Balakirev, Mily (Alexeievich)

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Balakirev, Mily (Alexeievich)

Balakirev, Mily (Alexeievich), greatly significant Russian composer; b. Nizhny-Novgorod, Jan. 2, 1837; d. St. Petersburg, May 29, 1910. Following early piano lessons with his mother, he had several piano lessons with Alexander Dubuque in Moscow. After his mother’s death, he lived at the Alexandrovsky Inst., where he studied music theory with Karl Eisrich, who introduced him to Oulibicheff. He often played the piano and conducted in private musical evenings at Oulibicheff’s estate, and was given access to the large library there for private study. In 1853 he went to the Univ. of Kazan to study mathematics. In 1855 Oulibishev took him to St. Petersburg, where he met Glinka, who encouraged him to continue his music training. On Feb. 24, 1856, he made his St. Petersburg debut in the dual capacity of pianist and composer, playing his one-movement Piano Concerto. During that year, he became acquainted with Cui and Stasov. In Feb. 1858 he played Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto before the Czar and the imperial family, but in spite of his success he seemed unwilling to pursue a career as a pianist. After Oulibicheff’s death in 1858, he received sufficient funds to pursue the luxury of composition. Several of his works, including the overture to King Lear and 16 songs, were well received. In 1863 he appeared for the first time in public as a conductor and, with Gavrül Lomakin, founded the Free Music School in St. Petersburg. The purpose of the school was to provide free music education to needy students, while providing them with the training suitable for overseeing parish choirs or for becoming soloists. During the summers from 1860 to 1863, he went to the Caucasus Mountains, to Yaroslavl, along the Volga, to Rostov on the Don, and to Tiflis, during which period he collected, notated, and harmonized many Russian songs, including the universally popular Song of the Volga Boatmen. In 1858 he began assembling a group of talented young composers known as the Balakirev Circle—Borodin, Cui, Gussak-ovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov—with the intention of developing a national Russian music in opposition to a passive imitation of existing Classical Germanic music. In 1866 he went to Prague to arrange for the production of Glinka’s operas, but the outbreak of the Austro-Prussian War forced his return to St. Petersburg. He revisited Prague in 1867 and conducted Ruslan and Ludmila (Feb. 16, 17, and 19) and A Life for the Czar (Feb. 22), but fear of hostilities towards the Russian works and conductor ended his stay. In honor of Slav visitors following the Pan-Russian Ethnographical Exhibition in Moscow, a Free School concert was given on May 24, 1867, during which music of the Balakirev Circle was performed. The critic Vladimir Stasov memorialized the concert with an article in which he proudly declared that Russia also had its “moguchaya kuchka” (“mighty little group” or “handful”) of fine musicians, which incorrectly became known as “The Mighty Five.”

In the summer of 1867, Balakirev succeeded Anton Rubinstein as conductor of the Russian Musical Soc. During his first year, he invited Berlioz to visit and share the podium in a series of ten concerts. On Feb. 9, 1868, Balakirev was appointed director of the Free School, giving him control over the two most important concert organizations in St. Petersburg at the time. However, in the spring of 1869, he was forced to resign from the Russian Music Soc. because of his “radical programs.” The previous summer he had written his oriental fantasy for piano, Mamey, using a Kabardian theme he had found on a trip to the Caucasus in 1863 and a Tartar melody from the Crimea he had heard sung in Moscow. When Nikolai Rubinstein played it in St. Petersburg, it served only to polarize further the tensions created by Balakirev’s dismissal. Islamey was subsequently performed throughout the world by many notable pianists, including Liszt.

In an attempt to fund the concerts, Balakirev scheduled a piano recital in Nizhy-Novgorod in 1870, but managed a profit of only 11 rubles, far short of his 426 ruble debt. Following four more concerts, Balakirev lost interest in music, withdrew completely from public life, became a religious convert, began visiting a soothsayer, and took a job as a clerk with the Warsaw division of the Central Railway Co. in 1872 for a menial salary. He was offered a professorship at the Moscow Cons, by N. Rubinstein but refused, pleading the lack of necessary technical knowledge. In 1873 he became music inspector for two St. Petersburg schools, the Maryinsky Inst. and the Coll. of St. Helen. He returned to composition about 1878 with Tamara, which was completed in 1882. Following N. Rubinstein’s death in 1881, he was offered the directorship and conductorship at the Moscow Cons., but declined the positions. In 1881 Rimsky-Korsakov resigned the directorship of the Free School of Music and Balakirev succeeded his successor. On Feb. 27, 1882, he made his return conducting Berlioz’s Te Deum, and on March 29 of the same year he conducted the premiere of Glazunov’s 1st Sym. In 1883 he became music director of the Imperial Chapel. Because of the copyright laws in Russia and the lack of participation with other countries, Balakirev rescored, edited, or rewrote many of his earlier works in order to protect his interests. This resulted in the multitude of versions culminating in Russia, In Bohemia, and Spanish Overture. He was instrumental in editing the works of Glinka and conducted concerts to raise money for a memorial in Smolensk, which was unveiled on June 6, 1885. In 1891 he visited Chopin’s birthplace and assisted in raising money for a memorial unveiled at Zelazowa Wola on Oct. 17, 1894, the last time he appeared publicly as a pianist. After the funeral of Czar Alexander III in 1894, he resigned his position with the Imperial Chapel. On April 23, 1898, he conducted the premiere of his 2nd Sym. at a Free Music Concert. In retirement he returned to composing and to editing former works. In 1904 he wrote a cantata using quotations from Glinka’s music for the centennial of Glinka’s birth. The cantata was performed at the unveiling of the Glinka memorial in St. Petersburg on Feb. 16, 1906, which was Balakirev’s last public appearance. His autobiography was publ. in Russkakya Ruzykalnaya Gazeta (1910).

Balakirev’s significance in music was due to his ability to motivate and encourage others to compose music along lines advocated by his philosophy to develop a Russian school of composition. His impact upon Russian music was mostly felt in the advocation of nationalistic works incorporating materials that rivaled developments elsewhere. In his own music, he could not seem to find the same commitment that he obtained from others, leaving only a few works of significance. His musical concepts did not change significantly during the course of his life. Similarly, his compositions, which extended over decades, do not reflect any advancements.


DRAMATIC: Incidental music to Shakespeare’s King Lear (1858–61; rev. 1902–05). ORCH.: Grande Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs for Piano and Orch. (1852); 2 piano concertos: No. 1, in F sharp minor, in 1 movement (1855–56; St. Petersburg, Feb. 24, 1856) and No 2, in E-flat major (1861–62; 1906–09; completed by S. Liapunov); Overture on a Theme of a Spanish March (1857; rev. as Spanish Overture, 1886); Overture on Themes of 3 Russian Songs (1858; Moscow, Jan. 2, 1859; rev. 1881); Second Overture on Russian Themes (1863–64; St. Petersburg, April 18, 1864; publ. as the musical picture 2000 Years, 1860; rev. as the symphonic poem Russia, 1884); Overture on Czech Themes (St. Petersburg, March 24, 1867; rev. as In Bohemia, 1905); Tamara, symphonic poem (1867–82; St. Petersburg, March 19, 1883); Suite (1901–08); Suite on Pieces by Chopin (1909). CHAMBER: Septet for Flute, Clarinet, 2 Violins, Viola, Cello, and Piano (1852); Octet for Flute, Oboe, Horn, 2 Violins, Viola, Cello, and Piano (1855–56); Romance for Cello and Piano (1856). Piano: 3 nocturnes (1856, rev. 1898; 1901; 1902); 3 scherzos (1856, 1900, 1901); 7 mazurkas (1861, rev. c. 1884; 1861, rev. c. 1884; 1886; 1886; 1900; 1902; 1906); Islamey (St. Petersburg, Dec. 12, 1869; rev. 1902; orchestrated by A. Casella, 1908; Chicago, Nov. 19, 1909); 7 waltzes (1900; 1900; 1901; 1902; 1903; 1903–04; 1906); Sonata in B-flat minor (1900–05); Suite for Piano, 4-Hands (1909). VOCAL: 45 songs for Voice and Piano; choral music; transcriptions. OTHER: Sbornik russkikh narodnikh pesen (Collection of Russian Folksongs; St. Petersburg, 1866); 30 russkükh narodnïkh pesen (30 Russian Folksongs; Leipzig, 1898).


V. Muzalevsky, M.A. B.: Kritiko-biograficheskiy ocherk (M.A. B.: Critical-biographical Essay; Leningrad, 1938); A. Kandinsky, Simfonicheskiye proizvedeniya M. B.a (Symphonic Works of M. B.; Moscow and Leningrad, 1950); V Kiselyov, Autografi ï M.A. B.a i materïali, svyazannïye s evo deyatel’nost’yu v fondakh gosudarstvennovo tsentraVnovo muzeya muzïkal’noy kul’turï imeni M.I. Glinka (M.A. B.’s Autographs and Other Materials Connected with his Activities, Contained in the Archives of the M.I. Glinka Central Museum of Culture, Moscow; Moscow, 1959); Y. Kemlyov et al., eds., M.A. B.: Issledovaniya i stat’i (M.A. B.: Research and Articles; Leningrad, 1961); idem, M.A. B.: Vospominaniya i pis’ma (M.A. B.: Reminiscences and Letters; Leningrad, 1962); E. Garden, B.: A Critical Study of his Life and Music (London, 1967); I. Kunin, M.A. B.: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo v pis’makh i dokumentakh (M.A. B.: Life and Works in Letters and Documents; Moscow, 1967); A. Liapunova and E. Yazovitskaya, M.A. B.: Letopis zhizni i tvorchestva (M.A. B.: Chronicle of his Life and Works; Leningrad, 1967); S. Neef, Die Russischen Fünf: B., Borodin, Cui, Mussorgski, Rimski-Korsakow: Monographien, Dokumente, Briefe, Programme, Werke (Berlin, 1992).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire