The Philharmonic Library

Alexander III

All photos used in this article are the property of Saint Petersburg Philharmonic

Text: Y.N. Kruzhnov

The Court Music Choir (since 1897 - the Court Orchestra) was created on July 1882 by the order of Emperor Alexander III as an orchestra for performing exclusively at the Imperial Court. At the suggestion of Prince Alexander Oldenburgsky, a committee was created from the highest ranks of the Kavalergardsky regiment, the Life Guards of the Horse and the Life Guards of the Preobrazhensky regiments, who had their own orchestras. The temporary position and staff of “The Court Music Choir”, that is, the brass band was approved on July 16, 1882. At that time "musicians" - unlike "artists" - were called participants of military brass bands (later these orchestras were called "music bands"); "Choir" means "collective", "group" (and to this day one can hear: a choir of singers, speak in chorus, a bird choir, etc.). The Musician Choir consisted of 53 musicians and "music students" that were transferred from the brass bands of the Kavalergardsky regiment and the Life Guards Horse regiment that had already been disbanded at the time. As a military unit the Court Music Choir was formed into a squadron. All musicians of the Court Music Choir were on active duty, serving military service in the orchestra. The emperor was presented with a list of musicians for approval on July 31, 1882. The head (chief) of the Choir was approved by Colonel Baron K. K. Stackelberg (by 1897 - Lieutenant-General), also known as - "chief in combat and economic relations"; MG Frank was the first appointed conductor, the second - GK Flige. Musicians’ dress uniform was copied from the uniform of the hunters of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, musicians performed in this attire at the palace and all solemn receptions. Apart from the parade uniform, a form of an everyday clothing and uniform was designed.


К. К. Штакельберг
М. Г. Франк

The musicians played on state-owned instruments. Wind instruments for Court Music Choir (additional and spare ones) were ordered from the master V. Magiyona in Brussels and later for many years were ordered from him. The Court Music Choir was housed temporarily in Peterhof, in the barracks of the Horse Guards Regiment.

On August 31, 1882 the Court Music Choir performed in front of Alexander III in Gatchina.

At the suggestion of Prince Oldenburg (in view of the upcoming coronation of Alexander III) the staff of a separate chorus of horn music was also approved at the Court Music Choir at the same time. The instruments arrived in February 1883 and were ordered from the master I. Fedorov from Moscow. That is when the Horn Orchestra essentially began to function. Together with the Horn Orchestra, the Court Music Choir consisted of about 80 people.

In February 1883, the Court Music Choir was given the building that used to belong to the Court stables department (Catherine's canal, 9). It occupied almost the entire quarter – it stretched to the Cheboksary lane and occupied two blocks on Malaya Konyushennaya Street. There were barracks for unmarried musicians, state apartments, offices, dining rooms, rehearsal rooms, which at the right time turned into concerts.

Репетиционное помещение в Петергофе. Фото 1907 г.
Роговой оркестр Придворного музыкантского хора. Фото 1896 г.
Репетиционный зал вид в сторону эстрады
Репетиционный зал вид со стороны эстрады
Г. К. Флиге

Upon the completion of the organization of the Court Music Choir, Stackelberg began to work on the creation of a string band and, ultimately, a symphony orchestra. For this purpose it was necessary to invite civilian musicians, joining to the orchestra they entered the military service as quartermasters. The civilian musicians were accepted to the orchestra for two years and had no right to earn profit anywhere, except at the Imperial Theaters orchestras.

By the autumn of 1882, a string band of 40 people was assembled. They played in Gatchina in front of Alexander III in September, and then, together with the wind choir, performed repeatedly at the Court balls. The first performance of the symphony orchestra in the presence of Alexander III took place on December 25, 1882. GK Flige was appointed the head conductor of the string band.

Musicians, while in military service, earned a salary ranging from 240 to 750 rubles per year and the retirement allowance after 20 years of service amounting to a monthly salary. The basic allowance of the command staff was much higher. The Chief of the Court Music Choir received a salary of 5000 rubles per year, exclusive of housing benefits and special bonuses. (By comparison, the director of the Hermitage museum and butler at the Imperial court received up to 6000 rubles per year in the same years). The duty at the Court Music Choir resembled military service: military musicians were subject to fines and arrests if guilty. They weren’t granted any vacation days. Many of the wind musicians were required to learn to play string instruments to expand the symphonic squad. The staff of the Court Music Choir consisted of 113 people. There were also positions of a librarian, janitor and office clerks.

The Court Music Choir was the first permanent concert orchestra of Russia with a consistent line –up.  Until the establishment of the Court Music Orchestra, different orchestras of various musical societies (Philharmonic, Russian musical society, Public musical school and others) weren’t consistent and were made up of different orchestras. Sometime one-time musicians were invited.  All other court orchestras that existed since 1729, also had permanent staff but weren’t concert orchestras and only served theatrical performances or Court festivities. The phrase “Court music orchestra” started losing its popularity in the early 1880’s. Orchestras were instead being called after theater companies (the orchestra of Russian opera troupe, the orchestra of German opera troupe etc.) All these orchestras were attached to the theater directorate (the Directorate of Imperial Theaters since 1842).

It was prohibited for the Court Music Choir to give public concerts. Likewise, private parties were prohibited to hire Court Music Choir for their own agenda. Starting in 1884, both the wind orchestra and the string band alternatively were allowed to perform for general public on the weekends at the Lower Park in Peterhof.  Admission to those concerts was free until 1910.

Uneasy work conditions in the orchestra were the cause of voluntary retirement for many freelance part-time musicians. This compelled Chief of the Choir Baron K. Stackelberg put forward a formal request asking to improve basic allowances and working conditions for musicians. Nevertheless, there were many of those who wished to join the Court Music Choir. Baron K. Stackelberg himself personally selected and hired new musicians, travelling to Riga, Moscow, Warsaw, Helsingfors and other cities. In this manner, he managed to gather a highly professional ensemble.

In 1883, with the help of Baron K. Stackelberg a musical school affiliated with the Court Music Choir was opened on the basis of Statue of Schools for Soldiers’ Children. Stackelberg became the head of school.  In mid-1880’s, a library affiliated with the Court Music Choir was founded (by 1902 it estimated roughly 6700 items, by 1917 – 11900 items). In 1907 Stackelberg was lucky enough to transfer to the library the richest collection of music scores that belonged to the empress Elizaveta Alekseevna (the wife of Alexander I).

Петергоф. Капельмейстер Г. Варлих
Здание репетиционного зала. Современная фотография

The Court Music Choir performed for the imperial family and honored guests. All concerts remained private until 1901.The repertoire of the Court Music Choir was primarily made up of ceremonial and dance music (for balls, ceremonies and festivities etc.). Usually, all events took place in the hall of the Equestrian department. (The hall was narrow and had bad acoustics). Other performance venues included the Court Capella.

Up until 1887 concerts were given very rarely. The repertoires were spontaneous and often included music pieces by secondary composers, although works by M.I. Glinka, A.S. Dargomyzhsky, A.N. Serov, A.G. Rubinstein, L.V. Beethoven, H. Berlioz, R. Wagner were also performed. Each concert opened up with the hymn “God, save the king!”, but in 1903 the hymn was replaced by a traditional toast “Slava” and a flourish of trumpets. Before 1901, while the orchestra was allowed to give public concerts, only a few performances took place. To name a few:  a concert held in the hall of the Noble Assembly in aid of the foundation for the construction of the Glinka monument in 1882 (conducted by M. A. Balakirev), at the coronation festivities in Moscow in 1883 and in 1896, at a public meeting of the Academy of Sciences, held in the hall of the Conservatory on the occasion of Pushkin’s 100th anniversary in 1899; a public concert in honor of Pushkin’s anniversary was given at the Tauride Palace in the same year.

Since 1893, there has been tradition of conducting symphonic court concerts on Sundays and rehearsing every Saturday, having all upper classes attend the rehearsal. All famous musicians took part in these weekend concerts – pianist I. Padeverskiy, violinist A. Marto and singer F.V. Litvin.  The hall of the Equestrian department accommodating approximately 250 people would always be overcapacity, so the concerts were moved to the hall of the Court Chapel. Weekend concerts were commercial, but all ticket sales revenue would go in favor of Musicians’ widows and children foundation. Since 1890’s regular chamber evening gatherings and wind music concerts started taking place at the rehearsal hall at the Catherine’s canal.

Since 1880’s the orchestra started hiring musicians from the instrumental classes of the Court Chapel. Many famous musicians (M.A. Balakirev, N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov, later A.K. Glazunov, S.N. Vasilenko) endorsed their students for job placement at the Court orchestra, which spoke of the high authority and prestige of the orchestra musicians amongst other professional musicians. At the same time, the students of the school affiliated with the orchestra were advised to take instrumental classes at the Capella to refine their musical skills further.

One of the most important events in the life of the Court Orchestra was its participation in the triumphant coronation of Emperor Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra Fedorovna, which took place on May 14, 1896 at the Moscow Kremlin at the Uspensky Cathedral.

Programs of concerts of the Court Orchestra

Торжественное коронование императора Николая II и его супруги Александры Федоровны, 14 мая 1896 г
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