Vasily Kalinnikov

1866 1901

Vasily Kalinnikov



Kalinnikov was a late 19th century Russian composer best known for the two symphonies he wrote during his short life. Though he is little known internationally, his symphonies have a secure spot in the Russian repertoire.

Kalinnikov was born in 1866 in Voina to a police officer, and began taking violin lessons from a young age. The family moved to Oryol in 1879 where Kalinnikov was able to attend the seminary due to his family’s ecclesiastic ties. His father was quite musical himself, playing the guitar and singing in the local choir. He also encouraged his son, who became the director of the seminary choir at the age of 14, to pursue music.

Kalinnikov entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1884, but was forced to quit after just a few short months due to his inability to pay tuition. In consolation, he won a scholarship as a bassoon player for the Moscow Philharmonic Music School where he studied bassoon and composition with Alexander Ilyinsky and Pavel Blaramberg until 1892. Kalinnikov’s poverty forced him to find as much work as possible playing violin, bassoon and timpani with theatre orchestras. He also worked as a copyist. In addition, his teacher and friend S.N. Kruglikov helped him financially throughout much of his life.

Kalinnikov’s talent did not go unnoticed by Tchaikovsky, who recommended him in 1892 for the conductorship at the Malïy Theatre. The next year he was appointed assistant conductor at the theatre. During this period he also gave private lessons in music theory.

Kalinnikov had persistent health problems throughout his life, certainly not helped by his severe poverty. In late 1893, he was forced to resign from the theatre as his health took a turn for the worse with the contraction of tuberculosis. He moved to the warmth of South Crimea in search of a cure, and would stay there for his few remaining years. There, he was able to complete both of his symphonies and a variety of instrumental works. While in Crimea, he relied on his friends for financial support.Sergei Rachmaninov visited Kalinnikov in Yalta and was utterly appalled by the poor conditions in which he was living and arranged for some financial help.

Rachmaninov also contacted the publisher Jurgensen, who paid an immediate sum for three songs. He also offered to publish the Second Symphony, including the score, arts and a piano duet version after the premiere in Kiev in 1898. In addition, Rachmaninov arranged for the publication of a piano arrangement of the First Symphony. Unfortunately, Kalinnikov died before he was able to benefit from the new arrangements with Jurgensen.

Kalinnikov passed around the time of his 35th birthday, in early January 1901. Jurgensen offered Kalinnikov’s widow a gracious payment for the rest of the composer’s manuscripts, believing the value of the works to be higher since the composer was dead.

Kalinnikov’s First Symphony (1894-5) was dedicated to Kruglikov, who was thoroughly impressed and sent the score to leading conductors in Russia. AlthoughRimsky-Korsakov was impressed by the talent contained within the symphony, he found too many technical mistakes. It is however believed that many of these mistakes were from the copyist and have since been cleared up. The conductor Vinogradsky premiered the work at the Russian Musical Society in Kiev in 1897 to very appreciative audiences that gave both the second and third movements an encore. Performances followed in Moscow, Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

Kalinnikov wished to contribute to music what his fellow Russians had contributed to literature. For Kalinnikov this included a portrayal of rural Russian life and its scenery. He wished to achieve this without a programme which outlined the details of the music, a concept which he very much opposed. Instead, he relied upon melodies and rhythms that could be related to folksong. In addition, he worked with textures and aimed to create a colourful orchestration.

His first symphony is in four movements and opens with a lyrical Allegro moderato which also contains a fugal section. The second movement, Andante commodamente opens with the slow oscillation of two notes in the strings, which is eventually taken over by an oboe which soars over the orchestra and is answered by the strings. The third movement Scherzo is the most Russian in character, and consists of a joyful dance and a melancholic trio featuring the oboe. The final movement begins slowly and in a reminiscent manner before picking up speed and a sense of purpose and triumph.

Kalinnikov’s Second Symphony (1895-7) also employs these same principles, but was less successful than his First. The Second Symphony features many complex polyphonic techniques which he had perfected through the composition of a series of fugues in the late 1880s. The symphony opens with massive string sounds alternating with continuously answers from the brass. A joyful, intense and dramatic ballet-like mood follows, intercepted by lyrical moments. In general, this symphony is much more dramatic than the first and even more Russian in character.

His symphonies show an influence of Borodin, especially the Second Symphony with its sudden and obscure modulations. Evidence of other great Russian masters such as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov can be heard. In addition to his symphonies, Kalinnikov composedThe Cedar and the Palm and the incidental music to the playTsar Boris by Aleksey Tolstoy.

According to the Russian composer, writer and critic Boris Asafyev, Kalinnikov probably would have had a very successful career, ranking among the highest of the Russian composers, if he had lived a longer life.

Images courtesy of and public domain