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St Petersburg’s pivotal premieres

14 December 2020
Natasha and Andrei dance together, as do four other couples, under the moon.

St Petersburg is rightfully considered to be the cultural capital of Russia. Many world-renowned musicians, painters, singers, writers and actors lived and worked in the city in the 18th-20th centuries. Piter (as she’s known by locals) still seduces all who gaze upon her grand facades, glittering spires and gilded domes and continues to draw performers of international distinction. St Petersburg has inspired many composers and has hosted far too many premieres to list, so here are three of our favourites.

WNO’s Autumn 2018 Season opened with Prokofiev’s epic War and Peace, which was first performed on 12 June 1946 at St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. The opera is not only a response to Tolstoy’s classic, but events closer to home - the Second World War or the ‘Great Patriotic War’ as the Russians call it. The 1941 invasion sparked a treasure trove of artistic responses including Weinberg’s The Passenger and Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.

With the emigration of such celebrated Russian composers as Igor Stravinksy, Prokofiev and Nikolai Medtner, the rising star of Soviet music was without question Shostakovich. Dimitri Shostakovich was born on 25 September 1906 in St Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian Empire. The city underwent momentous change during his youth, as was reflected in the alteration of its name twice within a decade. Shostakovich went to school in St Petersburg, was a Conservatoire student in Petrograd and lived in Leningrad until the start of the Second World War.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 in E minor was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under Yevgeny Mravinsky on 17 December 1953, following the death of Joseph Stalin in March of that year. Many of Europe’s best performers came to the city to work with the renowned orchestra in its beautiful hall. The St Petersburg Philharmonia is more than two hundred years old. Its history goes back to 1802 when the St Petersburg Philharmonic Society, the first one in Europe, was founded.

The Mariinsky Theatre has played a crucial role in Russian ballet and opera since it was built in 1859 and remains one of Russia’s most loved and respected cultural institutions. Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre on 18 December 1892 in a double bill with his one-act opera, Iolanta. Tchaikovsky began writing the ballet in February 1891, continuing his efforts while on an American tour later that year. His journey home took him through Paris, where he discovered a new instrument - the celesta. The composer instantly recognised the ‘voice’ of his Sugar Plum Fairy and wrote to his publisher, asking that the instrument be acquired for the performance.

The Nutcracker has become the most frequently performed ballet in the world. Not only has it served as an introduction to classical music for many young people, but the ballet is also as quintessentially Christmassy as mince pies, fir trees and carols. Lose yourself in this enchanting world full of toys, snowflakes and sweets, set to Tchaikovsky’s ‘abundant and perfect’ score, as leading ballet critic Alastair Macaulay called it. WNO wishes you a magical Christmas!