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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Symphony of the Week VI

Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)

Symphony no. 2 in D minor (1908)







In his personally guarded but often shrewdly observant memoir, My Musical Life, Rimsky-Korsakov paints an unedifying portrait of the ageing Balakirev.


..[a] medley of Christian meekness, backbiting, fondness for beasts, misanthropy, artistic interests, and triviality..


It is a description that contrasts starkly with that Rimsky gives earlier of the dynamic figure who from 1862 until 1870 presided with indefatigable, if sometimes overbearing, enthusiasm and a forceful sense of purpose over the St. Petersberg gatherings of a group of young men who would came to be known as "the mighty handful", or "the five".


[He was] an excellent pianist, a superior sight reader of music, a splendid improviser, endowed by nature with a sense of correct harmony and part writing, he possessed a technique partly native and partly acquired through a vast musical erudition, [and] with the help of an extraordinarily keen and retentive memory. Then he was a marvelous critic [and] instantly felt every technical imperfection or error, [grasping] any defect in form at once...


How could someone of such natural charisma and talent end up a rebarbative obsessive, shunned by former friends and seemingly never having enjoyed a relationship of any closeness with a woman, his once progressive politics swallowed up by bitter anti-Semitism and crazed notions of Slavic supremacy?

The short answer is that in his early 30s he suffered some sort of breakdown which led him to seek solace, first in fashionable divination and then in the most severe form of Russian Orthodoxy. As Rimsky tells it,


Balakirev, who did not believe in God, became a believer in the Devil. The Devil brought it about that subsequently he came to believe in God too.


A sorry story all right, but might it not - just possibly - be told from a slightly more sympathetic angle?

Of the composers who made up "the Five" (there were strictly speaking at least six of them - but no matter), four - the distinguished research chemist Alexander Borodin, the civil servant Modeste Mussorgsky, the teenage navel cadet Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev himself would emerge as significant creative figures. Rather astonishing if one considers that out of them only Balakirev was anything like a professional musician. The extent to which he had ever studied harmony and counterpoint as academic disciplines is debatable (to the end of his life he refused to teach them, even though he could certainly have done with the cash), but his insistence that an intuitive feeling for them was enough for a prospective composer to get started and that the rest could be learned "on the job" was to prove immensely liberating, as was his determined rejection of what the group's least talented member, Cesar Cui, would describe as "stale Germanness".

For at this point, the Germanness was truly stale.

The impressive professionalisation of German music and its accompanying pedagogy in the mid-Nineteenth Century disguised the fact that, following the early deaths of Mendelssohn (1848) and Schumann (1856), the Austro-German tradition was actually in crisis. Wagner aside, not one single German opera between Weber's Oberon (1826) and Humperdink's Hansel and Gretel (1892) has remained even on the fringes of the repertoire, whilst the pre-Brahmsian symphonies and chamber music of Raff, Reinecke, Abert, Jadassohn et al. have fared little better. What Balakirev appears to have perceived very clearly is that German musical academia was straightjacketing German musical creativity and that its tentacles were having a similarly suffocating effect upon the musical cultures of Britain, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and America. He was determined to establish a distinctively national style of composition before they extended too far into Russia. His heroes were the gifted dilettante, Mikhail Glinka, and the strongly anti-academic Frenchman, Hector Berlioz, his enemies the Rubenstein brothers, whose fancy St. Petersberg Academy opened its doors in 1862, the very year "the Five" first became an identifiable group.

His aim may have appeared quixotic, but his empirical approach sure produced results. Whilst drinking himself into an early grave, Mussorgsky somehow created two great operas, a remarkable cycle of piano pieces, many excellent songs and various other striking fragments. Possessed of an astonishing natural gift for melody and a warmly generous personality Borodin, in between investigating nucleic displacement, tending to stray cats and supporting his wife in her campaigning for women's rights, composed three and a half fresh and vigorous symphonies (the Second a masterpiece), a richly appealing pageant opera and a small body of chamber music that includes possibly the most sensually beautiful string quartet ever written. Even the young, academy-trained Tchaikovsky was to benefit from Balakirev's encouragement in the early years of his career.

Rimsky was to emerge as the most smoothly professional of the Five. His development of orchestral techniques based upon clearly defined, strongly contrasted sonorities was a decisive influence upon much to come in the 20th Century, sometimes offsetting a certain blandness in his harmonic idiom. He also crossed over to Russia's" academic musical establishment, becoming Professor of Composition and Orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1871 - pretty much the time at which Balakirev was starting to fall apart.

Clearly the latter's domineering manner was becoming too much for his acolytes and the resulting stresses, combined with personal bereavements and a constant underlying financial insecurity appear to have simply overwhelmed him. In view of his own "defection", one wonders if Rimsky's account isn't just a little bit defensive. By the time he came to compile his memoirs he had long enjoyed a position of pre-eminence in Russian musical life, having benefited from vastly from the older man's teaching. Excessively interfering he might have been, but Balakirev does not deserve to be remembered simply as an enthusiastic enabler of other people's talents who quickly outlived his usefulness. As a composer himself, he was the real deal, even if the true nature of his achievement was often obscured by the protracted or incomplete evolution of several key works. Indeed, another possible cause of his collapse may have been the frustration of failing to find time to devote to sustained composition at a time when his imagination was clearly on fire.

The three major achievements upon which Balakirev's reputation - such as it is - chiefly rests were all begun in the 1860's, two of them taking well over a decade to reach their final form. The third one, the virtuoso piano piece, Islamay (1869), arguably never reached it, having originated as a sketch for the first part of an ambitious orchestral tryptich that failed to materialize. No matter, what survives is not just one of the great piano showpieces, but a work truly exploratory in its uninhibited chromaticism, joyously proliferating decorative counterpoint and sheer drive.

(I can't resist a brief autobiographical excursus. One of my stranger musical experiences was attending a performance of Islamey by one of its most enthusiastic exponents, John Ogden, during the spring of 1989. The occasion was a private concert given at a Warwickshire public school and I was in attendance - wearing the proscribed black tie and tails - in my capacity as music critic of the Leamington Spa Courier. For some reason the school had plonked the great man, not in a grand hall, but in a narrow scout hut with cramped ad hoc seating where the nearby trundling of passing trains was clearly audible and the piano sound was truly terrible. Ageing, smoking, and a cruel history of mental instability had taken a clear toll upon once formidable technique, and the weighty programme selected - it also included Chopin's First Ballade, Brahms' Paganini Variations and Liszt's Dante Sonata - seemed somewhat in excess of what the circumstances called for. During the interval, a teacher of decidedly dissipated appearance, no doubt thinking I looked ill-seasoned and equipped to pass professional judgement - (I was twenty-eight years old) - patronisingly attempted to influence my review. "You're listening to a genius, young man, a genius!", he insisted. "And very much on the mend." I'm afraid Ogden's stature, though unmistakable, was only fitfully in evidence that evening. Three months later he was dead.)

The splendid symphonic poem Tamara (1867-1882), dedicated in a moment of truce to Nicolai Rubenstein, is another Balakirev triumph, in which harmony (often strongly whole-tone inflected), sinuous chromatic melody, dancing rhythms and vivid instrumental colour are excitedly emancipated from their rigid Germanic subservience to form. Yes, both it and Islamey are vulnerable to charges of "orientalism" - the latter is actually subtitled "An Oriental Fantasy" - but it should be born in mind that both Balakirev and Borodin had good reason to believe they carried at least some non-Caucasian blood in their veins. (Significantly, all of "the Five" were commoners, though some of them - including Balakirev - had aristocratic ancestry.) Isn't it more meaningful to see their work as a dynamic manifestation of the porousness of racial and cultural identity, rather than subject it to retroactive policing? It is far too late to police Tamara's long-term influence, anyway. Although it may not have been until 1908, well after the premiere of his own L'Apres-midi d'un Faune, that Debussy first heard it, he recognised it as a clear precursor. The Russian musical nationalism of which it is an outstanding product was one of the vital seeds from which the modernist regeneration of Western art music would spring.

The special quality of Balakirev's most substantial masterpiece, the Symphony no. 1 in C major, owes something to its "oriental" colouring, but also to formal innovation and boldness of orchestral technique. Extraordinarily, the First Movement - following a slow introduction that grows from deceptive tentativeness to lyrical expansiveness - delays conventional development till after a middle section that consists of a richly varied repeat of the proceeding exposition and then dispenses with a coda. Nothing else quite like this was attempted before Sibelius and Nielsen.

Though formally more conventional, the ensuing Scherzo, with its haunting cor anglais refrain set against rustling string patterns, its charming Asiatic trio and bursts of wild dance-like energy, is every bit as successful. The coda's evaporation into a soft haze of delicate string harmonics and triangle is quite magical. As is the ensuing slow movement, its lonely clarinet theme seemingly tied to an obsessively repeated tone as it recedes into silence before its wonderful lyrical extension in the strings. It is linked by an almost balletic harp cadenza to the Rondo Finale - at least two of whose themes are allegedly folk songs notated by Balakirev during a stint of work as a travelling railway official. Characteristically, one of the themes in question has a delightfully chromatic "oriental" flavour, whilst the other consists of little more than a driving one-note rhythm. Perhaps a little protracted, the movement riotously crowns a work of high accomplishment, both in the freshness of its melodic/harmonic content and its zestful orchestral presentation. Balakirev's uninhibited deployment of the brass and judicious idiomatic use of harps and percussion - presumably deriving from his enthusiasm for Berlioz - impart to the music a lustre that is the very antithesis of drab academicism.

The symphony was begun as early as 1864 but wasn't finished it until 1897, its exceptionally long gestation sadly obscuring its originality. During the 33 years of Balakirev's interrupted labour other Russian composers - some, like Rimsky, clearly indebted to him - had made their mark and the work was seen as a curio from a bygone age. Of course, the very fact of his having sustained such a high standard of inspiration and stylistic consistency over such a long period was in itself remarkable, but no one seemed to care. In the mid-Twentieth century both Karajan and Beecham made recordings and the latter went so far as to choose the symphony as one of his Desert Island Discs. These days, however, it has sunk back into a form of semi-obscurity. I have never heard it live and cannot remember the last time I stumbled across a broadcast.

The Second Symphony in D minor was begun in 1900 and was by Balakirev's standards speedily composed, being completed in a mere eight years. By general consent is is an altogether lesser work than no. 1. Certainly it is even less familiar. Nonetheless, I would like to bring it to your attention. A work of resigned older age, it is much less fiery in expression, and formally more conventional, though evincing a new elegance and economy of style, as well as a certain willingness to accommodate "academic" gestures. Perhaps a comparison could be made with the Second Symphony of William Walton, which only gradually emerged from the shadow of a blockbusting predecessor to prove a durable success in its own, less imposing, terms.

The two peremptory chords, answered by soft pizzicatos with which the work starts release a sweeping, strongly memorable tune on the 'cellos. By contrast, the second subject is a dancing clarinet solo over a muffled side drum rhythm - rather in the manner of Rimsky's Scheherazade. The (always delightfully scored) juxtaposition of these two themes leads to results attractively decorative rather than dynamic. The most striking (and the most obviously national sounding) movement is the Scherzo alla Cossaca, which opens with a startling rim-shot. Its folk-like themes are both rustic and oddly mechanical in their strong accents and changing metres. For a while, especially in the Trio, the Shrovetide antics of Petrushka seem not so far away. (It is worth noting that the young Stravinsky was evidently impressed by his meetings with Balakirev, whose vast bald pate and deep-set eyes he later described as giving him something of the watchful look of V. I. Lenin.)

The Third Movement Romanza is a modest thing after the glowing warmth of no. 1's Slow Movement - admittedly, a hard act to follow - but not without abundant lyric grace, rather in the manner of similar interludes in Tchaikovsky. Notable is the repeated use of a cadential slow trill - just a tiny hint of neo-classical stylization touching off the romantic aria.

The Grand Processional of the Finale, punctuated by ceremonious trumpet signals and concluding with a Pollacca rhythm, is a perfectly satisfactory, if slightly earthbound conclusion, full of incidental pleasures (especially in the woodwind and percussion writing), but never quite generating the cumulative excitement it clearly seeks. Still, the work as a whole is possessed of an integrity and craftsmanship that become increasingly persuasive with repeated hearings. If you don't already know Balakirev's magnificent First, then listen to that before going further; if you do, however, do give the more demure Second a chance. Premiered within a year of his death, it's a dignified, even touching, farewell from a strange, troubled, bitter, exasperating, in many ways un-loveable, but artisitically undervalued man.


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