Balakirev, Mily


Balakirev, Mily

Overture on the Themes of Three Russian Songs

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Balakirev, Mily  – Overture on the Themes of Three Russian Songs (1868, rev. 1881)

(b. Nizhny-Novgorod, 21 December 1836/2 January 1837 — d. St. Petersburg, 29 May 1910)

Mily Balakirev was the leader of Russia’s national “school” of composition. He started work on his First Piano Concerto in 1855 and gave his public début as a composer by playing its first movement in St. Petersburg the following year. On 2 January 1859 his (first) Overture on the Themes of Three Russian Songs was premièred in Moscow, followed by his “King Lear” Overture in St. Petersburg on 27 November 1859. In 1860 he traveled to the Caspian Sea to collect folk songs. The following year he embarked on his Second Piano Concerto, only to leave it unfinished (the work was completed after his death by his closest pupil, Sergey Lyapunov [1859-1924]). In 1863 he gathered together a legendary circle of musicians, stimulating them with his ideas to create an independent Russian species of art music in opposition to the prevailing German style. It was at this time that he also founded the Free Music School in St. Petersburg. In 1866 he traveled to Prague, where he conducted Mikhail Glinka’s operas Ruslan and Ludmilla and A Life for the Tsar the following year. On 24 May 1867, using Czech musicians, he mounted a program of young Russian composers in St. Petersburg, including works by Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), César Cui (1835-1918), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), and himself. The concert prompted the leading critic Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906) to write an article in which he introduced the term “Mighty Handful” (moguchaya kuchka), the label by which this group of nationally-minded Russian composers centered on Balakirev would go down in history (today they are also known as the “Mighty Five”). During his travels in the Caucasus Balakirev took a keen interest in Oriental melodies and rhythms, which he proceeded to imitate in his own music, thereby heavily influencing many of his fellow composers (such as Rimsky-Korsakov in Scheherazade and Antar or Borodin in In the Steppes of Central Asia). The most famous piece of this sort from Balakirev’s pen was his “oriental fantasy” Islamey of 1869 for solo piano. Gradually Balakirev’s pace slowed down considerably, and he had great difficulty completing the works he had started. Beginning in 1872 he worked in various administrative positions. It was not until 1881 that he again became musically active in the public arena. He conducted the First Symphony by the adolescent genius Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) in St. Petersburg on 29 March 1882 and increasingly set about revising his earlier works. In 1882, for example, he reworked his Second Overture on Russian Themes, renaming it Russia and premièring the work on 18 April 1864. He completed what is perhaps his most significant orchestral work, the symphonic poem Tamara, inspired by Caucasian melodies and dedicated to Franz Liszt, and conducted its première in St. Petersburg on 19 March 1883. That same year he became music director of the Imperial Chapel, a post he retained until 1894. In 1886 he fell out with his long-term pupil, friend, and comrade-in-arms Rimsky-Korsakov, an estrangement that developed into undisguised enmity in 1890. Still, for many years this did not prevent Rimsky-Korsakov from continuing to perform Balakirev’s music in his concerts. From 1900 to 1908 Balakirev worked on his Second Symphony in D minor, which was premièred at the Free Music School, St. Petersburg, on 10 (23) April 1909 under the baton of Sergey Lyapunov.

By the age of twenty-one Balakirev had acquired an outstanding reputation not only as a composer but as a pianist. In February 1858, for example, he played Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto with stunning success at a concert of the St. Petersburg Concert Society in the presence of the Tsar and his family, earning a not unappreciable fee of one-hundred rubles. Having completed his first orchestral work, Overture on a Spanish March, in the first half of 1857 (it was preceded only by a Polonaise-Fantaisie on Gogol’s Taras Bulba that he later reused in the suite for piano duet, completed in 1909), he now followed it with a second orchestral work that revealed him at the pinnacle of willful inspiration and masterly craftsmanship: the Overture on the Themes of Three Russian Folk Songs, begun in St. Petersburg on 19 September (1 October) 1857 and completed on 26 June (8 July) 1858 in Ludmila Shestakova’s dacha in Zamanilovka, after an interruption in April and May to recover from a grave illness. The work is dedicated to Dmitri Stasov (1828-1918), his trusty friend and an influential co-founder of the Russian Musical Society, and was premièred at a Moscow University concert on 21 December 1858 (2 January 1859).

The Overture has a striking freshness, originality, and terse formal rigor; it is executed with winning lucidity in every detail, brilliantly orchestrated, and even impressive in its command of counterpoint. The obvious model may well have been Glinka’s Kamarinskaya: Fantasy on Two Russian Folk Songs, but it differs from that groundbreaking work in the addition of another theme for the slow outside sections. A brief opening allegro flourish (in the manner of Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture) is followed by an andante introduction that presents the first of the three Russian themes (The Silvery Birch). This leads seamlessly to the main thematic group, marked Allegro moderato, which begins by introducing the other two themes and subjects them to contrasting development. (These two themes – “A small birch tree stood in the field” and “There was at the feast…” would later reappear in simplified form in far more popular works, the former in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, the latter, heavily vulgarized, in Stravinsky’s epic-making Shrovetide ballet Petrushka.) The overture ends nobly in the andante tempo of the introduction, just as Balakirev would later do to magical effect in his great tone painting Tamara. The Overture on the Themes of Three Russian Folk Songs impressively unveils the panorama of his future style.

In 1863 Balakirev completed a work originally intended to become a four-movement “Russian Symphony.” He presented it to the public in 1864 as his Second Overture on Russian Themes and published it in 1869 with the title “Musical Picture: One-Thousand Years” in reference to Russia’s millennial celebrations. Finally, beginning in 1884, he subjected the work to thorough revision and reorchestration and entered it in his catalogue of works as Russia. (Similarly, Tamara originally had a different “working title” – Lezghinka – and the tone poem In Bohemia was initially known among his circle of friends as Czech Overture.) Three years earlier, in 1881, Balakirev had also thoroughly revised and reorchestrated the (first) Overture on the Themes of Three Russian Folk Songs. It was in this form that the overture was published in 1882 by the Moscow-based publishing house run of Petr Jurgenson [1836-1904], who achieved legendary fame for his unflinching support of Tchaikovsky. Our study score is a faithful reproduction of the Jurgenson print.

Translation: J. Bradford Robinson

For performance materials please contact the publisher Jurgenson ( ).


Deutsches Vorwort > HERE

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