About this Recording
8.220324 - BALAKIREV: Chopin Suite / Overtures

Mili Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837–1910)
In Bohemia • Overture to King Lear • Overture on a Spanish March Theme • Chopin Suite


Once described by Gerald Abraham as a flawed genius, Balakirev continues to dominate the story of nineteenth century Russian musical nationalism, although much of his music remains relatively unknown. We hear of the encouragement that he offered to others, to Mussorgsky, Cui and Borodin, and the aggressive bullying to which he subjected the diffident Tchaikovsky, and of his leadership of the group of five that came to be known, ironically, as the mighty handful, with Rimsky-Korsakov the fifth member, all indebted too to the ideas put forward by the polymath librarian Vladimir Stasov and his brother.

Mili Alexeyevich Balakirev was born at Nizhny-Novgorod in January 1837, the son of a minor government official. His early piano lessons were with his mother, supplemented by a summer visit to Moscow in 1847, when he had some lessons from Alexander Dubuque, a pupil of John Field. It was later in his schooling that he was introduced, through his teacher, to Alexander Ulibishev, a well-to-do landowner, patron of music and writer of books on Mozart and Beethoven. It was through Ulibishev that he was to receive every encouragement, with access to music and opportunities to hear performances at his house, however inadequate these may sometimes have been.

Entry to the musical world of St. Petersburg was effected when Ulibishev took Balakirev there in 1855, introducing him to Glinka, the great pioneer of Russian music, and allowing him the opportunity to give public concerts, with considerable success. Nevertheless Balakirev found difficulty in supporting himself, although the death of Ulibishev in 1858 brought him a legacy of 1000 roubles, two violins and his patron’s music library.

Balakirev’s subsequent career brought him, initially, friendship with Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, his meeting with the last-named in late 1862, nine months after the foundation of the Free School of Music that was to occupy his attention for the next ten years. The financial failure of the Free School concerts brought about his withdrawal from music altogether, his eventual resignation from the directorship of the School in 1874 leading to the succession of Rimsky-Korsakov, whom he was to replace in 1881.

From 1872, Balakirev worked for the Warsaw Railway, his interests becoming increasingly devoted to religion. His gradual return to musical life began in 1876, recognised in 1883 by his appointment as Director of Music to the Imperial Chapel, a position he relinquished in 1894. A pension now allowed him to devote his time for the remaining years of his life to composition, but by the time of his death in 1910 his music had been largely forgotten, so that a projected concert of his works planned for 1909 was abandoned for lack of support.

In character Balakirev was a difficult man. His influence had, at one time, been very great in his own circle, but his friends and associates were to tire of the self-assertive dominance he exercised over them. At the same time he had shown occasional signs of mental instability, even as early as 1859, when Dmitry Stasov nursed him back to health, and again in the 1870s, when he was indebted to the help given him by Lyudmila Shestakova, Glinka’s sister. He was outspoken, tactless and completely devoted to the cause of Russian music as he saw it, intolerant of any divergence of opinion. For Belyayev, whose encouragement and practical assistance was of such service to the young composers of the last quarter of the century, he developed a strong aversion, regarding him as a pernicious influence. Rimsky-Korsakov, who had dared to attend Belyayev’s Friday evenings, instead of Balakirev’s musical Tuesdays, was accused of selling himself for thirty pieces of silver to Satan, who, disastrously for Russian music, appeared in the form of M.P. Belyayev.

At the same time Balakirev was responsible for many disinterested acts of kindness, not least in his work for the Free School of Music. His devotion to the furtherance of Russian music was unquestioned: the means by which he chose to carry out his mission sometimes proved offensive, but his example and inspiration was largely responsible for the shape Russian music was to take.

In 1866 Balakirev travelled to Prague, at the request of Lyudmila Shestakova, to direct projected performances there of her brother’s operas, a task he readily undertook. He was in Prague long enough to find in the Public Library a book by B.M. Kulda, Marriage among the Czechoslovak People, from which he extracted three melodies that were to be used in his Czech overture, revised in 1906 as a symphonic poem, In Bohemia.

In fact Balakirev’s time in Bohemia had not been free of problems. His first visit was curtailed by the Seven Weeks War between Austria and Prussia, and on his return early in the following year he found that A Life for the Tsar had been put on very badly in his absence, with impossible costumes and what he regarded as a deliberate attempt at sabotage by Smetana, the principal conductor at the Prague Opera. He was able, however, to mend matters to his own satisfaction in a subsequent production of that opera and of Ruslan and Lyudmila.

The Overture on Czech Themes was first performed at a Free School concert in St. Petersburg in May, 1867. The three themes are contrasted, the first announced on the oboe, completed by the answering strings, and the second an energetic dance-song from the strings. This is followed by the third theme, presented in varying circumstances, but forming something of a climax before it is developed, the music leading to a brilliant and triumphant conclusion.

It was originally supposed that Balakirev would provide music for a production of Shakespeare’s play King lear at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1858. Vladimir Stasov, whose wife had English connections, had provided the composer with English themes, including the Fool’s song from As You Like It and “When that I was and a little tiny boy”, and urged him to complete incidental music that was in fact, only to be finished in 1861. The Overture, however, in which the tragedy is summarised, was performed in November 1859, winning success then and on future occasions, in spite of the composer’s misgivings about the orchestration. It was revised in 1902 and finally published two years later.

The Overture opens with the vain pomp of King Lear’s entry, every inch a king, but at the same time a foolish, fond old man, intent on dividing his kingdom between his daughters, the evil Goneril and Regan, and the truthful Cordelia. The dilemma of the loyal Kent, before such folly leads to Lear’s theme set against the ominous motif in the bass representing Goneril and Regan. The second subject, of clear serenity, shows Cordelia, replaced by the theme of her sisters, leading to a development section, the storm in which the King, deprived of kingdom and followers, wanders in madness, accompanied by the Fool. The King’s theme returns in the recapitulation in frantic madness, leading to his death after the death of his loyal daughter Cordelia, the music ending in a brief epilogue for solo violin.

In St. Petersburg, Ulibishev had introduced Balakirev to Glinka, the composer who had led the way to Russian musical nationalism. At the same time Glinka had been attracted to the music of Spain, which he had visited in 1845, to be attended thereafter by a Spanish music student, who served as friend and assistant. Glinka was impressed by the obvious ability of Balakirev, to whom he entrusted the musical education of his niece, in his absence, and gave him some melodies from his collection of Spanish music.

Glinka left Russia in 1856 and died abroad in the following year. His acquaintance with Balakirev had been a short one, although his sister Lyudmila Shestakova was to remain a good friend for many years to come. The Overture on a Spanish March Theme is a token of Glinka’s generosity to the younger composer, based, as it is, on a theme from his collection. It was revised and published in 1886, apparently intended as an overture to a play The Expulsion of the Moors from Spain.

The Overture opens with a piccolo Oriental theme, representing the Moors, a melody taken up by the rest of the orchestra with dramatic force. The Spanish march theme follows, after the brief appearance of another theme that assumes a later role characterising the chant of monks. In accordance with the dramatic requirements of the explanatory title, the Spanish theme finally puts to flight the Moorish theme, neither Moors nor monks having much to say to this triumphant melody.

The arrangement for orchestra of four Chopin pieces was made in 1910, the last year of Balakirev’s life, in connection with celebrations of the centenary of Chopin’s birth. He had already arranged for strings a Chopin Mazurka and transcribed for solo piano the Romance from the E Minor Piano Concerto, a work for which he had always had considerable affection, since he first heard it with his teacher Karl Eisrich at Ulibishev’s.

In the Suite he creates something movingly original from the D Minor Etude, followed by the B Flat Mazurka, a light-hearted contrast. The G Minor Nocturne leads to the D Minor Scherzo in conclusion, bringing to an end a remarkably cogent tribute to Chopin, whose influence on Balakirev had been incalculable, particularly, perhaps, on the piano music of his last twelve years.

Keith Anderson

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