Russian Composers In Their Early Thirties

This project is designed to showcase the progression of piano music in the hands of Russian composers starting with Glinka, moving chronologically to modern times.  The intention is to keep the focus on that period of compositional activity when the composers featured were within 5 years of each others' age (e.g., 30-35 years old).  To give a more or less equal "weight" to each composer, I decided to include under-4-minute miniatures only (with one slight instance of exceeding that boundary).  Such decision rules out certain composers who either did not compose anything for piano during that period in their life, or whose piano compositions are "too substantial" to include in such a program (for example, Balakirev's 'Islamey').  Given the significant amount of music across 200 years that fits the above criteria, it is likely the project will develop into "19th century" and "20th century" installments. 

The presentation also features the graphical/historical overview of most major Russian/Russian-based composers and their interactions with one another.


At the beginning of Russian music stands Mikhail Glinka. Why so? Certainly, there were other talented Russian composers before him and yet he is considered "the one". Part of the reason is that he was literally the right talented, musically sensitive person at the right point in history. Napoleon invaded and was defeated in Russia when Glinka was 8 years old. After that point, the love Russians had for the Italian and French operas started to mutate toward a desire for musical works with distinct Russian sounds. What would those be? Well, for one, quotations of and allusions to the folk melodies of the rural communities. Number two, Russian Orthodox church acapella choirs and the ringing of the church bells. Those elements surrounded Glinka in his early childhood and they never left his imagination when he studied music in Europe. The St Petersburg premiere of Glinka's Life for the Tsar in 1836 officially placed Russia on the musical map. We will now listen to Glinka's Piano Nocturne called "Separation". Indeed, I do find those opening chords rather reminiscent of the church bells.


Alexander Dargomyzhsky is not as well known in the West. He did not compose as much music and it was not as popular as Glinka's, partly because he was not as concerned in making it be 'distinctly' Russian - that is, he was not concerned in molding his musical language to the latest popular craze. And yet, it is every bit as original, if not more so. For instance, his construction of musically non-stopping operatic drama arrived before Wagner became famous. In any event, following Glinka's death, Dargomyzhsky became an important connection between the older master and the young followers who went on to form the collective of the composers known as the "mighty handful". The piece I am about to play for you is from 1844, when Dargomyzhsky was 31. By that point he'd befriended Glinka and the two composers often played piano duets together. It is known that he became an accomplished pianist during his career and this Scherzo in F Minor is certainly a testament to his facility at the keyboard.


The next significant Musician of Russia who comes chronologically after Glinka and Dargomyzhsky is Anton RUbin<sh>tein. His goal, however, was not to create a body of uniquely Russian-sounding music. A powerful pianist, launched into a life of concertizing from a young age, Rubinstein met Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn and other European masters during his concert tours in Germany. It was Mendelssohn who supported him the most, and RUbin<sh>tein acquired Mendelssohnian sensibilities for his own compositions. The most important contribution for the musical development of Russia was Rubinstein's founding of St. Petersburg Music Conservatory in 1862, backed by the royal family with which he had close musical ties. There he created a strong faculty, consisting of top names in music. As a teacher of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein's influence could be seen spread through much 19th century music as a kind of moderating force for the nationalistic fervor of some of his contemporaries. The following musical work is a good example of Rubinstein's miniature style, a Nocturne in G, Op. 69, number 2.


Ideologically opposing Rubinstein, were the so-called "mighty handful" composers - or the FIVE. Originating with Mily Balakirev, who in his late teens befriended and became influenced by Glinka, the group was dedicated to the idea of growing a unique "Russian style" of music, which, just as with Glinka, meant the sounds of Russian folk melodies and church bells. Additionally, musical influences from bordering Asia and the middle east started to play an important role. And for a radical like Balakirev it also meant the eschewing of academic studies: he feared they would pollute the mind of a musician with Western influences. Balakirev befriended and influenced a number of seriously talented, though, at the time, amateur composers: Borod<EE>n, MUssorgsky (or MusSORgsky, as he is known in the English world), Rimsky-Korsakov and Cesar Cui. These four composers eventually gravitated away from the uncompromising approach of Balakirev and towards Dargomyzhsky as their mentor. We will now listen to a piece by Mussorgsky called "The Seamstress", composed in 1871. It was inspired by a poem of Thomas Hood, "The Song of the Shirt", which deals with working class life conditions of the 19th century.


This last piece was composed during the time when MUssorgsky shared an apartment with the younger mighty handful member, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In his late twenties, Rimsky-Korsakov entered into academia (both as a teacher and a student) and through rigorous study of the Western musical techniques was able to vastly augment his compositional abilities. Essentially, he went against one of Balakirev's commandments and some of his fellow composers feared that he would lose his "Russian composer" identity in all the polyphonic techniques. Of course, this didn't not happen; balance was Korsakov's credo. And he had balance in his personal affairs, too. Unlike Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov enjoyed his stable family life, avoided late night parties (and vodka), and had a strong musical partner in his pianist wife, Nadezhda (not unlike Robert Schumann had in his wife Clara). The next work, a Waltz, is dedicated to Nadezhda and comes from a set of piano pieces composed by Korsakov in 1878.


Forming yet another powerful influence in musical Russia of the last part of the 19th century was the music of Peter Tchaikovsky. His rise to fame was a gradual one. In his teens, his piano teacher did not think much will come of him either as a pianist or as a composer. But music to Tchaikovsky was, just like with Glinka, his "soul". As I mentioned earlier, at Saint Petersburg Conservatory he studied with its founder, Anton Rubinstein. Because of that, the "mighty handful" members thought of Tchaikovsky as belonging to the camp of their opponents. Eventually, they realized he was another force entirely; Mily Balakirev even collaborated on one composition project with Tchaikovsky (Rome and Juliet). In 1873, shortly before completing his famous piano concerto, Tchaikovsky composed a set of piano pieces, Opus 19, from which we will listen to Number five, Capriccioso. I see its multi-faceted character as almost a workshop for the materials in the piano concerto.


Sitting between the generation of the mighty handful composers plus Tchaikovsky and the new talents that would emerge towards the end of the 19th century (like Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Glazunov and others), we have the figure of Anatoly Lyadov (my namesake, in fact). Born in 1855, his early musical lessons came from his father, an important Russian conductor. He eventually got to know the members of the "mighty handful" and studied with Rimsky-Korsakov at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Later he was a teacher there of many Russian musicians, including Prokofiev and Myaskovsky. Tchaikovsky was, at first, dismissive of Lyadov's early works, but eventually warmed up to him. The two met personally in 1887, the year of composition of the following two preludes from Lyadov's Opus 13. Their technical demands are further evidence to the fact that, though he gave up formal piano studies in his teens, Lyadov managed to remain a rather strong pianist.


Anton Arensky is another relatively unknown Russian composer. Belonging to no official camp, he was friends with Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov and others, but mostly kept to himself. He was heavily influenced by Tchaikovsky, who was 20 years his senior. In fact, Tchaikovsky cried at the premiere of Arensky's opera "A Dream at Volga", being so moved by the music. Indeed, the purity of lyricisim of Arensky's melodies is quite unique and can be quite touching. Perhaps, one of the reasons he was quickly forgotten after his early death in 1906 was the emergence of new talents, who were more in tune with the changing times and tastes. Still, the directness of his expression has an appeal that keeps his music in the repertoire. The following work is an impromptu from 1893, when Arensky was 32 years old.


When Alexander Glazunov was only 16 years old, his first symphony was hailed as the work of a genius, and the afore-mentioned Anatoly Lyadov introduced him to his friend, a multi-millionaire philanthropist, and a lover of music, Mitrofan Belyayev. Belyayev's support allowed Glazunov to secure a comfortable place in the Russian musical life. He mostly followed the path of the ""Mighty Handful"" doctrine - that is, creating music that is based on Russian folk or church music - and yet his compositions have a wider variety of influences making him, at times, sound like one of the Hollywood film composers. He was also a strong pianist, studying with the great Theodore Leschetizky, himself a student of Carl Czerny.

Glazunov was a frequent guest at his teacher's home; This impromptu Op. 54 No. 2 is dedicated to one of Leschetizky's daughters.


Now mostly remembered as a composer of intermediate level piano pieces, Vladimir Rebikov was, towards the end of the 19th century, a highly innovative and often discussed composer, whose musical language escaped beyond pre-established conventions. In fact, he was not accepted into the Moscow conservatory after being deemed as "modernist and dissonant" by the conservative committee. Thus, he ended up receiving his musical education abroad and was not as interconnected with most of the other composers I mentioned earlier. One person who noticed and welcomed his musical style was Tchaikovsky. In his article called "Musical Notation of Feelings", Rebikov promoted the idea of getting away from the notion of a precisely defined musical form and harmony, as, he believed, there are no predefined forms for human feelings. "A pianist or a singer or an orchestra should be in possession of the feeling of sadness to perform the musical notation of sadness, should be in possession of joy to perform the music of joy", he wrote. In this next work, "Declaration of Love", the feelings are literally worn on a sleeve .


Not unlike our previous composer, Rebikov, there was another Russian musician who was very interested in going beyond preestablished forms in music and who sought new forms of musical expression throughout his life: Alexander Scriabin. For him, composers like Glazunov, Lyadov and Arensky presented the mundane, whereas he was always reaching, literally, out towards the stars and beyond. Similarly to Glazunov, his extraordinary talent was recognized by Belyayev, and it allowed Scriabin to focus on his growth as composer. Towards the end of his short life he was concerned with the creation of a work that would be a combination of all arts and result in a rebirth of the universe itself. In the beginning of his musical journey, his works are clearly marked by the aesthetic of Chopin. Later he became more and more confident in his way of conveying an almost mystical experience through sounds. The following Two Poems from 1903 can be seen as the clear first arrival of the harmonic language for which Scriabin is best remembered.


Having tasted the advancing musical language and compositional concepts in the previous two composers, we will now come back to a much more traditionalist, though no less important Sergei Rachmaninoff. Scriabin and Rachmaninoff both studied piano with Nikolai Zverev in Moscow, boarding together with other students in that teacher's home. Rachmaninoff continued to perform Scriabin's works after the latter's death, but his own musical style had rather little in common with Scriabin. Russian and oriental motives and influence of liturgical singing with the sound of bells are all part of Rachmaninoff's soundworld. Perhaps, this can be partly explained by Rachmaninoff's love for the rural countryside with all such sounds embedded into the landscape. Still, the stupendous facility as a pianist allowed Rachmaninoff to create pianistic textures unrivalled in complexity up to that point. Composed in the same year as Scriabin's Two Poems, this is Rachmaninoff's Prelude in A flat Major, from Opus 23.


The notion of 19th century romanticism was certainly a trend of the past by the time the 20th century social and political events brought with them the changing cultural tastes. The new directions in the arts in general, and Russian music in particular, were welcomed by some, not so gladly received by others. Also, the technological advances in the form of gramophone recordings and radio would turn around the way audiences consumed music. Thanks to those advances we are able to hear some of the artistry of the past still to this day. I'd like to close this program with the following recording of a performance not by myself, but by Nikolai Medtner, another student of Nikolai Zverev and a younger colleague of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, who at one point chastised Rachmaninoff for his abandonment of the composing career in favor of piano performance after Rachmaninoff's move to the United States in 1918. Here we can listen to Medtner play one of his Fables - his favorite compositional form, composed in 1912.

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