A glorious note On the 160th anniversary of the Rimsky-Korsakov Saint Petersburg State Conservatory

Not all students of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory become famous, but there are surprisingly many stars among its graduates. Probably, this is due to the fact that the oldest music university in Russia has set the highest education standard since its inception and has invariably met it throughout 160 years of its history.

First chords

The Saint Petersburg Conservatory opened on September 20, 1862. At that time, it did not bear the name of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and did not occupy the famous building on the Theater Square. What is more, there were only 179 students. However, from the very beginning, the man who had initiated the establishment of this higher educational institution for musicians and its first director, Anton Rubinstein, managed to attract the best teachers. Soon, the conservatory formed its musical and pedagogical schools: composition by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, pianism by Theodor Leschetizky and Anna Yesipova, violin by Leopold Auer, cello by Karl Davydov and Aleksandr Verzhbilovich, and vocal by Henriette Nissen-Saloman and Camille Everardi. In total, about 200 students attended the class of composer Rimsky-Korsakov from 1871 to 1908, and several generations of musicians studied with his “Practical Manu­al of Harmony”. All young pianists dreamed of getting into Yesipova’s class as she was not only a world star, but also a wonderful teacher. Yesipova invented a unique teaching method: when a student was playing the piano to train their fingers, she put a silver coin on the back of their hand, and if the coin did not fall during the practice, Yesipova gave it to the student.
In 1896, the conservatory moved to the building of the former Bolshoi Theater on Theater Square, which had been rebuilt for the music school. More considerable changes occurred in the 20th century: in 1918, the conservatory became a state institution, and in 1925, the department structure was introduced with a new musicology department teaching the history and theory of music. In 1934, the conservatory opened a music school, and in 1936, a secondary special music school, the famous “Ten Year School”. Since 1944, the conservatory has been carrying the name of Rimsky-Korsakov, and now it is one of the most famous educational institutions, which trains composers, musicians, vocalists, and theater directors.

The name of music

At present, the Saint Petersburg Conservatory educates over 1,000 students at 6 departments and 29 chairs. Naturally, not everyone is lucky enough to become world famous, but each student obtains high-quality practical training and a deep knowledge of music theory. The Saint Petersburg Conservatory is the only music educational institution in Russia that has its own theater. Therefore, students can get the necessary performance experience during their studies. The quality of education is also ensured by long-term cooperation with the orchestras of the Mariinsky Theater, the Mikhailovsky Theater, and the Philharmonic Society of Saint Petersburg.
However, it is hard to explain the huge number of geniuses who have studied at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. For instance, Pyotr Tchaikovsky was among the students of the very first enrollment. Curiously, at that time, Tchaikovsky worked in the Ministry of Justice and studied music privately. His tutor believed that Tchaikovsky had no musical talent, and it was too late to start a career in music at age of 21. However, the composer graduated from the conservatory with a large silver medal — the highest award in those years. In 1904, Sergei Prokofiev, the creator of his own innovative music style, entered the conservatory. In 1919, Dmitri Shostakovich became its student. Later, Shostakovich taught the class of composition there, and his teaching coincided with the difficult years of the Great Patriotic War and the Siege of Leningrad. The composer served in a voluntary fire brigade: he extinguished incendiary bombs on the conservatory roof. During those shifts, Shostakovich wrote his famous Leningrad symphony. It became internationally renowned, and American magazine Time put a photo of Shostakovich on its cover: the composer was portrayed wearing a fire helmet, and the caption read: “Firefighter Shostakovich: among bomb explosions in Leningrad, I heard the chords of victory”.
The famous violin school of Leopold Auer gave the world such amazing performers as Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, and Efrem Zimbalist. Later, these virtuoso violinists become excellent teachers, passing on the experience of their conservatory teacher to young people around the globe.
The conservatory has produced many well-known conductors. In many ways, this is the merit of wonderful teacher Ilya Musin, who turned conducting into a science with clear rules and laws. Among Musin’s famous students, there are Artistic Director and General Director of the Mariinsky Theatre, UNESCO Artist for Peace Valery Gergiev, Chief Conductor of the Bolshoi Theater in 2010–2013 Vassily Sinaisky, and the Conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Yuri Temirkanov.
The Department of Vocal Studies and Stage Directing was glorified by opera stars Elena Obraztsova and Vladimir Atlantov. Elena Obraztsova became a soloist with the Bolshoi Theater the year she graduated from the conservatory. During her long career, she sang hundreds of parts, but the most amazing fact is that in 1975, this Russian singer was named the best performer of Carmen in Spain. Vladimir Atlantov is considered one of the world’s leading tenors along with Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras. Actually, throughout his life, Atlantov has been grateful to his conservatory teacher, opera director Aleksey Kireev: “He was a great teacher, he taught me how to be natural and tireless in expressing feelings, he taught me lessons of real stage culture.”
Talking about the pianists who graduated from the conservatory, we should mention Grigory Sokolov. Actually, he entered the conservatory as an almost accomplished musician: a ninth-grade student Grisha Sokolov sensationally won the third International Tchaikovsky Competition. However, studying in the class of Professor Moisey Khalfin enabled him to polish his performing technique and character. Today, critics compare Sokolov with Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Horowitz and admire his talent to combine European orderliness with Slavic emotionality.
Walking along the corridors of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory today, one can see numerous announcements on the walls: congratulations to a winner of an international competition or celebration of the success of the student theater. This means that the conservatory still attracts young talents and turns them into world stars.
Tatiana Borisova