Symphony Saturday

In this installment, we finally reach what is, for me, the most fertile ground for emotionally moving symphonic work ever: late 19th century Russia.

The symphonic tradition, as Leonard Bernstein once pointed out, is a Germanic one, and even in the hands of Russian composers, the formal approach to the symphony is dominated by the fundamental aspects of the form that arose in German and Austria. As Bernstein put it, “Russian symphonies are German ones with vodka substituted for beer.” That’s not a bad way of putting it. The form is still the same, but the melodic material in the Russian realm tends to be much more lyrical and much more folkish in nature. This is only natural, because Russia was one of the great hotbeds of nationalism in music, which became a potent force in the latter half of the 1800s.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note how nationalism could be such a potent force in driving the creation of some of the most wonderful music ever written, and yet, in politics, the nationalism of the late 1800s eventually led straight to the staggering catastrophe that was World War I.)

Balakirev wanted a Russian “school” of music, as free from Western European influence as possible, and to that effort, he gathered around himself a handful of Russia’s most talented young composers, a group which later became known simply as “The Five”: Balakirev himself, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alaexander Borodin. Balakirev mentored the other four composers for a time, although his influence waned as he tried to wield stronger and stronger influence over his charges, who were, perhaps, more talented than he. Balakirev was no second-tier musician himself, though, and if his music has been overshadowed and sometimes neglected, that’s more the pity.

In Balakirev’s Symphony No. 1, you can certainly hear the ideas of exotic color and singing lyricism that would shine forth so strongly in later Russian composers, with their symphonies of dramatic build, and their long melodies. This symphony is, in many ways, the start of a path that would lead to such works near to my heart as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, and ultimately, Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2. Here is the Symphony No. 1 by Mily Balakirev.

Next week: A visit to Italy. The Italians are not known for much of a symphonic tradition in the 1800s at all, being the most operatic of countries, but there were still symphonies being written, and we’ll hear one!

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2 Responses to Symphony Saturday

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    BTW, you write GREAT introductions to classical music.

  2. Kelly Sedinger says:

    Well, thank you!

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