When planning my recent Russian trip, I spent a fascinating yet morbid evening on the website findagrave.com. In Vienna I’d read that the Zentralfriedhof cemetery was a fascinating place to visit but we ran out of time and it’s somewhere I hope to revisit. I anticipate, though, that it’s unlikely I’ll visit St Petersburg again and so I wanted to make sure I ticked off paying homage to some musical heroes whilst I was there.
Fortunately for me, the Russian authorities had the foresight to put lots of key artists and musicians in the same graveyard. In Moscow you can find Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rostropovich and Scriabin all buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery. The St Petersburg equivalent is the Necropolis of the Art Masters, at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.
The Monastery is at the very eastern end of the Nevsky Propsekt, the main and most famous street in St Petersburg. Alexander Nevsky is a Saint in the Russian Orthodox church, and was a 13th Century Russian Prince who beat Swedish and Russian invaders – you may have heard of Sergei Eisenstein’s film about him which has a score by Sergei Prokofiev. Nevsky’s remains are buried within the Monastery complex. To get to the Monastery, take the Metro to Ploshchad Alexandra Nevskogo (marked as “M” on the above map). Outside the station you’ll see the monument to Alexander Nevsky, and the map is on the outer wall of the Monastery complex. Go past said map, avoiding an existential crisis (!) and you can find the entrance to the graveyard. There are a few different areas here – the composers are all together in the right-hand section, alongside other artists from the 19th Century. You’ll need to buy a ticket for this from one of the little booths. It’s 400 rubles for foreign visitors, about £5.
At the booth we were given a map that shows some of the best-known names who’s graves are here, but this is where knowing your Russian letters really helps so you can spot who is who. Knowing a few famous tunes might help too…
I haven’t included every single one in this gallery but just some of my favourites (is it weird to have favourite graves?!) – some because I like their music, some because I took great joy in being able to decipher their names in Cyrillic, and some because they had fascinating details on their monuments. Whether it’s the little piano on Mussorgsky’s, the music notation on Glinka, Mussorgsky’s and Balakirev’s, and in particular the gold mosaic with tunes on the back of Borodin’s – the most prominent being the choral melody from the Polovtsian dances. (You may know it better as Stranger in Paradise).
One of the things I want to know about this place is how these composers ended up here too – did they, whilst still living, get a letter telling them this is where they’ll be buried when they’ve died? Were relatives asked after their deaths? Did some ask to be buried here but not make it? Where they moved here at a later date? I can’t seem to find this information but I’d be fascinated to know how they came to be here and who chose who made it. Particularly in regard to Borodin, who was better known as a chemist during his lifetime. Did his friends argue his musical-corner for a musical corner? I suspect someone out there knows this answer so please do tell if you know how it all happened!
The monastery did offer one other musical experience to us – we just so happened to be there just in time for the bell ringing! You might just be able to make out on the picture above that there’s one person ringing all of the bells, using a complicated contraption as set out in the picture on the right-hand side. I took a very shaky zoomed-in video on my camera – forgive the picture and sound quality but you can just about make out one person playing all of the bells at once.
Here’s an even longer video – though I’d recommend just having a quick listen as the quality isn’t great. It’s just using my DSLR super-zoomed in to try and capture what was going on, so it’s super shaky and it doesn’t exactly have great sound either.
It gives you an idea though. Basically, it’s an incredible feat of musicianship, stamina, strength AND engineering, all in one musical experience!
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