Of Olden Times Op. 21b for orchestra
Anatol Konstantinovich Lyadov
Pro starinu (“Of Olden Times”)
Ballad for Orchestra, op. 21b (1889-1906)
(b. St. Petersburg, 11 May 1855 – d. Polinovka, Novgorod district, 28 August 1914)
One day, toward the end of his life, Anatol Lyadov found himself in conversation with friends about the alleged brevity of his orchestral works. Why didn’t he write full-length symphonies, they asked. He answered by describing his reaction to a recent symphony he had heard:
“The first section came – nothing. It was followed by the second – attention begins to sag. Then the third – great exhaustion. Oh my God, a fourth section – how long! – That’s what I wish to avoid.”
Lyadov, the least well-known of the trio of late nineteenth-century Russian composers closely associated with the great publisher and music patron Mitrofan Belaieff (the other two were his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and his fellow-pupil Alexander Glazunov), has been faulted for being lazy ever since the appearance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s memoirs in 1909. His works – so the critique runs – are too short, too few in number, too beholden to small forms. Besides, despite the earnest entreaties of his friends, he never managed to write a symphony or an opera. Only recently has this picture of the composer as a pampered aristocrat of Oblomov-like indolence begun to change: sixty-seven published works with opus numbers, still others without opus number, some 150 folk-song arrangements, and orchestral versions of works by other composers (including Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Schumann, and Borodin) are, all in all, not exactly symptomatic of laziness. Lyadov was a brilliant and much sought-after pianist who could regale his friends for hours at the piano with improvisations or excerpts from his works in progress, many of which, as with Brahms, were destined to fall victim to his severe self-criticism. Yet there is every indication that Lyadov, like his admired forebear Chopin, was a born miniaturist who deliberately set himself apart from Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky, among the Russian nationalist school, by aspiring to what he designated as his three cardinal virtues: brevity, linearity, and laconicism.
Pro starinu, originally composed for solo piano in 1889, marked a watershed in Lyadov’s artistic evolution. Earlier, like his rival Skryabin, been a master of the Chopinesque piano miniature; now he turned to an emphatically Russian subject to produce a work on a larger scale which, apparently, was intended for an orchestral setting from the very outset. If the original title was deliberately vague and generic, the orchestral version produced shortly afterwards was given a literary motto quoted from the twelfth-century Russian epic poem Slovo o polku Igor’eve (“The Tale of Igor’s Campaign”). This poem had only resurfaced in 1795, after which it was soon hailed as a masterpiece of medieval literature (an opinion only reinforced by Vladimir Nabokov’s stylish English translation of 1960) and became something akin to a Russian national epic, giving rise to, among other things, Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. Lyadov’s motto reads “Let us, O brothers, sing the tale of old Vladimir,” the latter being one of the leading figures in the original poem. While Lyadov’s “ballad” is not a tone-poem in the conventional sense and makes no attempt to recount the story of the epic, it does try to recapture something of the antique flavor of the original, first by clearly imitating the sound of the ancient Russian dulcimer, the gusli (note the use of the harp in the Introduction), and second by adopting, as its main theme, a folk song collected in the southern Ukraine by Balakirev, who published it as No. 19 in his famous collection of 1866. This folk song belongs to the narrative species known as a protyazhny, which is noted for its free, rubato delivery and drawn-out vowels. Lyadov altered the 4/4 meter of Balakirev’s transcription into a flowing 5/4, perhaps in imitation of the five-foot meter of the original epic, but certainly to emphasize the fluid prosody of the protyazhny. Rather than following the extended sonata form favored by Liszt in his tone-poems, Lyadov produced what might be called a set of freely unfolding variants of the main theme: Introduction – Theme – Variants I through IV – Coda. The antecedents to this form are nowhere to be found among Russia’s orchestral composers and most likely stem from Chopin’s ballads – hence Lyadov’s choice of subtitle.
Lyadov evidently produced his expanded orchestral version of Pro starinu shortly after composing the “piano ballad” in 1889, but its première and publication had to wait until 1906, when it was conducted by Nikolai Tcherepnin at the Second Russian Symphony Concert in St. Petersburg on 2 March and published in full score by Belaieff in Leipzig. Although overshadowed by his three late orchestral tone-poems Baba Yaga, The Enchanted Lake, and Kikimora (see Repertoire Explorer No. 647), Pro starinu continues to hold its own in both the piano and concert repertoires, where it is considered one of Lyadov’s finest creations.
Bradford Robinson, 2008
160 x 240 mm