Balakirev or the narrative of a foolish quest

Nostalgia. © Charles Thibo

What a strange piece to celebrate autumn! But than again it was written by a strange man. Mily Balakirev. The focal point of the “Mighty Five”, a group of Russian musicians that we have met already several times on this blog. A group that devoted itself to develop a Russian music style, devoid of the Western European influence of the 19th century. Isn’t it ironic that Balakirev’s own style was substantially influenced by Franz Liszt, an Austrian/Czech, and the French composer Frédéric Chopin? But let’s sort this out!

Today’s post will gravitate around two piano sonatas in B flat minor that Balakirev wrote, No. 1 in 1855-56, at the beginning of his career, and No. 2 between 1900 and 1905, towards the end of his career. Balakirev had inherited a mission by one of the first Russian composers that achieved a certain international fame, Mikhail Glinka: to develop a Russian music tradition by studying traditional folk music and developing these tunes into something new, something superior and, most important of all, something different from what German composers like Mozart or Beethoven had done.

A superb intuitive composer

With the benefit of hindsight, one might say: What a foolish quest! Indeed, how could a composer, himself the product of European teachers, disregard his own musical education? And how could music, of universal nature, isolate itself from influences from abroad? That is utterly impossible. Nevertheless, however ridiculous the declared goals of Balakirev and his “Mighty Five” were, Balakirev was a superb intuitive composer. He had some piano lessons with his mother as well as a French, a German and a Russian teacher. He had some elementary musical training, and learned very much “by doing” as he had to give piano lessons to survive financially.

During the two years he wrote Piano Sonata No. 1 in B flat minor (Op. 5), Balakirev set up a free of charge music school in St. Petersburg to make musical education accessible to all classes of society. He was tireless, passionate, anti-establishement and very conscious of the fact that music had to be promoted in Russia outside the circles of the nobility. The sonata is one of the very first works he wrote, but it shows already that intuition can make up for much formal training. And it shows his ambition. According to sources that I could not check, it was to express the whole history of Russia.

Russia? As far away as possible.

The first movement, longer than the two following movements combined, starts on a dark, apprehensive mood – the founding of the Rus of Kiev? This denotes the first organized state on Russian soil, a loose federation of tribes that were used to fight each other if they were not trading with each other. The movement becomes much friendlier, lighter, clearer towards the middle of the movement, but there is nothing in the narrative of the early Russian history that would warrant such a mood. The Rus of Kiev was economically dependent of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and suffered many incursions from the southern and south-eastern steppes.

The composer called his second movement a “Mazurka”, which is the name of a Polish dance from the region of  Mazowsze, the territory around Warsaw. Russia? Far away. And Balakirev adored certain mazurkas written by Chopin, a Pole who spent most of his time in Paris since Russia had crushed a national uprising that was supposed to lead to Polish independence. Finally, the andante is very close to Liszt’s language, who was proud of his Hungarian origin and used many Hungarian folk tunes in his music. Russia? Far away.

Perhaps the idea that the sonata narrates Russia’s complex history is just as hyped as the ideas of the “Mighty Five”. Balakirev’s Piano Sonata is simply a wonderful piano piece. It has its violent parts and some beautiful nostalgic moments, and I assimilate it to the mixed feelings I have about autumn. A revolt against the fact that the summer is (already) over, my pleasure to see how beautifully coloured nature is and the joy with which I look forward to cosy evenings at home, at the fireplace.

Clarity and freshness

Piano Sonata No. 2 reminds me of… well I can’t quite lay my hands on it. Liszt, Chopin, Schumann? Balakirev adored Schumann.  A German!!! It feels like crystal-clear water dripping of a rock, cold, refreshing, a light rain while the heat of one of the last warm days is lingering on.

The sonata is written in four movements with a mazurka again as the second movement, and it is actually an adapted version of the mazurka of Op. 5. The final version of 1905 sounds surprisingly modern if you consider the fact that Balakirev’s style was by then considered old-fashioned and was by no means considered as the future of Russian music. The third movement, Intermezzo larghetto, contrasts are subdued, repetitive left hand figures with a hovering, meditative right hand – the spirit of Liszt’s later piano works. The finale begins with a joyful theme, very rhythmic with ample syncopation*, a gentle central part, and variations of the first theme as a virtuosic, triumphant end.

847 words and so much more could be said about Balakirev, an important, but neglected Russian composer. Discover him through his music – both piano sonatas have been recorded by the Moldovian pianist Alexander Paley.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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