Russian art songs or Romances  originated in the parlors and music rooms of Russian nobility mansions in the 19th century and have ever since been extremely popular among Russians of all walks of life.

The essence of this music was perhaps best epitomized in the verse of the contemporary Russian poet Alexander Pleshcheev:

“O wonderful sounds, O beautiful sounds
Endowed with the power to restore
The joys of a tryst and the tears of departure,
The bliss and the anguish of yore”

This lyrical and romantic genre”, he continued, “was the most comprehensive reflection of trends in Russian spiritual life of the time.”

The composers of early romances borrowed from many sources and incorporated elements of traditional Russian music into their art such as lullabies and khorovody, song dances, to name a few.

Military marches and soldiers’ songs provided another fountainhead of inspiration. Napoleon’s invasion was just over, the nation was swept with patriotic fervor and Russians began to tap their national heritage more vigorously. Also, with the appearance of romances, traditional folk songs were fused for the first time with Italian bel canto that had been already well known and admired in Russia.

Nikolai Slonimsky wrote: “The beginning is rightly credited to Mikhail Glinka. He is to Russian music what poet and writer Alexander Pushkin is to Russian literature. Just as Pushkin shaped the Russian language and folklore into literary form by the compelling force of his genius, so Glinka integrated the rhythmic and melodic characteristics of Russian primitive music into national art forms.”

In the 1850s and 1860s, as romances gradually evolved from the pastime of the rich and famous into the acknowledged musical genre, Russian society was in the midst of fierce ideological debates between the so-called Slavophiles and Westernizers. The reverberations of these debates can be felt even in modern day Russia. Musical figures of the day joined the fray and actively participated in the ensuing polemic. Two future trends in Russian romances stem from this ideological divide. Slavophiles championed the idea of Russian greatness and self-sufficiency. For them, the Russian national element reigned supreme and was the dominant driving force in every creative field, including music.

Their opponents argued that Russia should be open to all influences, in the tradition of Tsar Peter the Great, and that, consequently, art should not be bound by narrow nationalistic concepts.

The debate unfolded at the time when conditions for music making were not exactly propitious. There was not a single advanced musical school in Russia of the period, and many gifted musicians had to go to study abroad, as Glinka did. Others had to be content studying with tutors or tried to educate themselves, as was the case of the extremely talented and prolific composer of romances Alexander Dargomyzhsky.

It was only in 1862 that the first Russian conservatory of music was founded in St Petersburg by Anton Rubinstein, to be followed next year by one in Moscow, led by his brother Nikolai Rubinstein. Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky enrolled in St Petersburg the first year the conservatory opened.

Also in 1862, five Russian composers – Miliy Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov formed a group of “The Mighty Five”. These self-trained ardent enthusiasts of Russian folk music created a vast number of romances imitating folk melodies, rhythms and harmonies. Each of them left a rich legacy of pieces marked by his own individual taste and vision.

Alexander Dargomyzhsky had already made a name for himself in Russian music by the time “The Mighty Five” arrived on the scene. He was especially concerned with the texts for his romances and they turned out to be virtual “tableaux vivants”. Dargomyzhsky is credited with greatly contributing to the genre of “psychological” romance, patriotic and urban song. His musical satires are considered to be his best.