Mili Alekseyevich Balakirev (1837–1910)
Complete Piano Works • 3: Mazurkas and Other Works
Brilliant pianist, improviser, noted conductor and selfless champion of other composers, Balakirev is surprisingly little known today. Yet as leader of the Russian composers known as ‘The Mighty Handful’—Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Cui—he strongly influenced not only their work but also that of Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, setting the standard by which others were judged. He neglected his own composing, however, some works existing for years only in his head as piano improvisations.
In the 1870s he worked as a clerk for the Warsaw Railway, after suffering a number of setbacks which resulted in a deep depression; in 1883 he was appointed to the post of director of the Imperial Chapel Choir, but heavy administrative duties meant that by the time of his final creative flowering (1900–1910) many of his earlier champions had died, and Balakirev himself no longer appeared in public as a pianist. By the time he could devote himself to composition, his style was no longer at the cutting edge, and most of his output fell into obscurity almost as soon as it was written.
Balakirev was born in Nizhni Novgorod. A local landowner A.D. Ulybyshev encouraged his musical education and, after dropping out of his study of Mathematics at Kazan University after one year, in 1855 he was taken by Ulybyshev to St Petersburg, enabling him to start his musical career. In addition to a large output of piano music and songs, Balakirev wrote two symphonies, several symphonic poems, works for piano and orchestra, choral music and incidental music for Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Mazurka No. 1 in A flat major • Mazurka No. 2 in C sharp minor
Balakirev wrote seven mazurkas—Polish dances in triple time. These two date from 1859–60. No. 1 is the more brilliant with a strong Slavic feel and a great deal of orchestral colour. Its three contrasting themes are combined in a sparkling coda which dies away unexpectedly. No. 2 is one of a tiny handful of pieces by Balakirev within easy reach of the amateur pianist. Its melancholy, laconic tone reminds one of Chopin.
Sonatina in G major
The Sonatina (1909) was Balakirev’s final composition. Published posthumously as Esquisses, the work, comprising three brief, connected and fully worked out movements, is certainly not a sketch: the first movement, an elegantly spun melodic line; the second, a mazurka of much charm; the third, entitled Coda, a slow build up over a long Dominant pedal to a joyous climax and a conclusion of great virtuosity.
Berceuse in D flat major
The Berceuse (1901) includes the following note on the title page by Balakirev: A mother tenderly sings a lullaby to her son. The child sleeps, but a bad dream frightens him and he awakens, crying. The mother sings again and the child falls asleep, lulled by a delicious dream of golden butterflies fluttering around him to the tinkling of little silver bells. Every detail of this is captured perfectly.
Mazurka No. 3 in B minor • Mazurka No. 4 in G flat major
The Third and Fourth Mazurkas date from 1884–85; both were played by Balakirev at a musical evening at Sophie Menter’s (Liszt’s favourite pupil), where the illustrious company included Wassily Sapellnikoff, whose 1925 recording of the Fourth Mazurka is still available. No. 3 unfolds with a passage reminiscent of the podgolosochni style of polyphonic folk singing; the central section is splendidly orchestral in texture, and in the last page chromatic harmonies disentangle themselves over a repeated bass note in an impressionistic haze of pedal. In contrast, No. 4 is more lively, with chains of pearly passage-work over a typical mazurka rhythm; the middle section is rather orchestral, with the opening melody marked quasi Violoncello. Balakirev, in a typically generous gesture, gave the manuscripts of these mazurkas to the celebrated critic V.V. Stasov (1824–1906) as a birthday present in January 1887.¹
Dumka in E flat minor
The dumka—‘a little thought’ in Ukrainian—is a type of melancholic epic ballad. The genre became popular after Mykola Lysenko, the Ukrainian composer and ethnomusicologist (1842–1912), published a paper and gave an illustrated lecture in St Petersburg in 1874. Balakirev’s Dumka (1900) has the characteristic juxtaposition of touchingly sad passages with more cheerful episodes. The main theme, a quintessentially Russian melody, combines with a plethora of ornamental detail and improvisatory elements, such as the experimental strumming of the introduction and the cadenza-like passages, to create a feeling of the endless Russian landscape and the timelessness of village life.
Mazurka No. 5 in C sharp major (1884 version)
This mazurka began life in the Grande Sonate of 1855 and was revised for the 1ère Sonate of 1856, both of which can be heard on Volume 1 (GP636). In 1884 Balakirev began another version, richer in harmony and texture, entitling it 4ème Mazurka, but broke off after 235 bars. In 1900 he completed a version, in D major, which was published as the Fifth Mazurka. This became the second movement of the Piano Sonata of 1905, also on GP636. It seemed a pity to deny listeners the chance of hearing this exciting music, so I have completed the work, adding another 53 bars, basing them on the gestures of both the earliest and the later versions, inspired by the colourful textures of the 1884 version—in many ways different from the 1900 edition—and using a harmonic language similar to that of Balakirev in the 1880s.
Rêverie in F major
On 11th August, 1903, Balakirev wrote to his friend, S.M. Lyapunov (1859–1924): “Today at last I delivered my latest piece which I call Rêverie to Zimmerman’s shop.”² The tone of that sentence might suggest Balakirev found the composition of the work difficult, but there is no hint of it in the music itself: a romantic melodic line clothed in textures of great variety and often virtuosity, with typically imaginative use of chromatic harmony over long pedals.
Humoresque in D major
Originally entitled Chatter, this piece (1902) is highly virtuosic: a constant, gossiping flow of semiquavers throughout, except for the Tarantella-like middle section. The vitality of the final blaze of alternate octaves is particularly impressive. S.K. Bulich (1859–1921), noted Russian ethnographer and writer, wrote to Balakirev in December, 1903 regarding the Humoresque: “you have managed to preserve till your hair is grey such heartfelt warmth and freshness of feeling, such as one does not meet nowadays even in young people”.³
Mazurka No. 6 in A flat major
The Sixth Mazurka opens with an exotic melody redolent of a muezzin’s call to prayer—Balakirev’s time in Kazan and his travels in the Caucasus would have exposed him to such sounds. The rhythms and the shifting sense of key give the music a heady perfume, interrupted by two brief and more energetic episodes. Unusually, it ends with a virtuosic krakoviak, another Polish folk dance but in duple time.
Piece in F sharp minor (1851, 2nd version)
This Slavic waltz consists of a 64 bar fragment, of which there are two versions, both dated 14th March, 1851. They are identical in virtually every detail, except that the middle section of the first version begins in F sharp major, which Balakirev changes to G flat major in the second version. It would be a pity to omit this beautiful little piece, so I added a further 62 bars, re-using some of what Balakirev had written already and introducing some canonic imitation, typical of his style. Once again, I am indebted to Tatiana Zaitseva of the St Petersburg Conservatory for introducing me to many of these early, unpublished works.
Mazurka No. 7 in E flat minor
The Seventh Mazurka (1906) is a substantial piece with a strongly Russian and orchestral character. Certain passages sound as if scored for woodwind and pizzicato strings, while others evoke full orchestra with percussion. Pedal points play an important part, and the inventive use of them contributes to the harmonic colour and subtlety.
Capriccio in D major
Stasov mentions in a letter that Balakirev first thought of the material for the Capriccio of 1902 when he was 18.4 Symphonic in stature, the structure an unusual arch shape, it is one of Balakirev’s most extended pieces. A tempestuous introduction subsides into a mazurka-like section which never quite settles down into the home key of D major, producing a restless, yearning feeling. A central section works up to a splendid blaze of B flat major which evaporates in the filigree of a cadenza. The repetition of the mazurka fails to achieve stability before the opening stormy section returns. A brief lull precedes a short coda of audacious virtuosity. More than any other composer—perhaps inspired by Orthodox chant and folksong—Balakirev loved long bass notes over which the harmony changes, often quite chromatically. Such pedal points are a prominent and exciting feature of this work.
¹ Balakirev—Letopis’ zhizni i tvorchestva, Muzyka, Leningrad 1967, p.298
² Ibid, p.463
³ Ibid, p.465
4 Ibid, p.305