What is the most preposterously Russian music there is?
Here's a hint: if it doesn't sound like it involves someone being placed in some sort of prisoner restraints, it may not be Russian enough.
As a citizen of the United States, it’s possible that I am legally obliged to state up front that what you are about to read was in no way influenced, directly or indirectly, by Vladimir Putin, any members of the KGB, or sustained social media pressure from bot farms located on the outskirts of Moscow.
Russians are a strange lot. They have a bluntness that makes New Yorkers seem considerate (combine the two and that may explain why I am scared to go to Brighton Beach). They are profoundly cynical in a way that we here in America are only now beginning to experience ourselves. They love, to the point of mania, vodka and cigarettes.
They are also responsible for some of the most astonishing achievements in music, art, and literature in the history of man, particularly in the last two centuries. If you stack up the best artists and organize a tournament between nations to determine who reigned supreme in a given field, there’s a better than good chance Russia wins the literature championship and puts a major scare in France during their quarterfinal matchup in the painting bracket.
Russia’s tradition of classical music really begins in earnest with Mikhail Glinka, composer of two notable operas in the 1830’s and early 1840’s, A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila. Glinka’s influence on Russian music really cannot be overstated; pretty much every significant composer who came after him acknowledged their debt to him. Tchaikovsky’s earliest works are from the late 1860’s, but his good works don’t really appear until the middle of the 1870’s. Along with Tchaikovsky, The Five or The Russian Five or The Mighty Five or The Mighty Handful - by the way, an excellent nickname for your junk if you’re embarrassingly immature like myself - really carry the banner for Russian music in the last 30-odd years of the 19th century. Like their once and future enemies in America, Russian music then really came into its own and the Cerberus of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev are probably enough on their own to make Russia the center of the classical music world in the 20th century.
Determining what sounds the “most” Russian is a fun and interesting exercise. We can start by eliminating Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky entirely, as both men were entirely too cosmopolitan to have composed the answer (with apologies to The Firebird, I suppose). There are certainly arguments to be made for any number of works by Shostakovich, but they are so inextricably intertwined with the political and social conditions of his age that it becomes difficult to parse what is “Russian” versus what is deeply human and universal. Rimsky-Korsakov certainly wrote several things that could fit the bill, but his music is also supremely polished and lacks that festishistic peasant vibe that really stands out in Russia’s artistic legacy.
For me, then, there are two possible composers to consider: Borodin and Mussorgsky. Both were members of The Five seeking to cultivate a Russian nationalist school of composition. Both are in that sweet spot of being creatively gifted without being technically refined enough to lose the rough peasant edge. Both wrote a great opera that needed to be revised and finished on their behalf, and it is from these operas that the answer lies (though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the first movement of Borodin’s Symphony no. 2 in all its frowny-faced energy as another contender).
Aleksandr Borodin: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor
Modest Mussorgsky: Golitsin's Exile from Khovanschina
There is something to me about a man being exiled, pillory around his neck, that seems like the most Russian thing I could imagine. That melody, beautiful, haunting, utterly forlorn, gliding over a restlessly churning bass line absolutely dripping with tension, is as brutal as a Siberian winter. In the end, I think this clip from The IT Crowd (an incredibly funny show if you haven’t seen it) probably seals the deal for Mussorgsky: Smoker's Journey