What musical instruments did Russian tsars play?

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Nicholas I inspired his grandson to learn the trumpet, while the last heir had a fondness for the balalaika. But what about the musical instruments of other Russian tsars?

As a young man, Ivan the Terrible used to feast and dance with skomorokhs invited to his court. Pipes, reeds, flutes, domras, fiddles and wheel fiddles (hurdy-gurdies) and guslis (a Slavic zither) were all instruments played by skomorokhs, musicians and performers whose shows harbored many Russian pagan traditions. But such a kind of pastime wasn’t really becoming for the tsar. In official receptions at the Russian tsar’s court, only solemn Russian Orthodox hymns were sung. And this was the only kind of music tsars themselves were “allowed” to indulge in by the Orthodox church.

The Russian Orthodox clergy and spiritual writers, who were against the old pagan traditions, called the songs of the skomorokhs “devilish” and “satanic”. Instead, Ivan switched to writing religious chants. He participated in church services, sang in the choir and could create both the texts of hymns and their musical chants. The same could be said about the first three Romanovs, from Mikhail Fedorovich to Fedor Alekseyevich. It was Peter the Great who first turned from religious singing to playing musical instruments.

Peter the Great – singing and… drums!

A drum with drumsticks. Russia. 2nd half of the XVIII century. Brass, wood, leather, cords, coinage.

Tsar Peter had military drums among his toys since his toddler years. He was, however, traditionally taught church singing. And, although later Peter restrained the privileges of the Russian Orthodox church in many ways and despised old Russian customs in general, he loved taking part in church services as a chanter, on multiple occasions mentioned by various contemporaries. He preferred to sing bass and had a “strong voice and good musical ear”, Count Henning von Bassewitz remembered. Sometimes, Peter even directed the choir, as during his niece Ekaterina Ioannovna’s wedding in Danzig in 1716, where “​​Peter… often moved from one place to another and himself pointed out to the singers in the Book of Psalms, what was to be sung”, according to baron Eichholz, a military advisor to Ekaterina Ioannovna’s husband Karl Leopold of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

The uniform of a drummer in Preobrazhensky regiment, 1700-1720

Peter could read and memorize music, which, of course, helped him learn drumming from an early age. Among the ranks of his Toy Army, Peter was listed first as a military drummer, partly in order to instill respect even for the lowest ranks in his military service. Partly because Peter just loved loud sounds and glamor that comes with military marching. With time, Peter also became proficient in drumming. He drummed at many festive occasions, weddings of his friends and military parades. Also, Peter was seen playing bagpipes and the oboe – so, the great tsar was quite the musician.

Elizabeth Petrovna – singing

Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, by Ivan Vishnyakov, 1743

Although it is not widely known, Elizabeth of Russia, Peter’s daughter, inherited his talent and love for singing. In 2018, Yulia Demidenko, a researcher from The Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, discovered the sheet music Empress Elizabeth most likely used during her singing. 

The 14 volumes of handwritten sheet music in silver binding are notations of 14 voices for a 16-voice choir concert composed by Gerasim Zavadovsky, regent of the Choir of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg. One of the volumes, containing a soprano part, is decorated with a watermark ‘The Wedding of Virgin Mary’ that symbolized a woman’s rule in Russia. The researcher suggests that this is the part that Elizabeth herself sang. In one of her letters, she calls herself “the first discant singer”.

Peter III – violin

Peter III by  Lucas Conrad Pfandzelt

Emperor Peter III, the ill-fated husband of Catherine the Great, ruled Russia for just six months and didn’t really influence Russian politics, but contemporaries remembered that he always found time for his violin practice. Catherine, who didn’t like music, was very annoyed by her husband’s love for the instrument. “He didn't know a single note, but he had an excellent ear and, for him, the beauty of music lay in strength and passion,” she wrote. Peter III had a collection of excellent, expensive violins and it seems music was one of his few real passions, unlike women or politics.

Paul I – harpsichord

A square piano made by Johannes Zumpe (1726-1783), owned by Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna since 1817.

Peter and Catherine’s son, Emperor Paul I, was already born in an epoch when playing an instrument was compulsory for a noble person and even more so for royalty. Paul and his wife Maria Fedorovna were taught music by ​​Giovanni Paisiello, the most popular opera composer of the late 1700s, whose style influenced Mozart and Rossini. Paisiello was invited to St. Petersburg by Catherine the Great in 1776 and served as a court composer until 1784. During this time, he taught the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess.

READ MORE: What kind of artists were the Romanov royal family?

Paul was proficient in playing harpsichord, while his spouse was a good piano player. They also loved contemporary music. In 1782 in Vienna, Paul and Maria Fedorovna, invited by Emperor ​​Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire, witnessed the great harpsichord duel between Wolfgang Mozart and Muzio Clementi, the most technically proficient musicians of the era.

Alexander I – violin

Violin, 1798, Johannes Theodorus Cuypers.

By the beginning of the 19th century, all members of the Russian royal family were taught music as a compulsory subject. Alexander I was taught clarinet and violin. His teacher, Anton Ferdinand Tietz, was a disciple of the famous composer Christoph Willibald Gluck. It is known that Alexander I played among his close circle of friends – unlike in times of Peter the Great, in the early 19th century, it was not considered becoming for an Emperor to play music publicly, as his status was perceived as too important for this.

Nicholas I – trumpets

A cornet made in 1833

In the same fashion as Alexander was taught violin, Paul’s son and the next Emperor, Nicholas I, was taught wind instruments. Nicholas, who was tall and had big lungs, had no problem playing flute, French horn and cornet, although he preferred to call all these instruments “trumpet”.

During the 1830s, historian Igor Zimin writes, the records for the Emperor’s private funds show a lot of expenses for the cleaning and repair of his musical instruments and buying new ones in Europe. Emperor sure played a lot, although, in the 1840s-1850s, when he got older, the amount of concerts reduced.

Alexander III – trumpets

The only photo of Grand Prince Alexander Alexandrovich (center) playing cornet with his brass band, 1872.

Not much is known about the musical tastes of Alexander II, Nicholas’s son, except that he and his wife Maria Alexandrovna, played piano. But their son, the future Alexander III, showed interest in music from an early age: in 1847, when Grand Duke Alexander was barely two years old, he asked one of his tutors to get him a trumpet! The tutor got two toy trumpets, one for Alexander and one for his younger brother Vladimir. The kids “didn’t leave their trumpets out of their hands and mouths from morning till night”, making everybody in the family nauseous.

When Alexander grew up, he didn’t abandon his love for trumpets. He was, at first, taught to play the piano, but without any effort in lessons, he abandoned it. However, when, at 15, Alexander started taking trumpet lessons, he didn’t miss a single one and often practiced by himself. Nicholas I’s grandson, Alexander apparently wanted to play trumpet like his famous grandfather did – and he probably even saw Nicholas play at home parties. Although bulky and coarse in appearance, Alexander was an avid music lover and player. He kept his instruments close at hand. In his palace in Gatchina, he kept a French horn in his study and two trumpets in his dressing room. Apparently, Alexander loved to play casually for himself. In 1872, he even founded a “Society for the lovers of wind music” and, for nine years straight (before becoming the Emperor in 1881), Alexander regularly practiced with his fellow musicians. The repertoire was far from amateur – Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, etc.

Empress Alexandra Fedorovna – piano

Empress Alexandra Fedorovna playing piano.

Unlike his father, Nicholas II wasn’t much of a music player. He learned to play piano, but didn’t do this very often. But his wife, Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, was an experienced piano player. After 1905, she hired teachers to practice piano and singing with her. Nicholas didn’t listen to his wife’s playing and singing, although he sometimes came to her rooms to hear Alexandra and her lady-in-waiting Anna Vyrubova play symphonies by Pyotr Chaikovsky, a composer that was very appreciated in the royal family.

A cello that belonged to Nicholas II.

Empress Alexandra, German by birth, also developed a passion for a native Russian instrument – the balalaika. She couldn’t learn to play it, because it would have looked ridiculous – the balalaika was considered to be a “rustic” instrument, unbecoming for a royal person. Even just to listen to balalaikas, the Empress had to do it on board the royal yacht.

Tsarevich Alexey, the last heir – balalaika

Tsarevich Aleksey (center) holding a balalaika.

Tsarevich Alexey, the heir, loved the balalaika most of all instruments – he started playing when he was just three. When Alexey was 12, he received a series of professional balalaika lessons. He also bought two balalaikas for his childhood friends, cadets Agayev and Makarov – Tsarevich paid for the instruments from his private sums, so that he could play together with his friends. Alexey took two balalaikas along with him to Tobolsk, when the tsar’s family was exiled after the Revolution. So, most probably, Igor Zimin suggests, during the last months of his life, living in harsh conditions, deprived of his style and titles, the heir continued playing his favorite instrument.

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