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8.220309 - GLAZUNOV: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1

Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov (1865–1936)


The Russian composer Glazunov has inspired various reactions among critics. Hailed by Balakirev as our little Glinka, after his success as an adolescent, he lived to be regarded as a representative of conservative tendencies in the age of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. He shares with his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, a phenomenal command of orchestration, and in some ways may be seen as a musician who offers a final synthesis of the conflicting Russian and European elements represented originally by composers like Balakirev, on the one hand, and by Tchaikovsky on the other.

Glazunov was the son of a publisher, his mother a pianist, and was born in St. Petersburg in 1865, the year in which Tchaikovsky was appointed Professor of Composition in Moscow, and incidentally, the year in which Sibelius was born. He studied the piano from the age of nine, turning to composition two years later. A meeting, in 1879, with Balakirev, one of the most influential of Russian nationalist composers, led to lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov that lasted eighteen months. His teacher remarked that his pupil’s progress was not by the day but by the hour. Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov were to remain close friends and later colleagues until the former’s death in 1908.

Glazunov’s public career as a composer opened with the performance of his First Symphony, under the direction of Balakirev, in 1882, followed by the success of his First String Quartet. He became a member of the circle of musicians to received encouragement from Mitrofan Petrovich Belyayev, a man whose fortune, amassed in the timber trade, was devoted to the promotion of Russian music, particularly in the establishment of a publishing house in Leipzig.

In 1899 Glazunov was appointed to the staff of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, resigning in protest at the reaction to student unrest in 1905, to be recalled eight months later as director, a post he retained throughout the Revolution until 1930. His work brought him international honour, as well as distinction at home as a leading figure in the musical life of the new Russia. In 1928 he moved abroad while retaining for a time his connection with the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He settled in Paris in 1932 and died there four years later, his remains being returned in honour to his native city in 1972.

Overture No. 1 on Three Greek Themes, Opus 3

It has been suggested that the chief appeal of the music of Glazunov may lie in the splendidly crafted smaller orchestral pieces that he wrote throughout his career, and in his ballets and suites. He is, in fact, a master of the more limited, miniature form into which he has an ability to concentrate his creative powers.

In 1882 and 1883 Glazunov wrote two Overtures on Greek themes, drawing on melodies published by Bourgault-Ducoudray in his Melodies populaires de Grèce et d’Orient. The vein explored is that Russian preoccupation with the relatively exotic music of neighbouring countries displayed, for example, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s popular Sheherazade. However exotic the thematic material, the music is translated into essentially Russian terms.

The first Overture opens with a characteristic theme, of unmistakable provenance, which forms the substance of the slow introduction. A lively dance-song theme is played first by the clarinet, leading to a second melody of a gentler kind, entrusted first to the oboe. Development of these melodies is followed by the return of the initial Adagio, and a rapid and ultimately triumphant summary of what has gone before.

Finnish Sketches: From the Kalevala, Opus 89 No. 1

The Finnish Kalevala is a national epic, a poem of some 50 cantos collected from oral tradition in the nineteenth century, dealing, in some 22,975 lines, with the conflict between Kalevala, the country of the Finns, and Pohjola, the North Country. Three Kalevala heroes, seer, smith and warrior respectively, woo the Maid of the North, the second proving victorious, through his magic art in forging the Sampo, an object that guarantees prosperity for its possessor. The Sampo is later partly destroyed in sea-battle, but fragments survive in the hands of the people of Kalevala.

The Kalevala is traditionally sung to a so-called Kalevala melody, which differs in range and form in different areas of the country. The melody is normally syllabic, following the Kalevala metre, eight notes long, the last two identical notes being longer. This ending is used by Glazunov in the theme of his Finnish Sketches, Opus 89, written in 1912, towards the end of perhaps the most creatively imaginative period of the composer’s life. The miniature musical epic is based entirely on the simple, repetitive melody, presented with all the skill in harmony and orchestration that the composer possessed.

Cortège solennel, Opus 89 No. 2

The Cortège solennel, the solemn procession that forms the second part of Glazunov’s Opus 89, is based, once again, on a simple theme, repeated with insistence, suggesting the progress of a funeral cortège, leading to the appearance, albeit briefly, of the old Lutheran hymn Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, a note of hope, replaced by the final reappearance of the march motif.

Triumphal March, Opus 40

From the opening bars of Glazunov’s Triumphal March, written in 1892 and including an optional chorus part, American listeners will have a feeling of familiarity. The melody on which the greater part of the March is based is the Philadelphia camp-meeting song “Say, bummers, will you meet us?”, better known as John Brown’s body, in celebration of the death of abolitionist John Brown, and his namesake, a Scottish soldier, who continued to march with the Tigers, the Second Battalion of the Massachusetts Infantry, in the American Civil War, after his more distinguished contemporary’s body was in the grave.

Glazunov makes imaginative use of the well-known melody, which possible lacked its American military connotations in nineteenth century Petrograd, devising from it a triumphant paean of victory. The march was written for the Chicago Exhibition, and published, with Russian words, by Belyayev’s company in 1895.

Spring (Vesna), Opus 34

Spring is described by Glazunov as a musical picture, the published score carrying a verse by the Russian poet Tyuchev, the translator of Heine, Goethe and Schiller, and member of the Russian embassy in Munich in the years when German romanticism was at its height: Spring comes and the chorus of the sweet, warm days of May, crimson and shining follows in joy.

This rhapsodic evocation of the first season of the year was written in 1891, and is typical of the composer in its descriptive nature, woodwind instruments being employed to good effect in suggestions of bird-song that never verge on the merely sentimental or vulgar. The music, a master piece of orchestration, evokes the mood of spring, summed up in the composer’s quotation from Tyuchev.

Poème épique, Op. Posth.

Glazunov wrote his Poème épique in 1933, in Paris, where he had settled the previous year, dedicating the work to the Académie des Beaux Arts de l’Institut de France. In a prefatory note the composer tells us that the work is written in the form of a Fantasy Overture, based on three themes. The first of these strong stated opens with the notes A C A D mi E, representing the Académie.

The opening notes of the Poème, spelling the word Académie, have a distinctly sombre Russian flavour, while the versions of Gregorian chat share something of this quality, providing opportunities for unexpected excursions in the martial and the romantic, in accordance with the general implications of the title and its suggestions of the world of chivalry, of Roland and Roncesvalles.

Keith Anderson

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