Music of North Asia

In our fourth article following our armchair travels, we conclude our view of Asia with a closer look at North Asia. We will focus our attention on Russia, the lands of the Gobi Desert, the Ural Mountains, and the vast tundra of Siberia. There are over 300 different ethnic groups found in Russia and each one of these ethnic groups has its own indigenous sacred and folk music.

In this article, we will examine the ethnic roots of the music of the past and observe the music of the present. We will then focus in particular on 3 pianists who were born in Russia and who are raising the profile of North Asian musicians across the world.

Music of North Asia Past

Russian folk music dates back as far as the 1st millennium in the form of songs. There were no musical instruments at this time. Slavic tribes, known for their love of music settled in Russia and their songs told the history of the tribe, described the landscape, and the characters of their folk heroes. Ritual songs included incantations for weather, crops, weddings and funerals.

In the 11th century, musical instruments began to be incorporated into folk music, with the most popular being stringed instruments such as the gusli or gudok (woodzither). Archaeologists have uncovered examples of these instruments in the Novgorod region.

In the Muscovy period (late Middle Ages and the precursor of the Tsars), two major genres of music began to diverge: folk music which was used for entertainment and the sacred music of the Orthodox Church. Sacred music drew from the tradition from the Byzantine Empire and was characterised by bell ringing and choral singing. Musical instruments were forbidden in the Orthodox church.

Beginning in the reign of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible 1547 - 1584), the Imperial Court began to witness a transformation of the country from a medieval state into an empire headed by a Tsar. Western composers and musicians were invited to perform and their music was celebrated. Then in 1648, Tsar Alexis I banned all musical instruments as he believed they were from the devil!


During the time of Peter I (Peter the Great 1672 - 1725), musicians were once again celebrated at court. Peter believed that European music was a mark of civilisation and his establishment of the Western-style city of St Petersburg helped foster the spread of music to the upper classes.

During the reigns of Empresses Elisabeth Petrovna and Catherine II (Catherine the Great 1729 - 1796), a craze for Italian opera at Court developed and became so pervasive that many aristocrats were not even aware that Russian composers even existed.

The first Russian composer to combine traditional folk music with secular European music was Mikhail Glinka. He composed operas which were sung in Russian and used distinctly Russian tunes. It was only in the 18th century that the first collection of written Russian folk songs was published.

Catherine the Great

In the 19th century, Russian folk music became the primary source for certain Russian composers. A group that called itself "The Mighty Five", headed by Mily Balakirev chose ‘to compose and popularise Russian national traditions in classical music’. At the same time, Anton and Nikolay Rubinstein founded the Russian Musical Society (RMS). The Mighty Five were often regarded as the rival of the RMS as the Five focused on their Russian national identity whereas the RMS was musically more conservative and focused on the West.

The RMS founded Russia's first music conservatories in St Petersburg and Moscow.  The great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who is best known for ballets like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, graduated from the RMS Conservatory in St Petersburg in 1865. In 1884 he was honoured by Tsar Alexander III, awarded a lifetime pension and to this day he remains Russia's best-known composer outside Russia. Tchaikovsky’s most famous successor was Sergey Rachmaninoff, who studied at the Moscow Conservatory (where Tchaikovsky himself taught) and whose large hands could comfortably stretch a 13th on the piano.


Music of North Asia Present

In the late 19th to early 20th centuries, the genre of so-called "romance songs" became very popular but after the Russian Revolution (1917 - 1923) music changed significantly with electronic instruments such as the Theraminvox (1928) being all the rage.

In contrast, this period also featured Russian classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. These composers and pianists were experimental in their musical styles and this, in turn, influenced many other composers across Europe and the United States of America. Stravinsky is considered to be one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.

Russia’s first jazz concert took place in 1922 and surprisingly, jazz performances were permitted by all Soviet regimes. Jazz became one of Russia's most popular music genres during this time.  Rock music, on the other hand, was strictly controlled by the communist authorities, especially as Russia's youth was fascinated with this genre from the West

During the period of Soviet Russia, folk music was both celebrated and frowned upon. On the one hand, the government declared rousing songs to be a patriotic necessity, but on the other hand, folk music was seen as a tradition of the kulaks, who were now considered to be outlaws.

After the fall of communism, Gorbachev loosened artistic restrictions, and many musicians who had fled to the west returned to Russia. This is evidenced by the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who had left the Soviet Union in 1925 but was able to give a successful return performance in Moscow in 1986.


Since then, ethnic tribal folk music has also been allowed to flourish once again:

  • Shamanism remains an important cultural practice of the ethnic groups of Siberia and Sakhalin, where several dozen groups live. The Yakut tribe are the largest and are known for their olonkho songs and the khomus, a jaw harp.
  • Tuvan (Mongolian) throat singing, or xoomii, is famous worldwide. This novel way of singing is highly unusual and strange to most listeners, who typically find it hard to understand the amelodic melodies.
  • Karelians are Finnish by heritage, and so much of their music reflects Finnish music. An epic called The Kalevala is a very important part of their traditional musical identity.
  • The Buryats who live the far east use the two-stringed horsehead fiddle, or morin khuur. Their songs consist of long epics such as the final song of a famous hero, e.g. "Last Song of Rinchin Dorzhin".
  • Cossack music has its roots in the centuries-old oral tradition of folk epics called dumas and lyrical ballads, which celebrate the exploits of the Cossacks.

Pianists from North Asia

In contrast to the previous article on the music of South and Central Asia, we have an overwhelming smorgasbord of brilliant pianists from which to choose, e.g. Daniel Kramer, Ivan Farmakovsky, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz, child prodigy Elisey Mysin, Galina Ustvolskaya, Nikolai Girshevich Kapustin, Emil Gilels, Daniil Trifonov and Vadym Kholodenko.

In particular, we will focus on the outstanding Vladimir Ashkenazy,  Olga Kern and blind pianist Oleg Okkuratov.

Vladimir Ashkenazy

Vladimir Ashkenazy is considered to be one of the finest pianists in the classical world. Although he was born in Gorky, Russia, he now holds dual Icelandic and Swiss citizenships.

He was born to a Jewish father and a Russian Orthodox mother and began playing the piano at the age of 6. He attended the famous Moscow Conservatory (following in the footsteps of Rachmaninoff) and won many piano competitions. As a student during this time, he was often harassed by the KGB and pressured to become an informant. He did not cooperate.

He married an Icelandic woman but she was forced to give up her Icelandic citizenship in order be with him in Moscow. On a visit to London, Ashkenazy refused to return to the USSR and after much wrangling and negotiation, Ashkenazy was able to settle first in London (where his parents-in-law lived) and then in Iceland. He helped to form the Reykavik Arts Festival there and in 1972, he became an Icelandic citizen. Four years after this, the family moved to Switzerland, where they still live today.

Ashkenazy’s repertoire as both a pianist and a conductor is vast and extends over decades. He has worked with many of the biggest names of the 20th century and during public performances he was well known for wearing a white turtleneck and for running (not walking) on and off the stage. It was only on 17th January 2020 at the age of 82, that his management company announced his retirement from public performances.

Olga Kern

Olga Kern was born in Moscow in 1975 into a family of musicians with direct links to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. She started learning the piano at the age of 5 and won her 1st international competition in the Czech Republic at the age of 11. She studied at the Moscow Conservatory like her ancestor Rachmaninoff and Ashkenazy. She gained international acclaim when she became the first woman in over 30 years to win the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Gold Medal in the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Fort Worth Texas in June 2001. Kern has been the subject of 4 documentaries about the competition.

In 2011 Kern and her brother, conductor Vladimir Kern launched The Kern Foundation. The charity aims to support children who are gifted in music in developing their talents and to provide assistance to artists of all ages who have found themselves in difficult financial situations.

In 2016 she also launched the Olga Kern International Piano Competition for pianists between the ages of 18 to 32. She now lives in New York, regularly gives masterclasses around the world and sits as a judge for several piano competitions. Kern’s stage presence has been labelled as vivid, her musicianship as confident and her technique as extraordinary.

Oleg Akkuratov

Oleg Akkuratov was born in the Russian port and resort town of Yeysk in 1989. He was born blind and at the age of 4, he began to play the piano by ear after listening to a song on the radio. He was offered an audition at the Yeysk Music School and immediately awarded a place in the Year 1 class. In Year 3, he was moved to a specialist blind school where he was taught to read music scores in braille.

Akkuratov studied at from the Moscow State College of Music and then graduated from the Rostov State Conservatory. Unfortunately, he could not continue his musical studies at the Moscow Conservatory as the campus is ill-equipped to deal with blind people.

He continued to perform in concerts and won various jazz competitions. He accompanied opera singer Montserrat Caballé, performed with Evelyn Glennie and as a member of the World UNESCO Joint Choir, he took part in the world premiere of "Thousands of Cities", an international charity event played at the residence of the Pope in Rome.

In 2013 Akkuratov wowed audiences at the international festivals ‘Triumph of Jazz’ in Moscow and “AquaJazz” in Sochi. As a result, he was invited to join Igor Butman (the People's Artist of Russia) as a member of Butman’s Quintet and the Moscow Jazz Orchestra.

In the spring of 2014, Akkuratov was invited to play the ‘Hymn Of the Paralympics’ in Sochi at the Closing Ceremony of the Paralympic Games and in 2018 he was placed 2nd at the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. The judges examined vocal skill, musicality, artistry, individuality, artistic interpretation and level of performance. This competition is one of the most prestigious in the world and this was the first time that Russia was represented there.

And so in our armchair travels of North Asia, we have seen the constantly shifting patterns and the tug-of-war between the celebration of traditional North Asian music versus the influence and draw of the west. The number of notable pianists coming out of Russia is overwhelming, particularly in the classical genre. Finally, we have been reminded that even today, these pianists choose to celebrate their Russian culture whilst connecting with a global audience.