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8.223135 - KALINNIKOV: Tsar Boris / Epic Poem / The Nymphs

Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov (1866–1901)
Tsar Boris – Incidental Music to Alexey Tolstoy’s drama • Bilina (Epic Poem): Overture • Kedri i palma (The Cedar and the Palm) – Symphonic Picture after Heinrich Heine’s poem • Nimfi (The Nymphs) – Symphonic Picture after Ivan Turgenev’s Poem in Prose


Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov was born in 1866 in Voina, in the Oryol District, where Turgenev, Henry James’s “beautiful genius” had been born in 1818. The son of a police official, he was allowed through the ecclesiastical connections of the family to study at the seminary in Oryol, where he took charge of the choir at the age of 14. In 1884 he went to Moscow as a student at the Philharmonic Society School, taking lessons on the bassoon and in composition with Alexander Il’yinsky and the self-taught Pavel Blaramberg, a statistician by profession. The poverty of his family forced him to earn a living playing the bassoon, timpani or violin in theatre orchestras and further weakened his health, already affected by childhood privations.

In 1893 Kalinnikov’s fortunes seemed about to take a turn for the better, with his appointment as conductor at the Italian Theatre in Moscow, but deteriorating health compelled him to resign in order to seek in the relative warmth of the South Crimea a cure for the tuberculosis from which he suffered. He was to remain in Yalta for the rest of his life, completing there his two symphonies, and, among other orchestral works, incidental music for the play Tsar Boris by Alexey Tolstoy, staged at the Maliy Theatre in Moscow in 1899.

Towards the end of his life Kalinnikov received some financial relief through the good offices of Sergey Rachmaninov, who had visited him in Yalta and been appalled at the conditions in which he found him living, The latter’s intervention with the publisher Jurgenson brought an immediate sum of 120 roubles for three songs and an offer to publish the score, parts and piano-duet transcription of the Second Symphony, which had had its first performance in Kiev in 1898, a year after the première of the First, which had also been heard in Vienna and Berlin. Rachmaninov also arranged payment for a piano arrangement of the earlier symphony, but Kalinnikov did not live to benefit from his new agreement with Jurgenson, He died early in January 1901, before his 35th birthday, His death induced Jurgenson to offer Kalinnikov’s widow an unexpectedly high sum for the rest of her husband’s manuscripts, with the remark that he paid because the composer’s death had multiplied the value of his works by ten, a sad reflection on commercial reality.

Count Alexey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, a courtier of Tsar Alexander II, until his retirement from official duties in 1861, won himself a considerable reputation as a poet and, with his poetic trilogy on the Tsars Ivan the Terrible, Fedor Loannovich and Boris, as a historical dramatist, In 1881 Tchaikovsky, who had set various poems by Tolstoy, was invited to provide nine marches for the play Tsar Boris, but rejected the proposal, which came at a difficult time in his career. Kalinnikov’s music for the play is among his most successful works, suggesting, as Asafyev proposed, that had he lived he might have achieved a high position among Russian nationalist composers of the time. An opening overture sets the scene for the first act, its ominous introduction leading to music of thoroughly Russian lyricism in melodic contour and in rhythm, It is followed by a series of entr’actes which reflect obvious similarities with Borodin in orchestral colour and the use of themes of clear Russian provenance, forming an impressive suite. The overture Bilina (“Epic Poem”) was written in Moscow in 1892. It opens with a melody of obviously Russian contour, an ominous introduction to a more lyrical theme, followed by faster dance rhythms, mingled with colourfully orchestrated music of strongly romantic feeling.

Kedri i palma (“The Cedar and the Palm”), based on a Russian version of Heine by Apollon Maikov, was completed in 1898 and first published in 1901. The original poem, which also served as inspiration to Sibelius, contrasts the northern pine-tree with the desert palm:

Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam
Im Norden auf kahler Höh’.
Ihn schläfert; mit weißer Decke
Umhüllen ihn Eis und Schnee.
Er träumt von einer Palme,
Die fern im Morgenland
Einsam und schweigend trauert
Auf brennender Felsenwand.

In the music of Kalinnikov it is difficult to avoid association with Borodin, although this is not to suggest that the composer was purely derivative in inspiration, but that the course he was following was very much that pursued by earlier nationalist composers, coupled with a high degree of technical competence in handling orchestral colour and thematic materials of a very Russian cast, with inevitable suggestions, at moments of climax, of ballet music, descending into rural melancholy.

Kalinnikov felt a particular affinity with the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who had been born in Oryol, the composer’s home district, in 1818. He shared with the writer a similar aim, that of evoking, in his case in purely musical terms, the feeling and atmosphere of the Russian countryside. At the same time he carefully avoided any detailed narrative programme to his music. The symphonic picture after Turgenev, Nimfi (“The Nymphs”), based on one of the late prose-poems, was completed in 1889.

Keith Anderson

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