Mily Balakirev

1837 1910

Mily Balakirev

Composer

Biography

Balakirev was a late 19th century Russian composer, teacher and conductor. He rose to fame as a conductor and is responsible for passing down his musical ideas toMussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin among others.

Mily Balakirev was born on 21 December 1836 in the Julian calendar, or 2 January 1837 in the new system. He was the son of a government official and learned piano from his mother and in the summers he took piano lessons in Moscow with Aleksandr Dubuque. He also studied with Karl Eisrich, the household pianist of one of the leading musical figures of the time, Aleksandr Ulïbïshev. Eisrich introduced Balakirev to the music ofChopin and Glinka, and together with Ulïbïshev, the two provided him many musical opportunities. Balakirev’s earliest surviving compositions are from the age of 15.

Despite his gift for music, Balakirev pursued mathematics at the University of Kazan where he met the composer-pianist Ivan Laskovsky and the pianist Antoni Kątski, with whom he considered studying piano. In 1855, Balakirev was introduced to Glinka in St Petersburg through Ulïbïshev. Together they discussed how some Spanish musical themes could be used. Glinka also assigned Balakirev the task of providing his four-year-old niece with music lessons.

Balakirev made many appearances as a pianist and even performed for the Tsar in 1858. In 1856 he met many influential Russian composers including Cui, the Stasov brothers, Serov, Aleksey L′vov, Dargomïzhsky, Prince Vladimir Odoyevsky and Count Michał Wielhorski [Viyel′gorsky]. Between 1858 and 1859 his first compositions, 12 songs, were published.

The deaths of Glinka and Ulïbïshev in 1857 and 1858, respectively, left Balakirev without any influential supporters, though he had begun forming his own following of musicians, mostly younger composers. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Balakirev met Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, who were all young composers with much potential. Balakirev trained these three composers and helped them achieve international recognition.

The 1960s, under the reign of Aleksandr II, was a time of reform and innovation in Russia. In accordance, the Russian Musical Society was formed and two conservatories were opened, one in St Petersburg and another in Moscow. Much of the social elite backed this trend, but another group, including Balakirev, greatly opposed this reform as it introduced Russia to what he felt was inferior German music.

Also in 1867, Balakirev was appointed conductor of the Russian Musical Society concerts in St Petersburg. As with the Conservatory concerts, he took advantage of his position to promote his favourite music, and is responsible for introducing Russia to the music of Berlioz. He also won recognition as Russia’s leading conductor, though he was dismissed due to his determination to only conduct his favourite music. Balakirev was also responsible for conducting the premieres of the first symphonies of both Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin.

In the early 1860s Balakirev collected much folk music. His Sbornik russkikh narodnïkh pesen (‘Collection of Russian Folksongs’) (1866) is one of his first examples which provides new insight into the use of folksong. Balakirev later became interested in Caucasian holiday music containing folksongs, which can especially be heard inIslamey (1869, rev. 1902). Oriental sounds and the text of Mikhail Lermontov, especially in his masterpiece,Tamara (1867-82), are also present in his music at this time.

In the late 1860s, Balakirev’s most successful students began moving away from him musically, most notably by composing operas. He also had lost his position as a conductor and was struggling at the Free Music School. In response to the stress, he suffered a breakdown and drifted away from the musical world, seeking solace in the Orthodox Church, converting in 1871. He then sought clerical work with a railway company before gradually returning to the musical world, which he did with much less passion and intensity than he had previously possessed.

Instead, Balakirev and the anti-Conservatory group founded the Free School of Music, which provided music free of charge and focused on meeting the singing demands of the Orthodox Church. Balakirev remained active at the school as the director of orchestral concerts, in which he programmed his favourite Russian music and Western music that he considered advanced, such as that ofBerlioz, Chopin andLizst.

Balakirev, though never a great proponent of opera, also took over the direction of Glinka’s operas in Prague, as a favour to Glinka’s sister.

As Balakirev’s group of composers grew and became more noticeable they were coined the ‘mighty handful’ by Stasov after a concert in 1867, and later the ‘Balakirev circle’. This group included the composers Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin,Cui and Stasov. They would meet on Fridays to discuss, listen and play music.

Balakirev was a changed man when he returned to music. His political outlook had changed and his views had become much narrower. Eventually, he returned to editing Glinka’s works in 1876, with the encouragement of Shestakova and in the same year he resumed work on his symphonic poemTamara (1882) which he had begun nearly a decade earlier and didn’t finish until 1882, the same year it was premiered, under his direction.

The Free Music School invited him back as director and he also became the musical director at the Court Kapella in 1882, with Rimsky-Korsakov as his assistant. He served in the court for the majority of the reign of Aleksandr III. At the court, they provided boys with both a general and musical education and he also helped edit and publish music for worship in the Russian Orthodox Church. While in service at the Kapella, he completed very few works.

In the 1880s and 90s, the young composers turned to Belyayev for inspiration and publication. However, Balakirev never approached Belyayev to publish his works as he believed him to be too generous to composers, publishing unworthy works and lowering the quality of Russian music.

Though Balakirev’s compositions are impressive. They were all performed much too late. He took far too long completing them, and by the time they were premiered his inventions and ideas had already been presented by his students. For example, he started his First Symphony (1897) in 1864, but didn’t complete it until 1897. It was not performed until 1898.

His Second Symphony (1900-8), though composed in the 1900s, was comprised mostly of earlier material. It was premiered in 1909 under Lyapunov.

The great piano composers Chopin and Liszt made a great impact on Balakirev’s piano works. The influence of Chopin is especially notable in his use of the various genres. His most important piano works areIslamey (1869), Second Scherzo (1900), the Berceuse, the first two waltzes (both 1900), the Dumka (1900) and the Tyrolienne (1902).

Glinka’s influence can be heard in his use of Spanish themes in Fandango-étude (1856), later renamed and revised asSérénade espagnole (1902), and Uvertyura na temu ispanskogo marsha(‘Overture on a Spanish March Theme’ (1857).

His Russian Overtures, Uvertyura na temï tryokh russkikh pesen (‘Overture on the Themes of Three Russian Songs’) (1858 rev. 1881) and also the second overture, originally1000 let (‘1000 Years’) (1869), in addition to Uvertyura na tri cheskiye temï (‘Overture on Czech Themes’, 1867), published in 1906 as V Čechách (‘In Bohemia’), provided models for Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin.

Through the introduction of Berlioz to Russia and his training of the young Russian composers, who later influencedSibelius, Debussy, Ravel and Falla, Balakirev’s ideas have been carried down for generations, influencing a long line of composers.

Images courtesy of Classical Music Journey, Classical Music and George Harliono piano world

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