Influential People: Mily Balakirev

The younger, less round Balakirev

In talking about Russian music, even people who don’t listen to classical music might be able to name Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, even Prokofiev or Shostakovich, and we will surely get to them all. But this week, we get a lot more Russian.
Balakirev was born in 1837 to what seems to be a rather poor family. He showed some talent for music and his mother took him to Moscow when he was ten, during his summer holiday, for piano lessons with Alexander Dubuque, a student of that strangely relocated Irish pianist John Field. In passing, these are the only names (well, only Field) that stand out to me as ‘famous.’ He was noticed by some other influential Russians of the day and exposed to music of Glinka and Chopin, and even conducted (Wikipedia says “led”, which I assume means conducted) performances of Mozart’s requiem and a few Beethoven symphonies. It seems he began composing around this time as well, and he even performed Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto before the Tsar at the time, so he was doing pretty important and successful musical things.
Interestingly, this was before any Russian textbooks or conservatories, before either of the Rubinsteins did what they did, and apparently Balakirev’s German was pretty awful, so when he met Glinka, his compositional technique was found to be “defective.” The one thing he had done was “spark a passion for Russian nationalism with Balakirev,” and in short, M.B. went to find likeminded composers to “abet him” in creating a distinctly Russian musical style. It seems he took it upon himself to define what this style was and teach his proteges based on the principles he’d set out to distinguish their Russian music from the rest of European tradition. Vladimir Stasov coined the term “Могучая кучка”, or the “mighty handful,” but they eventually became known as “The Five”:

  • Mily Balakirev
  • Modest Mussorgsky
  • Cesar Cui
  • Alexander Borodin
  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
None of them were much younger than Balakirev, the youngest (I think) being RK, at only 7 years Balakirev’s junior, and a few of them were older, but apparently less experienced.
You can read the article about him yourself, but the general impression I get is that Balakirev knew far less about music and composition and all that than he let on. His agenda, very much so, was to be distinctly different: nationalistic, even political purposes in the music, and these were the ideals he cultivated in his little clique. Wikipedia describes him thusly:

As an instructor and influence of magnetic personality, Balakirev inspired his comrades to improbable heights of musical creativity. However, he vehemently opposed academic training, considering it a threat to the musical imagination. It was better in his view to begin composing right away and learn through that act of creation. This line of reasoning could be argued as a rationalization to his own lack of technical training. He had been trained as a pianist and had to discover his own way to becoming a composer.

So the overall effect he had was a positive one, but upon gaining more experience and finding their own voices instead of Balakirev’s some of the five (maybe not Cui, but seemingly Borodin and RK most strongly) saw through some of the image of their mentor as the
all-knowing. I will likely use this quote again when we get around to his piece, but Rimsky-Korsakov said of him:

Balakirev, who had never had any systematic course in harmony and counterpoint and had not even superficially applied himself to them, evidently thought such studies quite unnecessary…. An excellent pianist, a superior sight reader of music, a splendid improviser, endowed by nature with a sense of correct harmony and part-writing, he possessed a technique partly native and partly acquired through a vast musical erudition, with the help of an extraordinary memory…

And on and on, but not without his defects, as we shall discuss in due time.
In contrast with Rubinstein’s classical or “traditional” approach, reliance on professional musical training, Balakirev seemed far less pedantic. He never had formal training, but also didn’t have a stable musical career like Rubinstein had, which he was probably also bitter about… I would be. He protested Rubinstein’s reliance on Western tradition and reverence for Beethoven and Mendelssohn, etc. It certainly didn’t help that Rubinstein and his followers openly called this “mighty handful” “amateurs,” since Balakirev was the only professional musician of the group, as we shall later learn.
There was lots of drama at the Russian Musical Society, which Balakirev tried to take over (with Berlioz at his side) after Rubinstein left, and on and on.
It seems that Balakirev’s greatest successes were not as composer or performer himself, but as… a mentor, a cultivator of Russian music. Even after members of the five had moved on, grown up to do their own (still decidedly Russian) things, Balakirev managed to exert his influence, perhaps in less…. dogmatic ways.
He decided to have a nervous breakdown, perhaps around 1871 and it changed him. He couldn’t take on work, or decided not to, rejected offers for teaching posts, and was in such poverty that he eventually took up a position as a railway clerk in Warsaw in 1872. While his personality was changed and his spirit perhaps broken, he still wasn’t done influencing Russian music.
He befriended a young Tchaikovsky; they exchanged letters after Tchaikovsky defended Balakirev after the latter’s dismissal from the RMS. Balakirev had conducted some of Tchaikovsky’s works and B apparently helped T produce “his first masterwork” his fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet. But this was not the only work Balakirev would have influence on.
Balakirev forwarded to Tchaikovsky the “programme for a symphony” based on Lord Byron’s Manfred. It had originally been started by Stasov for Berlioz, but somehow got passed around and became the largest thing Tchaikovsky had written up to that point, and was unsurprisingly dedicated to Balakirev.
It seems he was a proud, talented charismatic man, but also belligerent, at times even petty, dogmatic, and controlling… but for better or for worse, I think if you had to pick out one human who began Russian music in earnest, it would be him. Glinka was behind it all, though, and Balakirev learned from him how to put Russian folk tunes to use orchestrally, and learned orchestration technique from his observation of Berlioz, Balakirev was ultimately the first Russian composer to compose (and mentor) with an intentionally Russian focus. Again, from Wikipedia:

Like his contemporaries in The Five, Balakirev believed in the importance of program music—music written to fulfill a program inspired by a portrait, poem, story or other non-musical source. Unlike his compatriots, the musical form always came first for Balakirev, not the extramusical source, and his technique continued to reflect the Germanic symphonic approach. Nevertheless, Balakirev’s overtures played a crucial role in the emergence of Russian symphonic music in that they introduced the musical style now considered “Russian.”

This is where his biggest influence lies. Even one of his more famous works, the first symphony, has only been recorded a handful of times, and it is this piece we will discuss Thursday. Wikipedia also mentions that the man’s work would have had much greater influence if he hadn’t been so late to publish so many of them. As a result of this, it seems his work was overshadowed by those whom he mentored, and he didn’t wield the influence he could have as a composer.
I find this conscious cultivation of Russian music interesting. Essentially, it was up to whatever Balakirev felt good about. He learned from Glinka, but also Berlioz and, as mentioned above, still adhered to much German tradition. What if he really liked the tambourine, or alto flute, or decided that Russian symphonies needed more cowbell or double or triple the amount of double-reeded instruments? Would that have become a trademark of Russian symphonies? And why? Listening to something like Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky today, most people go “Oh, it’s so Russian,” but why? What exactly is it about the music that makes it so? Sure, it’s lyrical and rich and dramatic, some of it outright exotic, but with the free reign Balakirev had, he could have made anything Russian tradition.
In any case, that’s how things go, and the conscious and political choices that were made resulted in the rich tradition of Russian classical music we have today, but one can see how it is only one potential result of the factors that were in play at the time.
It also makes for an interesting starting point, a contrast between last week’s great virtuoso and composer Anton Rubinstein, the classicist, meets with a more forward-thinking and nationalistically determined individual, and what precipitates out after these two goes in many directions, and it is those directions we shall explore.
Two of the five members of The Five didn’t make it into our list: Mussorgsky and Cui, primarily because neither of them wrote symphonies. I know that is perhaps an inadequate criterium for their exclusion, but the symphony is what we’re focusing on here, for various reasons, and they didn’t join that party, so they’re out.
In any case, I’ll see you Thursday for Balakirev’s symphony no. 1 in C, and much more after that .

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