Alexander Glazunov: Symphony no. 3 in D, op. 33

performed by the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky

“[Tchaikovsky] also knew my Third Symphony, which is dedicated to him. Much in it found his approval and, at his request, I often played the scherzo of the symphony to him on the piano. When I asked him what he would regard as the most significant weakness in my works, he said: ‘Some longevities and the lack of pauses.’ Later, when Pyotr Ilyich had long departed this world, I always remembered his words, and in my subsequent production I always took pains to pay heed to them.”

This is a Tuesday music article because we have to do a bit of cramming this week. I had originally planned to decide to post one symphony of the two that I’ll be posting this week, but I ultimately had to include them both, as you will see. Glazunov should arguably have gotten his own Influential People post, but this will have to do for now, and Thursday’s work is a real gem.

I’m trying to break away a bit from having just a string here of “symphony no. 1” from tons of composers. So far it’s been the first symphonies of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin (and his second!), and Arensky.

It goes a bit against my chronologically-organized tendencies, but there is time to get around to the others, and frankly, it makes the ordering of all these just right this way. So here we have our first third symphony of the Russian Symphony Series we’ll be doing, and it was completed in 1890. Keep that year in mind, because we’ll refer to it a bit later.

This symphony is the first work of a more mature point in the composer’s career, and also the longest of all of his symphonies, but apparently just slightly longer than the second. First a bit about Glazunov.

He was born into a wealthy family and his talents were recognized very early, with Balakirev recognizing the boy’s potential and bringing him to the attention of Rimsky-Korsakov, who commented that he progressed not by the month or day, but the hour. Wikipedia states that he began to view Glazunov as less and less of a student and more a “junior colleague,” as he watched him progress so quickly. The Wikipedia page on Glazunov summarizes his influence thusly:

Glazunov was significant in that he successfully reconciled nationalism and cosmopolitanism in Russian music. While he was the direct successor to Balakirev‘s nationalism, he tended more towards Borodin‘s epic grandeur while absorbing a number of other influences. These included Rimsky-Korsakov‘s orchestral virtuosity, Tchaikovsky‘s lyricism and Taneyev‘s contrapuntal skill. Younger composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich eventually considered his music old-fashioned while also admitting he remained a composer with an imposing reputation and a stabilizing influence in a time of transition and turmoil.

It seems his real fame, though, came from Belyayev, founder of the eponymous Belyayev circle. Belyayev decided to hire an orchestra and rent a hall to perform the young composer’s first symphony. He later benefited greatly from the publishing house Belyayev founded, later working with Rimsky-Korsakov in a team to choose young composers for sponsorship or promotion. His later most famous student from his teaching posts was Dmitri Shostakovich, whom we shall of course get to, but as we shall also see, Glazunov wasn’t without his faults.

Wiki also states he had a creative crisis in 1890-1891, which is right around the time this symphony was finished, so I’m assuming it didn’t affect this symphony. It was published by Belyayev’s Leipzig firm and dedicated to Tchaikovsky (are you seeing how all these people intertwine and connect?!). The premiere was conducted in St. Petersburg in December by Antony Lyadov, who doesn’t make it into our series for the sole reason that it seems he did not ever compose a symphony.

I’d say the work sounds ‘modern,’ but not in the way  we may often use that term. In fact, Wiki states that Prokofiev and Shostakovich would later consider his music ‘old-fashioned,’ but we’re not there yet. Modern, in this context, refers to the work’s breaking away from the heavily nationalistic style of the compositions of The Five, gravitating more to influences from Tchaikovsky and even Wagner. This work was perhaps a youthful, adventurous one, because he mellowed out those ambitions in his later works. Considering he published his first symphony when he was only 16, this is still the work of a relatively young composer getting his sea legs.

And let’s go back for a moment to the year 1890. Think of what else was happening in 1890. That year puts us between Bruckner’s eighth and ninth symphonies, as well as Mahler’s first and second. It was also the year Dvorak’s eighth premiered. Think of the things that were going on in the West, and how, at this point in Russia, taking influence from the music of people like Wagner was controversial. It’s not to say they were behind, just that it was a different society. That all being said, I listened to this work many many times and had written a far more lukewarm draft of this post before the piece suddenly reminded me of (or made me think of, for whatever reason) Bruckner’s fourth, and I suddenly kind of ‘got’ the piece. It does sound more modern (or ambitious or open-minded) than say Balakirev, and certain more modern than (but equally as ‘western’ as) Rubinstein’s. There are some more unique things going on, and perhaps it’s just a bit of an experiment, an adventure to see what sticks and what doesn’t. I don’t hate the work, but it’s by no means a favorite. Let’s talk about it a bit.

The first movement may or may not be in sonata form. I really can’t tell. The work perhaps reminds me of Bruckner in the way it sprawls, explores and hovers, if those verbs make any sense. The opening theme of the first movement comes back in some very nice ways that appear very different from the way it was first presented. This gives the impression that the work covers a ton of ground, a giant, sprawling thing, and it was a bit difficult to approach. But when you really look at it, you see that it all comes from much the same place. Even the two (apparent?) themes for this first movement seem to originate from the same place. What opens as a kind of in medias res gesture for the first movement is later a harsh, brassy, almost violent thing, and this makes the twelve-minute journey of the first movement complex and at times difficult to follow, but intriguing nonetheless. There are solos or exposed lines in oboe, clarinet, cello (really tender!) that are beautiful and add some delicacy to this movement, changing color and form sometimes quite unexpectedly.

The second movement is a scherzo that doesn’t necessarily feel…. terribly scherzo-like. It’s not a Brucknerian scherzo, for sure, even if some of the other movements seem to call him to mind. It’s a dainty, playful thing in contrast to the first movement, which seemed at times almost gothic or Romantic (a la Bruckner’s fourth) in nature. Heavy on the woodwinds, pizzicato strings, lots of light, delicate things with a spring in everyone’s step, almost fairytale-like at turns, it almost missed me as a scherzo, but it’s there. The trio is a quieter, slower passage with (muted?) brass, calls from trumpets and horns, and still lots of woodwinds and high strings. This feels like perhaps the most inventive, creative thing in the whole work. There’s something interesting about this movement, and some of it sounds as if it came from the first movement. I couldn’t find anything online about how the premiere was received, but I could see this movement being a polarizing one. I would also like to hear it played on piano, as stated in the opening quote. It finishes cutely.

I’m not sure if it’s my recording or if the second does lead into the third attacca. The third movement is about as long as the first, but in MusicWeb’s review of a specific performance, (Svetlanov’s), the writer states that the third movement is “a case where material that was rather thin in the first place is being overstretched.” Svetlanov’s performance of the movement is apparently much slower, being quoted in that article as coming in at 16:10, something like four minutes slower than the recording I heard.

I feel like this is somehow the most traditionally Russian of the movements thus far, but it also reminds me a bit of Bruckner in that sprawling, large, wide open adagio that can be a little uneventful if you’re not looking in just the right light. It seems to lead right out of the scherzo, and has its moments (many of them, really) of beauty, not least of which are solemn, exposed moments of strings with English horn. It does perhaps lack a bit of the captivating, eye-(ear)-catching nature that shows you the progress of the piece. While it reminds me in some ways of the flowery, Romantic nature of, say, a Rachmaninoff slow movement, it also lacks something. I feel like it hits its stride toward the end, but I just think that half the movement could be excised (keep the English horn and clarinet and flute bits) and it would have been just as if not more effective. It does tend to drag.

The finale is the longest movement, coming in on our recording at over 14 minutes, and a welcome change from the third movement, a brighter patch. To be honest, there aren’t any real heavyweight movements in this piece, nothing over 15 minutes (unlike Bruckner or Mahler or others), but it feels like a more substantial work than it actually is. It feels more like the first, with much more of the orchestra interacting at various turns. That being said, about halfway through the movement, I find myself saying “I get it,” and hoping for a perfect cadence sometime soon. It’s nice and all, but tests my patience. It has the excitement and drama of a finale, but it drags on a bit too long. Thankfully that final end is big and exciting.

To be honest, there are parts of this symphony I like (mostly the first movement and the last), but aside from some nice moments here and there, the work doesn’t captivate me, doesn’t make me miss it. I’ve listened to this one very many times, and I feel like I’m missing something maybe. It’s definitely ‘ahead’ in a developmental, modern sense from much of what came before, but I can’t speak to the composer’s eventual style, except to say that his name has not been forgotten, likely for good reason.

I’ll spoil a bit of the surprise for what lies ahead in our series, but this work does remind me a bit of what comes later in our series. I’ve listened at least a few times to everything that we’re going to feature, but there are some works that will need a lot more attention before I’m ready to discuss them; among those is a few symphonies of Myaskovsky. While Shostakovich and Prokofiev (the last two composers represented in our series) thought Glazunov a traditional old-timer, I hear in his music a bit of the same challenge I have with Myaskovsky’s big works, and they’ll be tough nuts to crack for me. Perhaps he, ultimately, is the Russian Bruckner.

In any case, there’s no sense in judging Glazunov on what is admittedly a bit of a youthful, experimental work. I haven’t heard his violin concerto (maybe I have…) or any of the other concertos (he wrote one for saxophone!) or symphonies, so this isn’t necessarily the greatest place to start, but it’s somewhere. We’ll eventually get back around to him when he’s sixteen years old and just finished writing his first symphony. Little wunderkind.

In any case, Thursday’s piece is a real gem. See you then.

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One thought on “Alexander Glazunov: Symphony no. 3 in D, op. 33

  1. It is nice to see Glazunov put in the limelight. In case you haven’t noticed Glazunov’s symphonies and concertos have been recorded by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the National Russian Orchestra both under José Serebrier as well as the Basel Symphony Orchestra under Walter Weller.

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