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ClassicsOnline Home » BALAKIREV: Scherzi and Mazurkas (Complete)
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837-1910)
Scherzi and Mazurkas
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev is not only
one of the most important figures in 19th century music, but is also one of
that era's least frequently performed composers. Yet the composer Sergey
Lyapunov, himself a pupil of Balakirev wrote that the part he played in the
development of Russian music was incomparably important, and after Glinka first
place in the history of Russian music should be allotted to Mily Alexeyevich
Balakirev. Balakirev did indeed act as a link between Glinka, who together with
Dargomizhsky nearly single-handedly founded the nationalist school of Russian
music, and the "Mighty Handful", of which Balakirev was both the
teacher and leader.
Born on 2nd January, 1837 at
Nizhny-Novgorod, Balakirev was musically largely self-taught. After early
lessons on the piano with his mother, his formal musical education ended with
some brief study with Anton Katski, a touring virtuoso of the day, and with
Alexander Dubuque, a pupil of John Field. In 1855, through the encouragement
and financial support of Alexander Ulïbïshev, a local land-owner and amateur
musician, Balakirev moved to St. Petersburg. Ulïbïshev's death in 1858 left the
young pianist-composer to fend for himself in the city's highly competitive
The years that followed saw Balakirev
barely eking out a living, not by performing, but mostly by giving private
lessons. Balakirev's remarks on virtuosi and on his attitude to public playing
are revealing: "All virtuosi are the most unmusical of people. For them
money comes first, not art ... It is especially repulsive to me to appear
before our public audiences." Although his compositions for the most part
met with cold indifference, Balakirev soon began to attract a loyal following
of gifted pupils, so that by 1862 he was the acknowledged musical leader of a
group that included Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Exchanging
ideas and criticisms, all the while under the despotic sway of Balakirev, this
group, nicknamed the "Mighty Handful", soon began to espouse Russian
nationalism through the use of folk material in their compositions. With the
establishment of a so-called Free School of Music in 1862 (to some degree
formed in opposition to Anton Rubinstein's Russian Music Society), Balakirev
was able further to propagate his ideas through concerts and free music
In 1867 Balakirev had achieved enough
success to be invited to head the Russian Music Society, since Rubinstein, who
had found the Society in 1859, had recently resigned from the conductorship.
Balakirev's tenure, however, was a stormy one, for an active campaign was soon
mounted against him by the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, who was then President
of the Society. After what amounted to a forced resignation in 1869, Balakirev
was financially forced to take a low paying clerical job at the Central Railway
Company. Bitter and emotionally drained, he withdrew from public life, then
threw himself into a form of orthodox Christianity that demanded abstinence
from wearing furs, smoking and the eating of meat. He did continue to eat fish,
provided it had been killed by being knocked on the head. Ignoring his old
friends, he would have nothing to do with music.
Around 1876, Balakirev began to emerge from
this self-imposed exile. At this time he left his railway job, and in 1881 was
persuaded once more to take over the directorship of the Free School. Two years
later, through political string-pulling by Balakirev's senator friend Filippov,
he was given the post of Director of Music of the Imperial Chapel, with his old
pupil Rimsky-Korsakov acting as his assistant.
Balakirev successfully remained at this
post until his retirement in 1894. Now, as a result of his pension, he was able
to devote himself as much as he pleased to composition. His last years,
however, were largely bitter ones, for the general public continued to ignore
his music. Moreover, a new rival to Balakirev's self-appointed role as father
figure to young composers appeared. Mitrofan Belyayev, the son of a millionaire
timber-merchant, formed a publishing firm for
Russian composers and began to underwrite concerts of Russian music in St.
Petersburg. A number of Balakirev’s circle were lured by Belyayev’s money and
charm away from Balakirev's overbearing dominance. Even Rimsky-Korsakov was
accused by Balakirev of selling his talent "for 30 pieces of silver to
Satan who, disastrously for Russian music, revealed himself in the form of M.
Belyayev.” By 1908, his health began rapidly to deteriorate as a result of
heart disease, but he was spared a painfully drawn-out end, instead dying of
pleurisy in his sleep on the early morning of 29th May 1910.
Balakirev was a mass of contradictions,
and a difficult person at best. Nervously irritable, tactless, intolerant of
any other opinions, his relationship with people at best could only be called
uneasy, and at worst despotic. Yet in the words of Timofeyev, who was a
contemporary: "I cannot properly express the good, or to put it better,
the outstanding side of his nature: he is disinterested, honest kind,
compassionate.” Balakirev is in many respects the outstanding Russian composer
for the piano of the 19th century. His understanding of the instrument,
together with his exotic melodies that are so filled with a rich Eastern
flavour, make his better pieces an undiscovered treasure-house for pianists. No
less an artist than Louis Kentner as written: "It is a great pity that so
much of Balakirev's piano music (rich, sonorous, original and sensitive and
extremely well written for the instrument) is today neglected and almost
forgotten even by Russian pianists.”
Although the instrumental scherzo in the
mid to late 18th century settled into the role of a third movement to a sonata,
symphony, or string quartet and was sometimes more in the character of a minuet
it became a dramatic and expanded independent piano piece in the hands of
Chopin, Brahms and Balakirev. In their scherzi, little is left in the music of
the original "jesting" meaning of the word scherzo.
Balakirev's Scherzo No. 1 was
completed in 1856, and received its first publication in the early sixties. The
composer himself gave this work its first performance in the same year in a
recital in St. Petersburg. There are obvious points of similarity with Chopin's
own early Scherzo in B minor. Chopin's work was begun when the composer
was 21, and Balakirev's was written at the age of 19.
Balakirev did not write his next scherzo
until 1900 it is unquestionably one of his finest works, and can be given a place
beside such great works a his Islamey and the Sonata in B fiat minor. As in
some of his other compositions, this scherzo shows Balakirev's ability to use
and rework comfortably much older material. In the Scherzo No. 2, the
lyrical middle section first appeared in the uncompleted Sonata, Opus 5
of 1856, and the first theme in the Scherzo of the Octet, Opus 3, of
1855-56. Balakirev followed his successful Scherzo No. 2 of 1900 a year later
with an equally masterful work in this form.
Although Chopin's mazurkas for
piano are admittedly the greatest examples of this genre, other composers such
as Borodin, Cui, Dargomizhsky, Dvorák, Glinka, Szymanowski, Tchaikovsky, and of
course Balakirev wrote mazurkas for the piano. Even Liszt left a single
"Mazurka brillante" for the instrument. Balakirev's seven mazurkas
span a period of 45 years, and because of their size, brilliance, and pianistic
display most could be more aptly termed "concert mazurkas".
An early version of Mazurka No. 1
in A flat major was published in 1861. Then, after minor revisions, it was
again published around 1884. It is perhaps the least musically complex of
Balakirev's seven mazurkas.
As with Mazurka No. 1, Mazurka
No. 2 in C sharp minor initially appeared in 1861. The 1884 revision contains
significant changes of layout, and shifts from the earlier B minor key to that
of C sharp minor.
The third Mazurka appeared in 1886, and
exists also in a version for piano duet. Balakirev greatly admired Chopin's
music, so it should not be too surprising that Mazurka No. 3 seems to
owe something to Chopin's Mazurka, Op. 50, No. 3.
The fourth Mazurka, together with
the third, appeared in 1886. Its cheerful mood is in marked contrast to the
dark tones of its companion.
As with the first and fourth mazurkas,
the fifth is buoyantly light-hearted and extravert. As it whirls to its
conclusion, its only trace of Slav melancholy is to be found in the melodic
material of the coda, which is centered over a D pedal-point. Balakirev
inserted the entire mazurka unchanged as the second movement of his final
revision of the 1855 Sonata.
No. 6 in A flat major is filled with vivid contrasts of mood and tempo.
No. 7 in E flat minor, written in 1906, is one of the most subtle and musically
sophisticated of the mazurkas.
Born in the United States, part of
Banowetz's early training was in New York City with Carl Friedberg, a pupil of
Clara Schumann. After continuing his studies at Vienna's Hochschule für Musik
und darstellende Kunst, Banowetz's career was launched upon his graduating with
a First Prize in piano. He was then sent by the Austrian government on an
extended European concert tour. Subsequently he has performed throughout North
America, Europe, Russia, and Asia. In 1966 he was awarded the Pan American
Prize by the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C.
Following his first appearances in the
Orient in 1981, Banowetz's tours there have received ever-increasing
enthusiastic response. He is the first foreign artist ever to be invited by the
Chinese Ministry of Culture both to record and to give world première
performances of a contemporary Chinese piano concerto (Huang An-lun Piano
Concerto, Op. 25b). Banowetz has recorded with the CSR Symphony Orchestra,
the Budapest Symphony, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the China Central Opera
Orchestra of Beijing.
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BALAKIREV: Scherzi and Mazurkas (Complete)