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ClassicsOnline Home » BALAKIREV: Symphony No. 2 / Russia
A superb performance and recording by the Russian State Orchestra.
Mili Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837- 1910)
Symphony No.2 in D Minor
Balakirev occupies an important if equivocal position in the history of Russian music of the later part of the nineteenth century. He was born in Nizhny-Novgorod in 1837 and had his first piano lessons from his mother, who later arranged some lessons for him with Alexander Dubuque, a pupil of John Field. Through a later teacher, the German Karl Eisrich, he was introduced to the circle of Alexander Ulïbïshev, an enthusiastic amateur, author of books on Mozart and Beethoven and owner of a useful music library. At Ulïbïshev's house he was able to hear chamber music and occasionally orchestral works, the inspiration for his own early compositions. It was through the agency of this patron that Balakirev was able in 1855 to travel to St. Petersburg, where he met Glinka and other well known musicians and made his own debut as a pianist and composer.
Supporting himself with difficulty by giving piano lessons and private performances, Balakirev managed to survive in St. Petersburg, where he met two young army officers, César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky, both keen amateur composers, over whom he began to exercise some influence. He had, at the same time, formed a friendship with Dmitry and Vladimir Stasov, the latter an important figure in the intellectual support of Russian musical nationalism. In 1861 he met Rimsky-Korsakov and the following year Borodin, completing the group of five Russian nationalists described by Vladimir Stasov as the Mighty Handful, the Five who would follow Glinka's example in the creation of a distinctively Russian musical tradition. At the same time Balakirev had increasing involvement with the Free School of Music in St. Petersburg, set up in opposition to the 'German' Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein, with the encouragement of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, who did her best to remove Balakirev from the conductorship of the Russian Music Society concerts, which were under her patronage. Balakirev's own character, obstinate and tactless, did much to increase the division between the Conservatory and his own followers, castigated by Anton Rubinstein as amateurs, a charge that could never have been levelled at him. Balakirev's later relationship with Nikolai Rubinstein and the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky taught, was more satisfactory, and it was Nikolai Rubinstein who introduced the oriental fantasy for piano, Islamey, to the St. Petersburg public in 1869.
Religious conversion led to a brief retirement from musical life and from familiar society between 1871 and 1874, but gradually thereafter Balakirev resumed something of his old activities, particularly, in 1881, the direction of the Free School, which he had surrendered to Rimsky-Korsakov in 1874. In 1883 his friends found for him a position as director of the Imperial Court Chapel, where he was assisted by Rimsky-Korsakov. A breach with the latter came in 1890, as Belyayev, an important patron and publisher of Russian music, gradually seemed to usurp his place as leader of the Russian nationalist composers. A measure of friendship was restored, to be destroyed completely and finally by Rimsky Korsakov's behaviour at the first performance of Balakirev's First Symphony at a Free School Concert in 1898. Balakirev had retired from the Imperial Chapel in 1895 and thereafter had devoted himself more fully to composition, to his continuing task of editing the music of Glinka and to the encouragement of anew group of young Russian composers, including his always loyal disciple Sergei Liapunov, who later orchestrated Islamey. Freedom from other activity allowed the completion of a symphony he had started many years before and the completion of a second in 1908. In this final period of his life he attracted little attention from the musical public and expressed some bitterness at the neglect of his work. Russian music, nevertheless, owed him a considerable debt. Combative by temperament, he had fought for his own conception of truly Russian music, which found future expression in a synthesis of the technique of the Conservatories and the spirit that he had engendered and nurtured.
Balakirev worked on the second of his two symphonies between 1900 and 1908 and it was first performed at a Free School concert in April 1909 under the direction of Liapunov. Work on his first symphony had been resumed thirty years after the first sketches, with no trace of a change of style. Similarly the second symphony, which makes use of the Scherzo planned in the 1860s for the earlier work, is in a style that had passed. This, after all, was the age of Stravinsky's Firebird. It is, nevertheless, a compelling enough work, testimony to Balakirev's craftsmanship and to the Russian source of his inspiration. The first movement opens with two strong chords, followed by the first subject, entrusted to the cellos and clarinet. This D minor principal theme leads to a D flat major second subject. There is a brief development and a recapitulation that allows the second subject to appear, very properly, in D major. The B minor Cossack Scherzo is vigorous and thoroughly Russian, worked out in tripartite sonata form, with a second subject and a development that includes further treatment of the first subject in imitative canon. The Trio is based on a Russian folk-song, The Snow Melts, a melody that re-appears in the repeated Scherzo in place of the now expected sonata-form second subject. The slow movement Romanza provides expressive relaxation of tension, to be followed by a final Polonaise, with a Russian folk-song second subject and reminiscences of the Romanza, an energetic movement, where this return to the romantic seems occasionally out of place.
The symphonic poem Rus, the ancient name of Russia, was originally planned as a four movement work. This scheme was rejected in favour of a second Overture on Russian Themes, which was first performed at a Free School concert in Apri11864. The publisher Johansen issued the work, now revised, in 1869, under the title Musical Picture, 1000 Years. In the 1880s Balakirev revised the work again, giving it the title Rus. Three Russian themes are used. The work is introduced by a wedding-song, It Was Not The Wind, a Larghetto opening. This B flat minor melody is followed by an Allegro moderato D major, the song I'll Go Up, stated first by clarinets and bassoons. The return of the first theme is followed by the third folk-song, Jolly Katya In The Fields, and a fourth, apparently from the Caucasus, played by the clarinet with harp accompaniment. The material is developed, use being made of the first three themes. The fourth theme leads to the return of the first song, as it was originally heard, with a conclusion that makes brief and subtle reference to the second theme. Rus belongs to a period in Balakirev’s creative career when such complete reliance on folk material seemed a possible course to pursue. In the symphonies this attitude has been modified.
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BALAKIREV: Symphony No. 2 / Russia