Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)

Elegy for Viola and Piano in G Minor, Op. 44 (1892)

Glazunov, when not sousedGlazunov was born in St. Petersburg on August 10, 1865. He began studying piano at the age of 9, and began composing at 13. His gifts were readily recognized by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), one of the founders of the Russian nationalist school of composers known as "The Five’" or "The Mighty Handful". Balakirev urged him to study with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), whose star pupil he became. His first symphony (Op. 5, 1881) was composed at the age of 16, under Rimsky’s guidance, and premiered, with Balakirev conducting, at a Free School concert where it was received with great enthusiasm. "An amazing work, frightening in its precocious maturity" was the verdict of yet another of the Mighty Handful, Cesar Cui (1835-1918). This symphony was followed by a series of similarly fine works, his Overture on Greek Folk Themes Op. 6, String Quartet in F Major, Op. 10 and the symphonic poem Stenka Razin. By the age of 21, he had established himself as one of Russia’s foremost composers, as well as a composer of international repute. Lizst had introduced the First Symphony in Weimar. Stenka Razin was a great hit at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889, and Glazunov had even received a commission to write a triumphal march for the Chicago Exhibition.

In addition to composing, he had a long and distinguished career as a teacher, starting with his appointment as professor of instrumentation at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1899. He became Director of the Conservatory in 1909 and held the post until 1922.

Glazunov was a conservative composer in the post-romantic idiom influenced, as he said, by the music of Brahms, poles apart from Rimsky’s other most famous pupil, Igor Stravinsky. Indeed, it is said that when Prokofiev’s Sythian Suite was introduced in St. Petersburg in 1916, Glazunov rushed from the hall, with his hands over his ears, to protect himself from the onslaught of the music, and perhaps the century as well.

By all accounts, Glazunov was endowed with remarkable musical gifts, among them the ability to commit large works to memory in one hearing. He put this facility to use in his work with Rimsky, in completing Borodin’s magnum opus Prince Igor. His mastery of the technical aspects was no less amazing. Yet despite these gifts, the creative spirit departed from him in about 1914 and the remaining twenty years of his life were almost without musical issue. Though not in sympathy with the Revolution, he remained in Russia until 1928, when he moved to Paris. He lived there until his death in 1938. The move was not a fortuitous one, as Paris, the stronghold of the avant-garde had little use for his music or views on it. Of his death, David Ewen writes, "Glazunov died in Paris on March 21, 1936.  The announcement of his death came as a shock to many, who, so long associating him with the music of the past rather than the present, thought he had been dead for many years."

However, to judge by the current catalogs of recorded music, Glazunov is well represented. During his thirty-three years of composing, he produced works in many musical genres: 8 symphonies, with a ninth left uncompleted, tone poems, concerti, (his violin concerto remains a standard work in the repertory), chamber music, including string quartets, and much ballet music (his Seasons remains an often heard work).

In the last concert, we presented the music of a composer-teacher and his illustrious pupil: Frank Bridge and Sir Benjamin Britten. As it happens, today’s program also includes a work by Glazunov’s most illustrious student, Dmitri Shostakovich. In his controversial memoirs, Testimony, Shostakovich gives us a portrait of a man with an astonishing musical mind, who was both kind and generous. In Shostakovich’s case, he provided both encouragement and material assistance to young Dmitri and his family in the years of privation following the Bolshevik Revolution, yet, it is also a portrait of a man enslaved by the consumption of alcohol.

As for today’s work, the Elegie, there is not much to write about it. It is nothing less than a gorgeous song for viola and piano, and, if its idiom is irrelevant, may we always be blessed with such irrelevancies in our lives.

1993-94 Season, Program III, Sunday February 6, 1994

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