Russian Classical Music You Didn't Know You Knew

You'd be surprised how much Russian music you already know by heart. Do these sound familiar?

The Garland Waltz

Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky


In Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same title comes in handy. The song “Once Upon a Dream” is based on a waltz danced by the guests celebrating Princess Aurora's birthday, and the Disney Princess also retains the name of her ballet predecessor.



Although the waltz marks Aurora falling in love rather than coming of age, there are actually quite a few similarities between the ballet and its feature film counterpart. Their creators, Walt Disney and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, both wanted their productions to appeal to a wide audience and to be viewed as works of art, judged by the criteria of a masterpiece. But whereas Disney had the broad palette of a full-length feature film on which to work, Tchaikovsky set himself up within tight compositional boundaries. He rigorously followed the model of a Louis XIV court ballet; in fact, Marius Petipa, his choreographer-to-be, dictated not just the sequence of dances, but also the number of bars in each. Tchaikovsky enjoyed working within such narrow constraints. In any event, both versions also celebrate a female-centric storyline. The star of Tchaikovsky’s ballet is the princess – her dance underscored by the supporting cast. This approach, too, was akin to that of mid-twentieth century Disney heroines.

Polovtsian Dances

Prince Igor, Borodin

The Polovtsian Dances are the highlight of Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. The funny thing is, Borodin meant for these dances to be exotic Oriental tunes, yet the dances have since come to epitomize Russian music for many listeners. In the opera, the dances are preceded by a sad song, in which female slaves sing about homesickness and their longing to follow the wind on its way home.


Interestingly, this song reappeared in a 1997 song by the American rapper Warren G, called “Prince Igor.” This song, in turn, uses the same lyrics as another of the artist’s track, "Reality," released half a year earlier. In both songs, the subtle melody (performed by the Norwegian crossover soprano Sissel Kyrkjebø, instead of a chorus) is contrasted with Warren G rapping about whether money or power should and could prevail.




In “Stranger in Paradise,” a duo from the 1953 musical Kismet: A Musical Arabian Night (later a major MGM movie), original music was intertwined with adaptations of Borodin's famous piece. This was actually a trademark approach of the skillful songwriters Robert 'Bob' Wright and George ‘Chet’ Forrest.



Borodin was not an obvious choice for such a mashup, as he was certainly not a household name. But for that very reason, his music may have also been more adaptable than that of his better-known colleagues. By turning Borodin’s sad chorus into a haunting love song, Wright and Forrest did justice to the beauty of the music. And by making it a Baghdad love song, they captured the exotic tincture Borodin had actually originally strived for.

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