Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Balakirev: Towards Tamara's Castle

If Glinka was the Father of Russian Music then its Uncle was surely Mily Balakirev (1837-1910). Balakirev was Glinka's true heir and raised the flag of Russian nationalism in music. Read any biography of Tchaikovsky (who he encouraged and advised) or of one of the Mighty Handful composers and you quickly grasp just how influential and significant he was.

So a vastly influential man, but was he also a great composer? Well, if you like the music of the Mighty Handful (and why wouldn't you?) you should also take very easily to the music of Balakirev, given that it inhabits a similar soundworld - a soundworld Balakirev himself forged. Just how good he could be can only be calculated after hearing a representative selection of pieces. As a prelude to doing just that, this post will examine his overtures - all early works, though given the composer's tendency to keep revising his works, not always heard in their original forms - as well as his slightly late symphonic poems. This much-mentioned tendency to keep reworking pieces over many, many years (like a 19th century Pierre Boulez) has certainly obscured the chronology of his influence - to his detriment.

Perhaps the place to begin is with the Overture on Three Russian Themes of 1858. Glinka's acorn Kamarinskaya continues its growth towards the mighty oak of Russian music in this piece, modelled on the Glinka piece but taking a different, original, symphonic slant on it. The work opens with an accelerating bell-like flurry based on a phrase from a folksong that was to achieve even greater fame as the main subject of the finale of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. This gives way to the beautiful slow introduction where high strings sustain a high sky-like note beneath which woodwinds sound the first Russian theme in a way that anticipates the open grassland's sound of Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia. In the manner of Glinka, this tune is then repeated against a changing background. The lively main section begins with the second Russian theme - the one Tchaikovsky used - and treats this in the same imaginative manner, whilst also treating it as a main subject in a symphonic sonata-form. The second subject is the third Russian theme, also known to many from its use in Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka. All the colours of the orchestra are deployed to make this a treat for the ears, setting the stage for later Russian composers - from Tchaikovsky to Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky - to make the orchestra their plaything. If the piece was heard without the listener being aware of when it was written that listener would be forgiven for thinking it derivative of half a dozen famous Russian composer. Of course, the reverse is far closer to the truth. This Overture was the template on which those later composers' imaginations fed.

There's no YouTube link to the entertaining Overture on a Spanish March Theme but should you ever hear it you will find the Balakirev of 1857 moving rapidly towards the Overture on Three Russian Themes and following Glinka's lead in repeating his tunes, each time in new clothes - as well as in writing overtures on Spanish themes! (He wasn't the last Russian composer to do that either!) It doesn't sound particularlySpanish though; no, it sounds Russian through and through, featuring one of those 'oriental' melodies that floats in on the warm airs of Central Asia.

Probably under the influence of Berlioz, Balakirev brought the Shakespearean overture to Russia in his fine King Lear Overture (written c.1860). A long line of Russian Shakespearean overtures and symphonic poems followed in its wake. Another influence brought into Russian music here is that of Robert Schumann - an influence also felt in the future music of Tchaikovsky and Arensky. After colourful fanfares, the main theme is announced regally on brass before fading away and re-emerging plaintively with the woodwinds. The tragedy begins. The main allegro begins stormily before yielding to the attractive second subject (surely portraying Cordelia) on winds - a touch of Schumann hinting at Tchaikovsky. These two themes dominate the piece with much use of sequential development and costume changes. The development section - storm, bell and gentle dance - is the bit that sounds most like 'Russian music' with anticipations of everyone from Mussorgsky to Tchaikovsky. The exciting start to the recapitulation looks forward to the dramatic climaxes of Tchaikovsky symphonies while the coda, when it comes, is "all passions spent" funeral music, complete with muffled drums.

A visit to Prague and the surrounding countryside inspired the delightful 1867 Overture on Czech Themes, In Bohemia. This was much later revised from an overture into a symphonic poem. Here Czech folksongs are the material on which the composer works. As in the Overture on Three Russian Themes, there are three contrasting themes. We meet the first on oboe and then strings. This is repeated in the context of changing colours and backgrounds in the manner of Glinka. The second, launching the allegro section, is a lively dance-like tune introduced by the strings. The third is introduced on brass before being re-presented in all kinds of fresh colours (including to the accompaniment of a tambourine). The ideas are developed in both the conventional (Western) way and in the Russian (Glinka) way and the opening theme (and mood) is winningly revisted. In Bohemia ends in festive triumph.

Also reworked as a symphonic poem (1884) was his second Overture on Russian Themes, Russia (1863-4) - another first-rate work (my favourite of the overtures), based on folktunes though with a symphonic heft. As ever, three tunes are used as the main themes and the first appears in an atmospheric slow introduction before the other two tunes appear in the main fast section. The noble, melancholy tune of the opening is treated in accordance with Glinka's 'changing backgrounds' technique though phrases from the melody are also separated off for Western-style symphonic development. The second theme, opening the Allegro section, is introduced by clarinets and bassoons. The third theme, also on woodwinds, makes its cheerful entry after a recall of the first tune. Balakirev is particularly good here at combining the colourful treatment of folksong with the drama of a symphonic poem, with some contrapuntal working in the development section. Unlike the other overtures though, a fourth tune - an 'oriental' one - plays a role in certain transitional passages and is well worth listening out for. 

The other symphonic poem by Mily Balakirev is Tamara (composed between 1867 and 1882). The influence of this great masterpiece was not just on Russian composers like Rimsky-Korsakov (think Scheherazade) . It wowed French composers like Debussy and Ravel when it was performed in their country during the early 1880s and influenced their raising of the importance of orchestral colour as a key feature of composition. It's even better than Russia and a piece that should be in the repertoire of all the world's great orchestras. The story is that of a beautiful but evil princess who dwells besides the river Terek and lures male travellers to her castle atop the surrounding gorge. After a night of sensual delight, their bodies are borne away by the river as Tamara blows them a final kiss from her tower above. (What a way to go though!) The structure is the usual one of a slow introduction, setting the scene, followed by a sonata-form allegro depicting the fate of the unwary men. The string figuration which opens the work weaves a dark spell, evoking the river as surely as Wagner depicted the Rhine in Das Rheingold or Smetana the Vltava in Ma Vlast. Ominous low brass convey the Gorge's deep gloom and the castle is conjured by the higher brass. Woodwinds provide a fragment of one of Tamara's themes - a lovely romantic phrase - and this and the others are spun into a moody tapestry. It's a powerfully-worked vision. A chromatic-modal woodwind theme, anticipating the famous 'Scheherazade' theme from Rimsky's great work, summons up the wicked princess's exotic ancestry. So, wonderful thematic working plus deeply pleasurable orchestration so far. The Allegro's main subject sounds like manly horse-riding music and being free from the exotic touches of melody, harmony and scoring associated with Tamara herself must 'represent' her victims. Another theme comes to greet them - a modal woodwind theme perhaps 'representing' her black eunuch servant. A dramatic bridging passage takes us to the second subject - a definite vision of the exotic female herself on oboe over a side-drum, chromatic, modal, Caucasian-sounding. This tune is a classic Russian 'Central Asian' tune and the romantic Tamara theme from the introduction follows closely on, first on clarinet - as lovely as ever. Devilishly beautiful! At length we move into the development section, which begins as a fugato but quickly returns to fantasy. This is lively, colourful action music. The recapitulation is one huge re-write of the exposition, emphasizing the growing excitement of the story as it nears its climax as male and female themes alternate wildly (hmm, now just what can that be depicting?) Death follows. Hear how for yourself! Grotesque gloating follows but this yields to the music of the opening, beautifully and richly so, as the river bears the corpse away. The final harp-frequented bars are blissful. What a piece of music!

From symphonic poems to symphonies and piano concertos...in a later post!

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