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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Composers of 1865, Part 2: Alexander Glazunov

Keys To Music often used anniversaries as a rationale for some of the topics I chose, and, to be honest, they were often an excuse for me to explore composers or music about which I knew very little. This was certainly the case in 2015 when the sesquicentenary (150th anniversary) of the birth of not one but four important composers was celebrated. The four-part series called "The Composers of 1865" was the result.


There's a well-worn musicians' joke which goes something like this:

A violinist was having a quiet drink in the pub and a fellow muso came in and saw him sitting all alone. "Hi there, I haven't seen you round for ages," says the new arrival. "What's been happening?"

The violinist looked pretty dishevelled and down on his luck. "Life's been tough," he said. "My wife left me and it hit me pretty hard." "That's terrible," said the other guy. "I didn't hear about that".

"Well after that my kids all took her side and now they won't speak to me," the violinist continued. "You poor guy," his friend said. "I didn't hear about any of this."

"Then I started drinking heavily and just couldn't face going out of the house, so I got into debt..." By now his friend was feeling really awkward, and again he said, "That's just awful. Really, I haven't heard anything about any of this."

The violinist continued: "But I managed to find a place to stay, clean myself up a bit and start practising again. I then got a gig in the orchestra to play in the second violins for a concert but I was so nervous and I played really badly". His mate immediately piped up, "Oh! I heard about that!"

Musicians seem to be particularly adept at remembering - and spreading - gossip about other musicians and in some cases, a bad experience can be just about all anyone knows about someone.

Take the case of the Russian composer and conductor, Alexander Glazunov. Glazunov did lots of great things for Russian music, not only as a composer and conductor but also as an administrator and teacher. But you can guarantee that the one story which sticks in people's minds is the claim - not completely proven - that he was drunk when he conducted the premiere of Rachmaninov's first symphony. There are other stories about his alleged fondness for the bottle, all of which have come down to us from those with axes to grind, and the belief that he was an alcoholic seems to colour many people's views of him and his music.

In this article I want to survey the life and work of Glazunov, an excellent opportunity to look beyond the gossip and evaluate the man more completely.

St Petersburg

Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov was born in St Petersburg on 29 July, 1865. His publisher father and pianist mother found themselves with a son who was highly intelligent and musically gifted. He had a phenomenal ear and musical memory and he started piano lessons when he was 9. By the age of 11 he was composing and in 1879, aged only 14 he met the composer Mily Balakirev.

Mily Balakirev (1860s)

Balakirev was one of the most influential Russian composers of the day; he'd been an important mentor to the young Tchaikovsky and was a member of the group known as the "Russian Five". [See an earlier post on these composers here.] Balakirev was so impressed with the boy's compositions that he recommended none other than Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, another member of the "Five", as a teacher. Less than two years later, Rimsky-Korsakov brought the lessons to end, because the boy had made such astonishing progress.

Despite the difference in their ages, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov became lifelong friends. Glazunov therefore had the opportunity first hand to experience the main aim of the "Five", which was to develop a particularly Russian style of music which was not beholden to the musical forms and styles of western Europe.

Serov: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1898)

When he was 16 Glazunov completed his first symphony, and Balakirev conducted its highly successful first performance in March, 1882. At the end the audience called for the composer to come to the stage and, according to Rimsky-Korsakov, were shocked that a boy in his school uniform appeared to receive the cheers of the crowd. [listen]

Later that same year - 1882 - Glazunov's first string quartet was given its first performance. [listen]

It's around this time that the wealthy publisher, businessman and philanthropist Mitrofan Belyayev comes into Glazunov's life. Belyayev was a generous supporter of emerging talent in Russian music; we encountered him in a recent post on Scriabin [here] as he did much to support that composer's career. Glazunov, despite still being a teenager, entered what became known as the "Belyayev Circle". He took part in private concerts hosted by Belyayev on Friday evenings (thereby meeting some of the major musical figures of the day), and Belyayev took a great interest in furthering the young composer's career, taking him on an extended trip to western Europe and supporting performances of his work

Repin: Mitrofan Belyayev (1886)

Glazunov's prominence in Russian music came at a vital juncture, historically. According to Grove, which was the primary source for this article, the Belyayev Circle took up where the Russian Five had left off. The Five fought to establish a truly Russian school of music which held its own against the west; the Belyayev Circle made the connections between Russia and the west to enable Russian music to transcend borders and be appreciated internationally. Glazunov was there right at the junction of the two.

In 1888, aged 23, Glazunov made his debut as a conductor, a profession which was important to him and which he loved. It was never the centre of his life, though, and according to his contemporaries, he never mastered it. His gifts as a pianist and especially as a composer would always be more highly regarded.

Repin: Alexander Glazunov (1887)

1889 saw the premiere of his second symphony, which was given at the Paris World Exhibition, and it was yet another triumph for the young man. The symphony was influenced by his recent work on the music of Borodin, who had died two years before and whose unfinished works Glazunov was helping to complete. It was also influenced by - and dedicated to - Franz Liszt, who Glazunov idolised and had met in Weimar in 1884 while travelling with Belyayev. [listen]

The second symphony marks the end of Glazunov's first stage of development as a composer and was followed, in 1890-91, by a creative crisis. He came out of this, though, with a new level of maturity and confidence and many regard the works he composed in the 1890s as his best. These include the fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies, the fourth and fifth string quartets, and the two ballets, Raymonda and The Seasons.

The three symphonies - 4, 5 and 6 - form a triptych which most commentators regard as the pinnacle of his mature style. The fourth, in particular, is a turning point, expressing a new confidence and clarity. [listen]

Like a Russian composer of a later generation whose early career Glazunov would support - namely Dmitri Shostakovich - Glazunov's symphonies are paralleled in his output by his string quartets. The quartets of the 1890s show a similar confidence and maturity, and a willingness to tread new paths. This is the fifth quartet. [listen]

The ballets from the late 1890s have remained among Glazunov's better-known works. Raymonda is frequently staged although the scenario, usually regarded as deficient and unworthy of the dazzling score he wrote for it, is often changed. It's a full-length ballet, with more than two hours of music, a worthy successor to the ballets of Tchaikovsky. [listen]

Photograph of the cast of Act 3 of Raymonda, from the original 1898 production

The Seasons was written very soon after Raymonda. It's not a full length ballet, but rather a single act in four scenes lasting about 40 minutes. The opening of Autumn is perhaps the best known section given its occasional use as a background theme in television. [listen]

A host of smaller works from the 1880s and 90s are hardly performed today. These include a large number of symphonic poems and shorter orchestral works, and music for piano. The piano works include some delightful gems, such as the Three Miniatures composed in 1893. [listen]

Alexander Glazunov (1896)

In 1899 Glazunov's life underwent a major change of direction with his appointment to the staff of the St Petersburg Conservatory. Six years later, in 1905, he became the institution's director, and he held this post for another quarter of a century. As director, he revolutionised the Conservatory, despite the fact that Russia was in political turmoil at the time. He made many innovations, raised standards and supported needy students (among them the young Shostakovich). He worked hard to establish a sound working relationship with the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 revolution and this, coupled with his personal prestige both at home and abroad, meant that the St Petersburg Conservatory received special status among institutions of higher learning in the Soviet Union.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1925)

This post meant that Glazunov's compositional output was reduced from 1905, but those works he did complete are still of immense interest. Best known among these today is the violin concerto, his first work in the concerto form, written in 1904. [listen]

Around the same time Glazunov wrote what was to be his last-completed symphony, the eighth. This is almost completely unknown today and yet it's masterful on so many levels. It seems to straddle the worlds of romanticism and the 20th century. As with all his music, there's a firm anchor in traditional harmony, but it is a child of its time. He commented on the final page of the draft score that it was completed on the 18 October 1905, the day the Tsar's manifesto granting limited citizens' rights was published. Orchestration took another two years and the premiere was conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. [listen]

From around 1910 Glazunov's devotion to his work at the St Petersburg Conservatory took its toll on his composing, and it's generally regarded that on the whole the works produced in his later years are not on a par with those produced before 1910. His prestige was never in doubt though; all-Glazunov concerts were held in St Petersburg and Moscow in 1917 to mark the 25th anniversary of his career as a composer. But of his works, the ninth symphony never went beyond a few sketches and the two piano concertos have their fans and their detractors.

The first concerto was written around 1910-11 but conceived earlier, which explains why it's probably the more successful of the two. Its structure is radical, being in two movements, the second of which is a huge set of variations. [listen]

The second concerto dates from 1917 and it has puzzled many commentators. It departs from tradition in many ways and seems more aligned with the concertos of Medtner and Liszt; it's a large, single movement in several smaller sections lasting about 20 minutes. And being written in the out-of-the way key of B major - and ending in E major - was also very unusual. [listen]

Bolsheviks celebrating 1 May near the Winter Palace, six months after taking power (1918)

In 1922 Glazunov was named a People's Artist of the USSR but he was already starting to feel pressured by the Communist Government to conform in ways contrary to his artistic principles. In 1927 he played a prominent role in celebrations marking the centenary of Beethoven's death, and the following year he went to Vienna to represent the USSR at the commemorations marking the centenary of the death of Schubert.

1928 marked Glazunov's break with the Soviet Union, and after the events in Vienna he repeatedly requested extensions to his leave of absence to travel more in western Europe. These journeys took him to France, Portugal, Spain, England, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands and even the USA.

In 1929, aged 64, Glazunov married Olga Gavrilova, a decade his junior. Her daughter from a previous marriage, Elena, had been the soloist in the premiere of the second piano concerto, and she went on to perform both concertos regularly. After his marriage, Glazunov formally adopted Elena and she later performed under his surname.

In 1930 he finally stepped down as director of the Leningrad Conservatory (as it was by then called) and in 1932 he settled in Paris as a result of his deteriorating health.

Pont Neuf, Paris (1935)

Glazunov composed very little in his final years. A cello concerto appeared in 1931 [listen] and one of his better-known works, the concerto for alto saxophone, dates from 1934. [listen]

Alexander Glazunov died in Paris on 21 March 1936 at the age of 71. In October 1972 his remains were repatriated to Leningrad (now called St Petersburg again), and his posthumous reputation has remained despite the fact that most of his music is little known to the general public. A research institute devoted to the composer was established in Munich, and the major archive relating to his life and work is housed in Paris.

The Grove article on Glazunov ends with a perfect summary of his importance in the scheme of things:

Within Russian music, Glazunov has a significant place because he succeeded in reconciling Russianism and Europeanism. He was the direct heir of Balakirev's nationalism but tended more towards Borodin's epic grandeur. At the same time he absorbed Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral virtuosity, the lyricism of Tchaikovsky and the contrapuntal skill of Taneyev. There was a streak of academicism in Glazunov which at times overpowered his inspiration, an eclecticism which lacks the ultimate stamp of originality...But he remains a composer of imposing stature and a stabilizing influence in a time of transition and turmoil.

Alexander Glazunov

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2015.

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