Love songs were a big thing in early-19th century Russia where professional and amateur composers were turning out elegiac miniatures in lieu of the love-oozing serenades of old. And the very best of these songs were written by three Alexanders Alyabyev, Varlamov and Gurilyev.
These three composers wrote all kinds of music but they are best remembered as the authors of a plethora of hauntingly beautiful romances, about 200 each, put to the words of Russia's very best poets.
Fine singers all, the three Alexanders successfully performed their own songs, which eventually spread across the vast expanses of the Russian Empire loved in equal measure by highborn aristocrats and hard-working commoners
Alexander Alyabyev was the eldest of the three, born 13 years before the start of the 19th century. He penned a wealth of excellent music but, almost two centuries on, he is mostly remembered for his tiny and hauntingly beautiful romance called The Nightingale
In 1812 the noisy, driven, the dashing Alyabyev fought the invading Napoleonic armies and was awarded two orders and a medal for his meritorious service to his country.
Alexander Alyabyev was also a diehard gambler and an exceptionally decent one too. One evening, as he and his friends were playing cards in his home, one of the players suddenly died. The host was charged with murder and his name was only recently cleared by modern-day investigators. Back in 1825 Alexander Alyabyev failed to prove his innocence however, and was sentenced to many years in Siberian exile. Heartbroken and desperate, he could have died there had it not been for his undying love for music
There were two women who helped the composer to survive his predicament: his sister who followed him to Siberia and Yevdokiya Ofrosimova, Alyabyev's first love he met again years after They tied the knot and from then on Yevdokiya was her husband's biggest inspiration
Alexander Gurilyev's lot was nonetheless easy. He happened to be born into the family of an excellent musician, but the problem was that his father was a serf which in the early-19th century Russia meant he was the property of his owner who was free to decide his slave's whole life, from the work he did to the woman he was supposed to marry.
The Gurilyovs belonged to Count Orlov and were set free only after the death of their owner. Alexander was already 29 and had to start his new life virtually from scratch.
Gurilyev's romances are reminiscent of old Russian folk songs that were mostly about unhappiness, lost love and solitude. And also about his younger days when he was not allowed to marry the girl he loved
Upon his emancipation, Alexander Gurilyev joined the Artisans' Guild and was issued all necessary papers he needed to live in Moscow as a free man. His beautiful romances quickly caught up with the Muscovites were being assiduously learned by mincing young ladies and sung by guitar-strumming young officers. The city's many gypsy choirs were also quick to eagerly picked up Gurilyov's trendy love songs
Shortly after the young composer made the acquaintance of Alexander Varlamov. Less than two years Gurilyov's senior, Varlamov looked like a man of the world, boasting solid music education he had received as a member of the Royal Choir in St.Petersburg. He also played violin, cello, piano, guitar, was giving concerts in and outside Russia, was a teacher at a local drama school, was teaching young singers at a Russian embassy school in The Hague, conducted symphony and choir performances and had also spent several years as a conductor with the Imperial Theaters' Directorate in Moscow.
A very fine vocal teacher too, Alexander Varlamov also wrote the famous School of Singing, the first such manual here in Russia which is still very relevant today. Knowing all the ins and outs of the vocal art, Varlamov was writing beautiful and catchy melodies that were such a breeze to sing regardless of the singer's vocal range
Just like Alyabyev and Gurilyov, Varlamov was never averse to writing folk-themed music. "Every people has a soul all its own and the Russian soul is best expressed in a song," Varlamov wrote.
Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Bunin and other Russian literary classics used Varlamov's romances to add that very special ail-Russian zest to their works. You can also find a mention of a Varlamov' s romance in The End of a Chapter novel by the outstanding British writer John Galsworthy.
Popular as he was, Alexander Varlamov died of consumption in abject poverty and disillusionment at the still early age of 47
Alexander Gurilyov also died early. Poverty stricken and forced to edit and rewrite other people's works just to make both ends meet, he eventually fell ill and died just a week before his 55th birthday
Alexander Alyabyev somehow managed to weather all the trials and tribulations of his Siberian exile, returned to Moscow and died as a 64-year-old man which was quite an impressive lifespan by mid-19th century standards
The songs written by the three Russian Alexanders live on adding Old World warmth and charm and pristine naivete to the pragmatic and fast moving century we live in