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Mily Balakirev and “Islamey”

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev (January 2, 1837–May 29, 1910) was a Russian pianist, conductor and composer known today primarily for his work promoting musical nationalism and his encouragement of more famous Russian composers. Born at Nizhny Novgorod into a poor clerk’s family, he received his first lessons in music from his mother and at the age of four was able to reproduce tunes on the piano. His non-musical education began at the Nizhny Novgorod Gymnasium. When he was ten his mother took him to Moscow during the summer holidays for a course of ten piano lessons with Alexander Dubuque, a pupil of the Irish pianist and composer John Field. After his mother’s death, Balakirev was transferred from the Gymnasium to the Alexandrovsky Institute, where he boarded. Balakirev’s musical talents did not remain unnoticed, as he soon found a patron in Alexander Ulybyshev (Oulibicheff), who was considered the leading musical figure and patron in Nizhny Novgorod as owner of a vast musical library and the author of a biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Balakirev’s musical education was placed in the hands of the pianist Karl Eisrach, who also arranged the regular musical evenings at the Ulybyshev estate. Through Eisrach, Balakirev was given opportunities to read, play and listen to music and was exposed to the music of Frédéric Chopin and Mikhail Glinka. Eisrach and Ulybyshev also allowed Balakirev to rehearse the count’s private orchestra in rehearsals of orchestral and choral works. Eventually, Balakirev, still aged only 14, led a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. At 15 he was allowed to lead rehearsals of Ludwig van Beethoven’s First and Eighth Symphonies. His earliest surviving compositions date from the same year—the first movement of a septet for flute, clarinet, piano and strings and a Grande Fantasie on Russian Folksongs for piano and orchestra.

Balakirev left the Alexandrovsky Institute in 1853 and entered the University of Kazan as a mathematics student, along with his friend P.D. Boborikin, who later became a novelist. He was soon noted in local society as a pianist and was able to supplement his limited finances by taking pupils. His holidays were spent either at Nizhny Novgorod or on the Ulybyshev country estate at Lukino, where he played numerous Beethoven sonatas to help his patron with his book on the composer. Works from this period include a piano fantasy based on themes from Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar, an attempt at a string quartet, three songs which would eventually be published in 1908 and the opening movement (the only one completed) of his First Piano Concerto.

After Balakirev completed his courses in the late autumn of 1855, Ulybyshev took him to Saint Petersburg, where he met Glinka. Glinka thought highly of his talent, encouraging him to take up music as a career. Their acquaintance was marked by discussions, by Glinka passing several Spanish musical themes to Balakirev, and with Glinka entrusting the young man with the musical education of his four-year-old niece. Balakirev made his debut in a university concert in February 1856, playing the completed movement from his First Piano Concerto. This was followed a month later with a concert of his piano and chamber compositions. In 1858 he played the solo part in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto before the Tsar. In 1859 he had 12 songs published. Nevertheless, he was still in extreme poverty, supporting himself mainly by giving piano lessons (sometimes nine a day) and by playing at soirees given by the aristocracy.

The deaths of Glinka in 1857 and Ulybyshev the following year left Balakirev without influential supporters. Nevertheless, his time with Glinka had sparked a passion for Russian nationalism within Balakirev, leading him to adopt the stance that Russia should have its own distinct school of music, free from Southern and Western European influences. He had also started meeting other important figures who would abet him in this goal in 1856, including César Cui, Alexander Serov, the Stasov brothers and Alexander Dargomyzhsky. He now gathered around him composers with similar ideals, whom he promised to train according to his own principles. These included Modest Mussorgsky in 1858; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in November 1861 and Alexander Borodin in November or December 1862. Together with Cui, these men were described by noted critic Vladimir Stasov as “a mighty handful,” but they eventually became better known in English simply as The Five.

Balakirev began a second piano concerto in the summer of 1861, with a slow movement thematically connected with a requiem that occupied him at the same time. He did not finish the opening movement until the following year, then set aside the work for 50 years. The formation of The Five paralleled the early years of Tsar Alexander II, a time of innovation and reform in the political and social climate of Russia. The Russian Musical Society (RMS) and the musical conservatories in St. Petersburg and Moscow were all established at this time. While these institutions had powerful champions in Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein, others feared the influence of German instructors and musical precepts into Russian classical music. Balakirev’s sympathies and closest contacts were in the latter camp. Balakirev was outspoken in his opposition to Anton Rubinstein’s efforts. This opposition was partly ideological and partly personal. The pro-Conservatory followers publicly called The Five “amateurs”—a justified charge, as Balakirev was the only professional musician of the group.

To counteract these criticisms and to aid in the creation of a distinctly “Russian” school of music, Balakirev and Gavriil Lomakin, a local choirmaster, founded the Free School of Music in 1862. Like the RMS, the Free School offered concerts as well as education. Unlike the RMS, the Free School offered music education at no charge to students. The school also emphasized singing, especially choral singing, to meet the demands of the Russian Orthodox Church. Lomakin was appointed director, with Balakirev serving as his assistant. To raise funds for the school, Balakirev conducted orchestral concerts between 1862 and 1867, while Lomakin conducted choral ones. These concerts offered less conservative programming musically than the RMS concerts. They included the music of Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Glinka and Alexander Dargomyzhsky, and the first works of The Five.

Balakirev spent the summer of 1862 in the Caucasus, mainly in Essentuki, and was impressed enough by the region to return there the following year and in 1868. He noted down folk tunes from that region and from Georgia and Iran; these tunes would play an important part in his musical development. One of the first compositions to show this influence was his setting of Alexander Pushkin’s “Georgian song”, while a quasi-oriental style appeared in other songs. In 1864, Balakirev completed his Second Overture on Russian Themes that same year, which was performed that April at a Free School concert. In 1866, Balakirev’s Collection of Russian Folksongs was published. He also started a Symphony in C major, of which he completed much of the first movement, scherzo and finale by 1866.

Balakirev sketched and partly orchestrated an Overture on Czech Themes. This work would be performed at a May 1867 Free School concert given in honor of Slav visitors to the All-Russian Ethnographical Exhibition in Moscow. He began the original version of Islamey in August 1869, finishing it a month later. Nikolai Rubinstein premiered the “oriental fantasy,” which Balakirev considered a sketch for his later symphonic poem Tamara, that December. Balakirev also intermittently spent time editing Glinka’s works for publication, on behalf of the composer’s sister, Lyudmilla Shestakova. Balakirev encouraged Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin to complete their first symphonies, whose premieres he conducted in December 1865 and January 1869 respectively. He also conducted the first performance of Mussorgsky’s The Destruction of Sennacherib in March 1867 and the Polonaise from Boris Godunov in April 1872.

When Lomakin resigned as director of the Free Music School in February 1868, Balakirev took his place there. When Anton Rubinstein relinquished directorship of the RMS concerts in 1867, Balakirev was suggested to replace him. The conservative patron for the RMS, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, agreed. However, Balakirev’s uncompromising nature caused tension at the RMS, and his preference for modern repertoire earned him the enmity of Elena Pavlovna. In 1869, she informed him that his services were no longer required. The week after Balakirev’s dismissal, an impassioned article in his defense appeared in The Contemporary Chronicle. The author was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Balakirev had conducted Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem Fatum and the “Characteristic Dances” from his opera The Voyevoda at the RMS, and Fatum had been dedicated to Balakirev. Balakirev helped Tchaikovsky produce his first masterpiece, the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet. After Romeo and Juliet, the two men drifted apart as Balakirev took a sabbatical from the music world.

Once he had left the RMS, Balakirev concentrated on building attendance for concerts of the Free Music School. He decided to recruit popular soloists and found Nikolai Rubinstein ready to help. Elena Pavlovna was furious. She decided to raise the social level of the RMS concerts by attending them personally with her court. This rivalry caused financial difficulties for both concert societies as RMS membership declined and the Free Music School continued to suffer from chronic money troubles. Soon the Free Music School could not pay Balakirev and had to cut its 1870-71 series short. Balakirev then hoped that a solo recital in his hometown of Nizhny Novgorod in September 1870 would restore his reputation and prove profitable. Neither happened.

In the spring of 1871, rumors circulated that Balakirev had suffered a nervous breakdown. He took a five-year break from music, and withdrew from his musical friends. In his mental state, he neglected to give up his post as director of the Free Music School, and the directors of the school were at a loss as to what to do. He finally resigned in 1874 and was replaced by Rimsky-Korsakov. Financial distress forced Balakirev to become a railway clerk on the Warsaw railroad line in July 1872. In 1876, Balakirev slowly began reemerging into the music world, but without the intensity of his former years. In 1881, Balakirev was offered the directorship of the Moscow Conservatory, along with the conductorship of the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society. Perhaps keeping in mind his experience with the Saint Petersburg branch of the Russian Musical Society years earlier, he declined the position. Instead, he resumed the directorship of the Free School of Music.

In 1882 Balakirev finished Tamara. In 1883, he was appointed director of the Imperial Chapel; Rimsky-Korsakov eventually became his assistant. He held this post until 1895, when he took his final retirement and composed in earnest. Between 1895 and 1910 he completed two symphonies, a piano sonata and two movements of his Second Piano Concerto, along with republishing his collection of folk-song arrangements. Balakirev resumed musical Tuesday gatherings at his home by the 1880s. Unlike his earlier days, when he played works in progress at gatherings of The Five, Balakirev composed in isolation. Balakirev died on May 29, 1910, and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg.

The following works by Balakirev are included in my collection:

Islamey, Oriental Fantasy (1869/1902; orch. Liapunov).
Symphony No. 1 in CM (1897).
Tamara, Tone Poem (1882).


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