GLAZUNOV: The Sea / Oriental Rhapsody / Ballade
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Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov (1865-1936)
The Sea, Op.28
Oriental Rhapsody, Op.29
Cort?¿ge solennel, Op.91
It is becoming increasingly unnecessary to defend thereputation of Glazunov. He belonged to a generation of Russian composers thatwas able to benefit from more professional standards of compositionaltechnique, absorbing and helping to create a synthesis of the national, thatmight sometimes be expressed crudely enough, and the technique of theconservatories, that might sometimes seem facile. Glazunov worked closely withRimsky-Korsakov, to whom Balakirev, his mother's teacher, had recommended him,and played an important part in the education of a new generation of Russiancomposers such as Shostakovich.
Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov was born inSt Petersburg in 1865, the son of a publisher and bookseller. As a child heshowed considerable musical ability and in 1879 met Balakirev and hence Rimsky-Korsakov. By the age of sixteen he had finished the first of his nine symphonies,which was performed under the direction of Balakirev, whose influence isperceptible in the work. The relationship with Balakirev was not to continue.
The rich timber-merchant Mitrofan Petrovich Belyayev had been present at thefirst performance of the symphony and travelled to Moscow to hear Rimsky-Korsakov conduct a second performance there. He attended the Moscow rehearsalsand his meeting with Rimsky-Korsakov was the beginning of a new informalassociation of Russian composers, perceived by Balakirev as a threat to his ownposition and influence, as self-appointed mentor of the Russian nationalistcomposers. Glazunov became part of Belyayev's circle, attending his Fridayevenings with Rimsky-Korsakov, rather than Balakirev's Tuesday evening meetings.
Belyayev took Glazunov, in 1884, to meet Liszt in Weimar, where the FirstSymphony was performed.
In 1899 Glazunov joined the staff of theConservatory in St Petersburg, but by this time his admiration for his teacherseems to have cooled. Rimsky-Korsakov's wife was later to remark on Glazunov'sadmiration for Tchaikovsky and Brahms, suspecting in this the influence ofTaneyev and of the critic Laroche, champion of Tchaikovsky and a strongopponent of the nationalists, a man described by Rimsky-Korsakov as the Russianequivalent of Hanslick in Vienna, a comparison that, from him, was not entirelycomplimentary.
Glazunov, however, remained a colleague andfriend of Rimsky-Korsakov , and demonstrated this after the politicaldisturbance of 1905, when the latter had signed a letter of protest at thesuppression of some element of democracy in Russia and had openly sympathizedwith Conservatory students who had joined liberal protests against officialpolicies. Rimsky-Korsakov was dismissed from the Conservatory, to be reinstatedby Glazunov, elected director of an institution that, in the aftermath, had nowwon a measure of autonomy. Glazunov remained director of the Conservatory until1930. In 1928 he left Russia in order to attend the Schubert celebrations inVienna. Thereafter he remained abroad, with a busy round of engagements as aconductor, finally settling near Paris until his death in 1936.
It says much for the esteem in which Glazunovwas held that he was able to steer the Conservatory through years of greathardship, difficulty and political turmoil, fortified in his task, it seems, bythe illicit supply of vodka provided for him by the father of Shostakovich,then a student there. Emaciated through the years of privation after theRevolution, he eventually assumed a more substantial appearance again, comparedby the English press to a retired tea-planter or a prosperous bank-manager,with his rimless glasses and gold watch- chain. His appearance was inaccordance with his musical tastes. He found fault with Stravinsky's ear andcould not abide the music of Richard Strauss, while the student Prokofiev seemsto have shocked him with the discords of his Scythian Suite. His ownmusic continued the tradition of Tchaikovsky and to this extent seemed ananachronism in an age when composers were indulging in experiments of allkinds. The fantasy The Sea, Opus 28, was written in 1889 and dedicatedto the memory of Richard Wagner. The score contains the following programme.
Through long centuries the sea has carried itswaves to the shore, sometimes pursued by a raging wind, sometimes rocked by thelight breath of the air. A man sat on the shore and the various pictures ofnature passed before his eyes. Bright sun shone in the sky, the sea was calm. Suddenlya raging whistling gust of wind arose, followed by another. The sky grew dark,the sea became agitated. The elements launched into a struggle, relentless,with a great roaring, with majestic force. A violent storm burst. But thetempest passed away, the sea became calm again. The sun shone anew over thecalm surface of the water. And everything that the man had seen and all that hehad felt in his soul- he recounted later to other men.
Rimsky-Korsakov found the work too Wagnerian, ofthe Meistersinger period, and others of his circle were critical of it,although some might have detected a debt to Rimsky-Korsakov himself. Audiences,however, responded to a colourful and evocative score. Certainly the pictureoffered is a vivid one, as the waves mount, followed by a sudden calm, with theharp leading to a romantic new theme. A storm gathers force, only to subside,as the tranquillity of the opening is restored.
Glazunov wrote his Oriental Rhapsody. Opus 29,in the same year, following the Russian vein of exoticism that had foundexpression in some of the work of Borodin and of Rimsky-Korsakov. The work,dedicated to the painter Ilya Repin, is in five movements, for which aprogramme is provided. The first movement suggests evening, with the town sleeping.
The call of the watchmen is heard from a French horn, echoed by a second, mutedhorn, and the song of an itinerant musician, an exotic theme, forms the melodicsubstance of the movement, which closes with the echoed calls of the watch. Thefirst theme of the dance of young men and girls is announced by the oboe overthe plucked notes of the strings and the rhythm of the tambourine. Occasionallycross-rhythms are introduced, as the energetic dance continues, never relentingin its progress. The harp and divided lower strings, with the woodwind,introduce the old man's ballad, its narrative melody entrusted first to theviolins in a slow movement that finally leads to fanfares and, in the nextmovement, the march of troops, returning in victory, and general triumph. Thelast movement finds the warriors celebrating their victory, with the youngsinger appearing in the midst of the dance with his song from the openingmovement. The Rhapsody ends in a final wild orgy, with reminiscences ofwhat has passed.
The F major Ballade, Opus 78, was writtenin 1902. In May Glazunov played it through to Rimsky- Korsakov and other guestsat the latter's house, together with another work, the still unfinished SeventhSymphony. In his Reminiscences of Rimsky-Korsakov, Yastrebtsev,present on that occasion, praises the strength and beauty of the Ballade. Thework is framed by a slower section, dominated by a strongly felt and extendedtheme rather from the world of contemporary Vienna than that of St Petersburg.
The central section brings greater excitement in what might be imagined asmartial acts of bravery, if a narrative is to be sought.
1910 brought the third of Glazunov's solemnprocessionals, the Cortege sol