Spendiarov, Alexander


Spendiarov, Alexander

Les trois palmiers, Symphonic poem, Op. 10

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Alexander Spendiarov – Les trois palmiers (Three Palms), Symphonic poem, op. 10 (1905)

(b. Kakhovka on the Dnieper, 20 October/1 November 1871 – Yerevan, 7 May 1928)

Andante (p. 157) – Animando poco a poco (p. 171) – Allegro agitato (p. 174) – Poco più mosso (p. 178) –
Allegro agitato (p. 186) – Andantino sostenuto (p. 189) – Moderato (p. 208) – Poco più mosso (p. 228) –
Più vivo (p. 233) – Allegro irato (p. 234) – Andante (p. 237) – Poco più mosso (p. 239) –
Animando poco a poco (p. 241) – Allegro irato (p. 242) – Andante (p. 244) – Moderato (p. 245) –
Poco più lento (p. 249) – Andantino sostenuto (p. 250) – Larghetto (p. 258)

At first, the important music of Armenia was conveyed by the oral tradition of the ashukhs, itinerant musicians comparable to the troubadours of medieval Europe. Thereafter its classical tradition was founded by two men: Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), commonly known as Komitas Vardapet, collected the surviving folk melodies, arranged them in marvelous harmonic settings, and is considered today the true founder of an “Armenian school.” (Also worthy of mention is George Ivanovich Gurdjieff [1866-1949], who had many valuable Armenian melodies written out in collaboration with his pupil and co-worker Thomas de Hartmann [1885-1956].) The other, two years Komitas’ junior, was Alexander Spendiarov, whose family hailed from Ani and bore the name Spendiaryan before it was Russified by the Czarist empire.

Already in early childhood Spendiarov revealed many remarkable artistic gifts. At the age of three he assembled paper figures of such high quality that the great painter Ivan Aivasovsky (1817-1909), known especially for his superb seascapes, took them to St. Petersburg and exhibited them at the Academy of Fine Arts. Before he was eight the boy had progressed so far that art dealers vied for his paintings. This left him unconcerned; in advanced age he would commonly say that nothing remarkable had ever happened in his life. He received musical guidance from his mother, an excellent pianist, and composed a waltz at the age of seven. He wrote poetry as well as dances and marches for piano, but was entirely uninterested in perfecting his piano technique. At the age of fourteen he started playing the violin, on which he attained such mastery that Nikolai Klenovsky (1857-1915) appointed him concertmaster of the orchestra of Moscow University. There, beginning in 1890, he studied natural history for one year before taking up law, earning his degree in 1895. During these years he continued to study the violin and to compose. When his mentor Klenovsky left Moscow, Spendiarov traveled to St. Petersburg at his suggestion to show his compositions to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), who evinced full admiration and encouraged him to make a deep study of the folk music of his native Armenia. From 1896 to 1900 he took private composition lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov. During this period he produced his First String Quartet, among other works. According to Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936), “Rimsky-Korsakov was wholly satisfied with the results of Spendiarov’s work” and regarded him as a “serious and gifted composer with a great flair for composition.” Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945) valued him not only as one of the finest and most inspired of his fellow composers, but as a selfless man of boundless kindness and hospitality, a man who built up the musical culture of Armenia and Crimea, tirelessly promoted every serious musical endeavor in his vicinity, and established the Kalinnikov Monument in Yalta Cemetery.

In 1900 Spendiarov composed a Concert Overture that was premièred in Pavlovsk in June 1901. It was followed in 1903 by the first series of Crimean Sketches (1903) and the symphonic poem Three Palms, which marked his breakthrough as a composer, even in the eyes of such colleagues as Anatol Liadov (1855-1914), Glazunov, and Tcherepnin. By 1913 he had produced such works as The Legend of Beda the Preacher for contralto and orchestra, the second series of Crimean Sketches, Forgotten Graves for tenor and orchestra on a poem by Khachatur Abovyan (1809-1848), his second and third string quartets, and many works for the cello and the violin. During these years he was awarded the Glinka Prize three times: for Three Palms in 1908, The Legend of Beda the Preacher in 1910, and a grand melodic declamation in 1912. In all these pieces he lent his voice to the Armenian tradition like no other professional composer trained in the Russian school. Time and again he sought out and brought to expression specific traits of Armenian culture, which over centuries of invasions had been constantly threatened with extinction, not only in music, but in the arts altogether. He worked mainly in Yalta, where he became acquainted with Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, and Feodor Chaliapin. He was there, immersed in Armenian folklore and the vanishing art of the ashukhs and pursuing his decades-long collection of Armenian folk tunes, when the Russian Revolution erupted in 1917. He also had received instruction from the last of the great Armenian ashukhs, the mortally ill Dzhivani (born Serob, 1846-1909), in the final two years of the latter’s life. (Only some twenty of Dzhivani’s roughly one-hundred songs have survived in authentic form, the others either having vanished or been irreparably defaced in transmission.) In 1924 Spendiarov, having conducted with distinction in Kharkov and Odessa, moved to Yerevan at the invitation of the Soviet cultural authorities. There he founded a forty-piece orchestra that would later become today’s Armenian National Orchestra. In 1925 he composed his famous Yerevan Études (or Yerevan Sketches) for orchestra, one of his most magical creations. By then he was working as a consultant or active researcher in the systematic study of Armenian traditions and completing his only opera, Almast, based on The Capture of Tmkabert by his age-mate, the great Armenian national poet Hovhannes Tumanyan (1869-1923). The vocal score was finished in the year of Tumanyan’s death. Spendiarov himself died after a brief illness; the few scenes of Almast that he was unable to write out in full score were orchestrated after his death by another Rimsky-Korsakov pupil, Maximilian Steinberg (1883-1946). Though the opera was performed in Yerevan during the 1930s, it was the posthumous Moscow première of 1939 that established its undying success.

Spendiarov’s Three Palms (op. 10), a “symphonic tone-poem” conceived in the wake of the Young Russia movement, was inspired by the like-named allegorical poem by Michail Lermontov (1914-1941), which begins as follows:

Three palms proudly grew in Arabia fair.
Beneath then, on soil that was arid and bare,
A spring bubbled up and went gurgling and playing.

But one day the palms, dissatisfied with their solitary lot, “curse God”:

Alas! To be born but to wilt here and die. […] Our life has been futile, no man have we served.

Their wish is granted. A caravan approaches and chooses the spot to set up camp for the night. And what happens? The palms are cut down in the evening twilight:

And down came the lords of the sands to the ground.
Ripped off were their cloaks, torn to pieces and scattered,
Chopped up were their mighty old bodies and shattered.

A story of timeless relevance, more so in the twenty-first century than even before:

Today all is wild here and empty and bleak. […] … while nearby, in the bright glare of day
A brown tufted kite silent claws at its prey.

On 7 June 1905 Spendiarov wrote from Yalta to his friend George Melikenzov: “At the end of May I finished a symphonic painting for large orchestra, Three Palms after Lermontov. I won’t form an opinion of it until I’ve heard it played by an orchestra. This work is very solid and amounts to some one-hundred pages in full score. Later this month I’ll rehearse Three Palms with the Preobazhensky Orchestra when it’s here. If it satisfies me, I’ll perform it here in public.”

One month later, on 25 August 1905, Three Palms was premièred in Yalta by the Preobazhansky Orchestra, conducted by the composer during the first half of a benefit concert. In 1907 it was published in full score. Thanks to the rapturous praise of Glazunov, Liadov and Nikolai Tcherepnin, it became so famous that Spendiarov later headed performances of it in Berlin, Copenhagen, New York, and elsewhere.

The author wishes to express his special thanks to the Munich-based pianist Margarita Oganesyan for obtaining the master copy and assisting him in his research.

Score No.



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