force through a winter gale into a deep wood where, upon defiantly proclaiming his deception, he was beaten to death. His captors then presumably froze to death in the forest depths, their plans frustrated, while the young Tsar Michael Fyodrovich Romanov calmly awaited his enthronement in the Ipatiev Monastery at Kostroma.

Glinka is regarded as the father of Russian classical music and Ivan Susanin was the first Russian opera to achieve international renown. After Emperor Nicholas I attended an early rehearsal, the composer changed its title to A Life for the Tsar, which was retained until the Russian Revolution. The opera’s popularity was established quickly; it had already achieved its five-hundredth performance in Russia by 1879, and it traditionally opened all new opera seasons in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Glory, Glory to our Russian Tsar functioned as a de facto second national hymn for the Russian Empire until 1917, and its performances in both its choral and instrumental variations on state occasions (particularly coronations) reflect the fusion of monarchy and nationality that, in addition to Orthodoxy, formed the pillars of the Russian state:

Glory, Glory to our Russian Tsar, To our sovereign, sent us by God! May your Imperial line live forever, May the Russian folk prosper through it!

In the middle of the nineteenth century, several other significant developments in Russian military music took place. The helicon tuba was invented in Russia sometime around 1845; and in 1866, Vasily Vasilyevich [Wilhelm] Wurm (*1826-†1904), a musician from Braunschweig-Lüneburg who played cornet à piston at the Imperial Theaters of St. Petersburg and served as music teacher to the future Tsar Alexander III, reorganized the bands of all Russian line infantry regiments. These new organizations, with compliments of 28 men each, were known in the army as “Wurm’s Brass Bands.” From 1869 to 1889, Wurm held the post of Chief Bandmaster and Inspector of the Bands of the Imperial Guard. He continued to teach at the St. Petersburg Conservatory until his death in 1904.


Bandsmen of an Infantry Regiment, Poland, 1890's.

Already by mid-century, Imperial Saint Petersburg was a city with a distinctly military atmosphere, embellished as it was during the reign of Alexander I with the construction of imposing parade grounds and vast squares framed by majestic palaces. Its garrison of over sixty thousand men (which constituted approximately one tenth of the city’s population) was made up of nine regiments of guard infantry and seven regiments of guard cavalry. The uniforms of uhlans, hussars, Cossacks and guards infantry of all ranks were omnipresent on the streets of the capital, and the daily parades and concerts by the bands of their respective regiments were a routine aspect of life in the glittering city on the Neva.

The reign of Emperor Alexander II (who ruled from 1855 until to 1881) was a period of successful Russian expansion in the Caucasus and Central Asia, but the empire's most significant victories were won in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. That conflict witnessed the advance of Russian armies to the walls of Constantinople, the ancient Byzantium that Russians knew as Tsargrad, and the winning of independence for Bulgaria in a hard fought but successful campaign.

With the outbreak of the Serbo-Turkish War in 1876, pan-Slavic sentiment was inflamed in Russia as the ill-equipped Serbs battled their stronger and better equipped Ottoman foes. By the end of September 1876, approximately 1,850 Russian volunteers (644 of whom were officers) were serving in the Serbian army, and by 1877 the Russian Slavic committees had sent a total of 5000 volunteers to Serbia. Their efforts were helped by such artists as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who composed his famous Marche Slave, Op. 31 (originally titled Serbo-Russian March) to spur the recruitment of Russian volunteers for the Serb cause. Fyodor Hermann (a russified German who was active in music circles in St. Petersburg and Moscow) composed his March of the Russian Volunteers for the same purpose, and after the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War in 1877, he wrote his Zabalkanskii March, Tottleben March and Russian Soldiers’ March, all of which he published in arrangements for piano.

Alexander II, who emancipated the Russian serfs in 1861, was assassinated by terrorists of the Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will") group in 1881, just as he was preparing to establish a constitution and parliament for the empire. He is revered in Bulgaria to this day as the "Tsar-Liberator of Russians and Bulgarians," and an equestrian statue of him was erected in Sofia in 1907 with a cenotaph in Old-Bulgarian script that reads "To the Tsar-Liberator, from Grateful Bulgaria."

Emperor Alexander III (who reigned from 1881 to 1894) was the son of the murdered Tsar; he ruthlessly crushed the forces of revolution at home, but kept Russia out of war abroad. Called the "Peacekeeper Tsar," he was also an enthusiastic student- and patron of music, particularly brass instruments. While still Tsarevich he had founded an amateur brass ensemble in which he played several wind instruments with a high degree of competence. These included the cornet, horn and tuba, upon each of which he is said to have personally performed the national anthem, God Save the Tsar. Alexander's amateur group became the “Court Band of Musicians” in 1882, albeit without the benefit of the Tsar's continued presence, for as reigning monarch he could no longer participate in its public performances. He still took an active interest in the group however, and as a convinced musical nationalist he decreed that only Russians could be members of "his" band, though russified Germans were accepted and eventually achieved prominence within its ranks.

From 1888, the Court Band was led by Hugo Ivanovich Varlikh (*1856-†1922), a native of Kassel who came from the opera company at Mannheim. He settled in Russia at the end of the 1870s, and from 1881 he conducted various orchestras in St. Petersburg. In 1897, the band was renamed the “Imperial Court Orchestra,” and from 1898 its members were required to wear a uniform and perform at all court festivities. Starting in 1902, Varlikh instituted a schedule of regular public concerts in the capital and at Peterhof. While leading the Court Orchestra, he arranged Russian folk songs and music from Tchaikovskii’s ballets Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty for brass, and also conducted premier performances of works by Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and other Russian composers. The Imperial Court Orchestra was renamed the Petrograd Philharmonic following the February 1917 Revolution, and Varlikh, though dismissed as its director, was later compelled to arrange music for propaganda pageants staged by the Bolsheviks. The Petrograd Philharmonic was renamed the Leningrad Philahrmonic Orchestra three days after the death of V.I. Lenin in 1924.


Staff Trumpeter of a Russian Line-Infantry Unit, 1900's.

Music in the Imperial Russian Navy dates from the reign of Peter I. In 1703, he ordered twenty-nine singers from the Moscow Royal Choir to be brought to the Admiralty in Saint Petersburg and trained in playing the oboe. When work on the Admiralty building commenced in 1704, the sounds of drums and oboes could be heard above the din of construction, and thus was born the custom of daily “Fore-Noon Concerts” concluding with a cannon shot -- fired precisely at twelve p.m. -- which were a fixture of old Saint Petersburg.

In 1711, this ensemble was officially renamed the “Chorus of the Admiralty Battalion,” which performed regularly in the new capital until it was disbanded in 1798 by an edict of the Emperor Paul. This was but a brief hiatus, for the establishment of a College of Naval Architecture was followed by the return of the “Chorus” as the musical ensemble of this institution. In the 1850’s, the College was relocated to the Fortress of Kronstadt on Kotlin Island that guarded the seaward approaches to Saint Petersburg, and all the band’s subsequent activity was indissolubly linked to that historic location.

In 1873, Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (*1844-†1908), the renowned operatic composer, charter member of the Balakirev Circle and former Navy officer (as a cadet in 1863, he had sailed to New York on the Russian clipper Almaz), was named Inspector of Naval Bands. He standardized the instrumentation and training of Russian naval musicians and was one of the initiators of the Russian practice of providing all naval- and army band masters with a conservatory education. He also personally directed the reorganization and training of the navy bands based at Kronstadt, Nikolayev and Sevastopol, Russia's chief naval bases in the Baltic- and Black Seas. From 1875, he conducted concerts at Kronstadt featuring the massed bands of the Kronstadt and Saint Petersburg naval garrisons, which were staged for the benefit of Russian war invalids. It was for these performances that he composed his well-known Variations for Oboe and Military Band and his Konzertstück for Clarinet and Military Band

Rimsky-Korsakov, who produced many other compositions and arrangements for winds that have unfortunately been lost, was relieved as Inspector of Naval Bands when the office itself was abolished in 1884. In 1993, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth, the Central Navy Band of Russia received the honorific title "N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov."

Russian Military Music in the Reign of Nicholas II

The Russian Army of 1913 consisted of 1.3 million men organized into 236 regiments of infantry (including 12 of the Imperial Guard, 16 Grenadier- and 208 Line regiments); 68 Regiments of Regular Cavalry (including twelve regiments of the Imperial Guard) and 2 Divisions of Ossete and Turcoman Horse; 70 Brigades of Field- and Rifle Artillery (including 3 of the Imperial Guard) and 16 rifle artillery divisions, plus fortress and support troops. The empire was divided into twelve military districts and one separate military province in the Don Cossack territories. All Cossacks enjoyed a special autonomous status within the empire and their thirteen voyskas or “hosts” -- the Don-, Terek-, Kuban-, Astrakhan-, Orenburg-, Ural-, Siberian-, Semyirechian-, Trans-Baikal-, Irkutsk-, Krasnoyarsk-, Amur- and Ussuri Voyskas - fielded 116 squadrons of cavalry in peacetime, which could be rapidly increased to up to 360 squadrons in wartime.

According to the army table of organization of 1913, each line infantry regiment fielded its own band consisting of 1 bugler (Hornist), 33 drummers (Barabanshchiki) and 35 bandsmen (Muzikanti), with the bugler and one drummer being permanently attached to regimental headquarters. Infantry regiments of the Imperial Guard with their special status and privileges had for centuries fielded much larger musical establishments of varying complements, depending upon their individual requirements. Russian Cavalry regiments (including Cossack units) fielded trumpet corps consisting of 19 trumpeters (Trubachi) each. All regimental buglers, trumpeters and bandsmen of line units were armed with sword bayonets and revolvers. It is notable that the complement of the Russian line infantry regiment band of 1913 was a rough equivalent to that of its Prussian counterpart of 1902.


Don Cossack Trumpet Corps of the Life-Guard Cossack 'His Majesty's' Regiment.

Each regiment of the army had its own set of songs, signals and parade marches, many of which were shared with other European armies. Regiments also possessed choirs, usually led by tenors who struck up the first couplets, with other members providing the refrain. Cossack cavalry units were especially renowned for their excellent vocalists and harmonies.

Regimental bandmasters were classified as civilian officials (Chinovniki dlya obucheniya muzikantov), but were required to pass a test that was comparable to the entrance examinations for military academies. Professional musicians and conductors of the highest caliber – often from the Imperial Theaters – were regularly tapped to staff and direct the bands of the Imperial Guard and other elite units, particularly those stationed in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Some of the talented civilians who had been so recruited included the conductor of the Garde Équipage band Voitsekh Ivanovich Glavach (*1849-†1911), who came from the Imperial Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg and was a regular conductor at the concerts held at the Pavlovsk Station; August Karlovich Markvardt (*1882-†1915), who came to the 1st Sumskii Hussar Regiment in Moscow from the Bolshoi Theater Wind Band; and Vasily Georgievich [Willy] Brandt (*1869-†1923), a native of Coburg who was professor of trumpet at the Moscow Conservatory and held the post of conductor of the Alexander Military Institute Band at Moscow from 1908 to 1911.

Bandsmen were expected to perform at reviews conducted at fixed points of the military calendar, and in a country as deeply religious as Russia, military displays often centered around sacred festivals. Large winter parades were held every year in Saint Petersburg’s Palace Square to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), and other major military reviews took place on Easter Sunday, when the Emperor presented Easter greetings to his assembled troops and proclaimed Khristos Voskres! (Christ is risen!") to the massed regiments. Generally, the Tsar would open parades by reviewing his troops on horseback as bands played God Save the Tsar, shouting Zdorovo rebyata! (“Greetings, Children!”) to his men as he paused before each regiment, and immediately receiving the reply Zdravye zhelayem, Vashe Imperatorskoye Velichestvo! (“Good Health, Your Imperial Majesty!”) from thousands of throats.

Attendance at morning- and evening prayers, for which regimental- and/or ships’ choirs solemnly intoned the Orthodox liturgy, was compulsory for all ranks. The soldiers of the Tsar traditionally paid homage every year to two military saints - Saint George, patron saint of the army, whose feast was celebrated on 9 December, and Saint Andrew, patron saint of the navy (his cross was emblazoned on the Imperial Navy's ensign), whose feast took place on 13 December. For units stationed in the capital, church parade and military concerts at the Winter Palace were customary on these occasions, which were attended by the Tsar and the Chaplain-General of the Army and Fleet. The last incumbent of this office (from 1911 to 1917) was the "fighting priest" Father Georgy Ivanovich Shavelsky (*1871-†1951), who served in the front lines of the Russo-Japanese War and was wounded at the Battle of Liaoyang.

In 1901, Tsar Nicholas II revived the tradition of the "Spring Parade," which took place on May Day at the Field of Mars near the center of the capital, and every summer the Imperial Guard held large-scale maneuvers and a bivouac at Krasnoye Selo just south of the city. These always culminated in a spectacular military review with massed bands that took place in the splendid weather that Russians called “the Tsar’s sunshine.”

Major military reviews were also held to mark historically significant anniversaries that coincided with the twilight years of the empire. In 1909, crowds converged upon the Poltava battlefield for the bicentenary of the engagement that led to Russia's victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. The ceremonies began with religious processions that took place on June 25; the next day, in the company of descendants of the generals who had served there under Peter I, the Tsar personally reviewed a gigantic march past of the regiments that had fought in the battle. Before them marched priests bearing the sacred icon that the Russian army had carried on the field two centuries earlier. 

The one-hundredth anniversary of the triumph over Napoleon was another state occasion that was observed with pomp and circumstance, and in September 1912 the Tsar and his family journeyed to Moscow to celebrate the Russian victory. The  commemoration included a solemn mass held on the battlefield of Borodino and a parade led by the Palace Grenadier Company, which was attired in the bearskin caps of Napoleon’s Old Guard. The review was followed by a reenactment of the battle in which forty thousand Russians had been killed or wounded.


A  shellac disc featuring a performance of the 'Kolonny March' by the Band of the Alexander Military Institute, Moscow. The Russian Gramophone Society, 1911.

In 1914, Russia was home to thirty-one cadet schools, each of which possessed its own military band or chorus. These institutions functioned under the tutelage of an Inspector General, the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (1858-1915), a cousin of the Tsar who was a military man, a connoisseur of the arts and a poet known in the literary world under the nom de plume “K.R.” The band of the most famous of these schools, the Alexander Military Institute in Moscow, recorded a sizable body of material for the Russian Gramophone Society that is remarkable for the virtuosity displayed by its musicians and conductors, the foremost among these being the previously mentioned “Willy” Brandt. Russian military cadets were known jocularly as “The Beasts of Hell” and traditionally sang a humorous song that bore that title.

The premier formation of the Russian Navy during the final years of the Empire was the “Garde Équipage,” a unit for which the Tsar and Tsaritsa held particularly strong affection. The Gvardeisky Ekipazh or “Marine of the Guard” was the naval component of the Russian Imperial Guard, which was formed in 1867 when all Russian naval commands were reorganized into Rotas (companies), which in turn were combined into "Équipages" of approximately two thousand men each. The Garde Équipage provided officers and crews for the Imperial yachts Polar Star and Standart, a job which brought its personnel into regular and close personal contact with Emperor Nicholas, Empress Alexandra and their children.


Parade of the Garde Équipage before the Empress Alexandra and the Tsarevich Alexey, circa 1909.   Catherine Palace, Tsarskoye Selo.


It was customary for the Garde Équipage’s sixty-five-piece band to accompany the Tsar’s family on their yearly summer voyages, both to provide music for casual entertainments and to render military honors on state visits. The band’s conductor, the aforementioned Voitsekh Ivanovich Glavach (*1849-†1911) from the Imperial Mariinskii Theater in Saint Petersburg, was a Bohemian of Czech origin whose surname had been russified from Hlavach. His Coronation March-Hymn, composed for the May 1896 coronation of Nicholas II, is still extant, as are his choral works Hymn to Saints Cyril and Methodius (1885) and Hymn to Saint Vladimir (1888). Other Russian Naval units of the period, especially capital ships, possessed their own bands; one of the most famous of these from the "regular" navy was the light cruiser Varyag ("Viking"), which achieved fame in the Russo-Japanese War when it gave hopeless battle to a Japanese naval squadron in 1904 rather than surrender, entering the fray in full parade dress with guns blazing and its band playing God Save the Tsar and Glory, Glory to our Russian Tsar.

The Russo-Japanese War gave rise to several important compositions that remain immensely popular in Russian military band programs to this day. These include the waltzes Waves of the Amur by Maxim Avelevich Kyuss and On the Hills of Manchuria by Ilya Shatrov; also dating from this period is the march Longing for the Motherland (Toska po Rodine), published in 1905 under the name of the mysterious and elusive F. E. Kroup.

The circumstances surrounding the composition of On the Hills of Manchuria are of particular interest: This famous waltz, an important component of the canon of Russian patriotic song, was originally titled “The Mokshanskii Regiment on the Hills of Manchuria.” It was published in 1906 by Ilya Alexeyevich Shatrov (*1879-†1952), the bandmaster of that unit, in memory of his fallen comrades.

Shatrov was Kapellmeister of the 214th Mokshanskii Infantry Regiment when it was encircled by Japanese forces for eleven days during the 1905 Battle of Mukden, the largest land battle since Leipzig in 1813. With no hope of relief and its ammunition totally exhausted, the regiment launched a desperate bayonet charge through the Japanese lines and successfully rejoined the main body of the Russian forces, but at a terrible cost; over a two week period, it had lost thirty-three hundred men out of its normal complement of four thousand, one of whom was its regimental commander. Only seven members of the band (which had led the breakout with music playing and flags flying) survived, and in recognition of their valor they were each awarded the Cross of Saint George by the Tsar. Shatrov, who composed On the Hills of Manchuria while lying wounded in an army field hospital, was the most highly decorated of all the band's survivors. As a final distinction, the musicians of the Mokshanskii Regiment received from the Tsar a set of Silver Trumpets of Saint George - among the very last in Russian military history to be awarded.

A few years after Russia's disastrous war in the Far East, Vasily Ivanovich Agapkin (*1884-†1964) composed his signature march Farewell of Slavyanka, which is well-known even at military band concerts outside Russia. The son of a laborer, Agapkin was orphaned at the age of seven, and through fortuitous circumstances he was adopted by the Kapellmeister of a Russian regiment after the bandmaster had discovered the boy begging on the streets of a provincial town. Receiving a musical education courtesy of his adoptive family, Agapkin was so talented that he was eventually hailed as the finest cornet player in his step-father's regiment. 

In 1909 Agapkin moved to Tambov, where he became the staff trumpeter (Shtabs-Trubach) of a reserve cavalry regiment. While there, he wrote his most famous work, Farewell of Slavyanka, for the Balkan War of 1912 that was fought by Russia's ally Serbia; thanks to its evocation of both the sadness of parting and martial determination, the march was quickly taken to heart by the Russian people in the First- and above all the Second World Wars. It was used as the unofficial anthem of Admiral Alexander Kolchak's White Army in Siberia, but was also part of the standard parade repertoire of the Red Army. In today's Russia, the march is still played at military parades, and it is also used as the anthem of the Tambov Oblast where its composer had served as a soldier.


Tsar Nicholas II as Colonel-in-Chief of the Nizhni-Novgorod Dragoons.

By 1914, military bands were an established facet of everyday Russian life. They participated in army training and parades in garrison cities and towns, performed on state occasions, and provided music for military ceremonies. They even performed on the battlefield, for as late as the Russian Civil War it was not unusual for troops to go into battle with music playing. New traditions were established after the 1917 revolution, even as many of the older forms of Russian military music and ceremony - kept alive in exile, but presumed dead in Russia herself - reemerged piecemeal throughout three-quarters of a century of Soviet rule. Stalin revived the imperial cadet school tradition with the establishment of the first of the Soviet Army's Suvorov Military Schools in  the 1940's, symbolically housed in the Vorontsov Palace in Leningrad, former headquarters of the Imperial Corps of Pages; and already by the 1970's, Soviet army- and navy bandsmen were recording textbook performances of the marches of the most aristocratic regiments of the Tsar's Imperial Guard. 

Today, the Presidential Guard of the Russian Federation parades in uniforms of "Tsar's Green," with shakos emblazoned with the double-headed eagle of old Muscovy and the Romanovs. As of 2013, the Life-Guard Preobrazhensky Regiment has been reestablished as the "154th Preobrazhensky Independent Commandant's Regiment" with its garrison in Moscow.  

The power of tradition is such that further developments along these lines can be expected. 


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