Ooooh, here’s one of my absolute favorites. There’s just something about Russian Romantics that always calls me home. I don’t really know why that is; it’s nothing genetic or ethnic or to do with genealogy. To my knowledge, there’s not a drop of Russian blood in me, anywhere. But this group of composers, along with their post-Romantic brethren, seem to speak to my heart more than most other groups or national schools or whatever you want to call them. I don’t want to indulge too much in sweeping generalities, but there’s just something about the way the Russians can engage in lyrical brooding that appeals to me on an elemental level. Beautiful sadness, I think — or the awareness that there are things in this world that can break your heart simply by being as beautiful as they are. There must be a German word for that feeling, or some lovely phrase in French.
Anyway, up today is the Symphony No. 1 by Vasily Kalinnikov. You have almost certainly not heard of Kalinnikov, because the fates dealt the music world a cruel blow when they afflicted him with tuberculosis. Kalinnikov was a deeply talented composer who was just starting to take flight when he died at the age of 35, becoming yet another “Oh, what if!” artist.
His first symphony is full of everything you would expect from a Russian Romantic symphony. It’s full of amazing melodies (just try getting the first subject of the first movement out of your head after you’ve heard it), singing chromaticism, brooding churn in the lower registers, and cyclic construction that brings themes from the previous movements back for the finale. The delicate opening of the second movement is one of the most magical segments of any symphony I’ve ever heard, and that finale — what an astonishing climax Kalinnikov creates, when he summons that delicate love song tune from the second movement to be the main focus of the symphony’s glorious conclusion!
Maybe I’m being over-the-top in my praise of this work, but don’t take my word for it. Here’s the Symphony No. 1 by Vasily Kalinnikov.