To my ears, there is nothing more Russian than a minor (v) chord. This is what gives Tchaikovsky’s music away, because it doesn’t sound particularly Russian otherwise. Sure, it’s dark and Slavic, and it’s got a heavy influence of Eastern Europe in it, but it’s still pretty Western. Which of course fit right in with the period. It’s Russian, but it’s high-society Russian.
I don’t know whether or not Grieg’s music sounds authentically Norwegian, having no basis for comparison, but I will say it sounds decidedly less cosmopolitan than Tchaikovsky, at least in his shorter forms. They sound like the people – free, unhindered harmonies, easy forms, singing melodies. In his longer forms, he seems to fall into the same trap as Tchaikovsky – heavy homeland influence, but still writing for a Western audience.
So what makes Russian music sound Russian, Norwegian music sound Norwegian, and all that? All composers (until very recently) use the same twelve notes, and almost all peasant music they borrow has drones and singable melodies. It’s gotta be more than that.
I think it might be the cadence of the vernacular – that the cadence of the music and of language have more intrinsically in common than we can detect. I have been told that I’m a natural at playing Eastern European music, particularly Slavic. Sure, it’s my bloodline, but I’m pretty sure genetics don’t count. I haven’t heard too much music from the motherland – just the usual polkas (ugh), mostly westernized for summer festivals. I wouldn’t know how authentic they are, but I’d bet money they’re not. That I’m aware of, I haven’t heard any “music of the people.” The best I can come up with is that I grew up around Polish-speaking people. No, I can’t speak it (or Russian, for that matter), but I know its lilts, its turns, its emphases, its cadences. I know it when I hear it. And I’ve heard enough Russian in my life to know how it’s different – it’s more lyrical, with clearer, softer rhythms. And I’ve heard a good deal of Bosnian, and Ukrainian, and Czech. If you put one of each of these people in a room, speaking their native languages, with some effort they would understand each other. And I think it’s this language link that also links the music. And this familiarity with the language could be why I know almost instinctively what to do with Czech music without having studied any, and why I understand Russian music most naturally. I’m already used to its sounds.