An Anchor of Stability in Revolutionary Times

Peace and tranquility. © Charles Thibo

There shall be no surprises. This piece, a piano concerto, is a tribute to solid Russian tradition, music following the path of Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergey Taneyev. Peace and tranquility set the tone. It is firmly rooted and has no use for extravaganzas or harmonic experiments. The underlying idea of composition provided orientation to music students at a time when Russia struggled with revolutionary upheaval. And the teaching of the piece’s composer at the St. Petersburg Conservatory prepared the audience’s minds and ears for the works of Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergey Prokofiev.

Alexander Glazunov, the composer of a Concert for Saxophone and Orchestra in E-flat Major (see my previous post), never studied at any conservatory. His mother was a pianist and that’s where he picked up his interest for music. He was gifted with an exceptional ear and musical memory. He began to study the piano at the age of nine and to compose at the age of 11. Around the age of 14, he became a private student of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and progressed at an astonishing speed.

Rimsky-Korsakov writes in his auto-biography: “He did not need to study music theory and score reading […] After a few lessons in harmony we moved on to counterpoint where he showed a lot of diligence.” Glazunov wrote his first symphony at the age of 17, a few years later a symphonic poem, another symphony dedicated to Franz Liszt, a third dedicated to Tchaikovsky, all within five years.

But not all was well. Glazunov had to deal with two issues. One was vodka. The other was a certain inhibition to push the envelope in his musical development. In a friendly letter, Tchaikovsky wrote in 1890: “I sense a certain genius, but something prevents you to develop as much depth [in your works] as you have broadened your musical roots […] I would like to help your talent blossom, but before deciding to do so, I need to think. What if you are advancing exactly at the speed that is appropriate to you? What if I had failed to understand that?”

Glazunov succeeded in marrying Russian traditionalism with elements from Western European music, his music is as close as Russian music could get to what some call “impressionistic” music, represented by Gabriel Dupont and Claude Debussy for example. This becomes apparent in his Piano Concerto No. 1 in F Minor, op. 92 which I want to present today. Glazunov wrote it in 1910/11 and it has an unusual shape: a first movement and as a second movement a theme with nine variations.

You will find some of Tchaikovsky’s lyricism and some of Debussy’s luminosity. The piece exemplifies the two influences that marked Glazunov: St. Petersburg where he led the conservatory for 30 years and Paris, his temporary residence, where he conducted many of the Russian Historical Concerts. The piano concerto, conceived and written in the period between the turn of the century and 1911, also reflects the period when Glazunov’s musical expression reached a culmination point. The composer dedicated it to the Polish pianist Leopold Godovsky.

Most Glazunov’s works have been neglected after Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Stravinsky pushed Russian music into another realm. The pianist Sviatoslav Richter promoted to a certain degree Piano Concerto No. 1, but it was the Uruguayan composer and conductor José Serebier who pushed for a recording of Glazunov’s complete symphonies and concertos. He recorded op. 92 together with the Russian National Orchestra.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.