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8.220447 - 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 2 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 musical society.

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 instruction.

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 has 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 as his lslamey and the Sonata in B flat 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, Dvorak, 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 centred over a D pedal-point. Balakirev inserted the entire mazurka unchanged as the second movement of his final revision of the 1855 Sonata. Mazurka No. 6 in A flat major is filled with vivid contrasts of mood and tempo. Mazurka No. 7 in E flat minor, written in 1906, is one of the most subtle and musically sophisticated of the mazurkas.

Joseph Banowetz

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