Sergei Lyapunov: Symphony no. 2

performed by the USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra under Evgeny Svetlanov

or the same conductor with the Orchestre National de France in a studio recording here

So this must be by far the most obscure work in everything that we’ve talked about so far, as we are nearing the end of our Russian Symphony cycle.

Sergei Lyapunov was born in 1859, and after his father died, the family moved to Nizhny Novgorod, which may sound familiar. On the suggestion of Nikolai Rubinstein, Lyapunov enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory, of which Rubinstein was the director. There, he studied mainly under Karl Klindworth for piano (a student of Franz Liszt) and Sergei Taneyev, student of Tchaikovsky, for composition.

However, he maybe had other ideas. Wikipedia states:

He graduated in 1883, more attracted by the nationalist elements in music of the New Russian School than by the more cosmopolitan approach of Tchaikovsky and Taneyev. He went to St. Petersburg in 1885 to seek Mily Balakirev, becoming the most important member of Balakirev’s latter-day circle. Balakirev, who had himself been born and bred in Nizhny Novgorod, took Lyapunov under his wing, and oversaw his early compositions as closely as he had done with the members of his circle during the 1860s, now known as The Five. Balakirev’s influence remained the dominant influence in his creative life.

It is amazing how after all this time, even stretching into a new century, those names we started with from the very beginning, Balakirev, Rubinsteins, Rimsky-Korsakov, are still exerting their influence. This is one of the reasons Lyapunov is included, even though this may be one of his least successful works.

He worked with Balakirev and Lyadov in collecting folk songs for the Imperial Geographic Society, as well as succeeded Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in a number of roles, one of which being director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He moved to Paris in 1923, after the revolution, and apparently the official word in Russia was that he’d died during a concert tour, not voluntarily left.

He was best known as a pianist, and this second symphony comes late in his career, after the Russian Revolution, and wasn’t actually premiered until some time after his death. As we stated in Tuesday’s article, it was a rough time for the nation, and the resulting Soviet music we will discuss bears this out. The man only wrote two symphonies, and this work, written during/after 1917 had to wait an apparent 34 years to see the light of a concert hall. This webpage has a fantastic little discussion of the work, one of few (or the only) I could find on the work. It says:

It was destined to remain unplayed for 34 years. It’s a heartfelt, if rather grim work, roughly the size and proportions of Rachmaninov’s Second, but with neither the triumphant ending (Lyapunov’s ebbs away in elegiac dissolution) nor the melodic riches.

Indeed, the work is large, coming in at close to an hour (or right at an hour in the above-linked studio recording), and has something of a draw to it, a not so ‘captivating’ as curious, alluring quality in the persistence of its main theme, which appears throughout the entire work. The writer tactfully says about the piece that it “compels respect rather than enthusiasm.”

Let’s first about its content and then the results of that content. The above article says:

It opens with a chant-like chromatic motto, and by continual transformations almost every theme in the Symphony derives fairly obviously from this source, giving the work an obsessive, almost monothematic quality and lending a certain mechanical inevitability to some of its working-out.

Indeed, the material presented at the beginning is persistent throughout, and while Rachmaninoff used this to great effect in his first symphony (as did others elsewhere), I strongly agree that the work is “monothematic” and “mechanical” in many ways, but also “obsessive,” and this feeling of repetition and persistence tends at first to gets old, but then draw one to listen closer. It strikes interest; there is something pervasive and ‘sticky’ or persistent about the work.

The first movement adheres mostly to this main theme, but presents a rather depressing, heavy mood, but at times jumping into a bright, almost carefree, playful tune that does show up here and there in the first movement, where are established the overall mood of the work and the content.

The second and third movements are by far the highlights of this work, in my opinion. The second movement scherzo is a very tightly constructed, focused, taut thing with clear appearances of our main theme, but not solely that. It is driven and complex and layered, but the trio suddenly takes us away from a Soviet-sounding realm to an exotic, faraway village playing native folk music, a very welcome getaway from the heaviness we’ve heard so far, something like you might hear form RK’s Scheherazade. The scherzo returns and rounds off a very interesting, focused, rich movement.

The third movement begins with the main subject outright, but eventually drifts into a very Romantically Russian thing, calling Rachmaninoff to mind. Sentimental, nostalgic, tender, again nicely removed from the first movement, but never completely. That persistent wartime-like theme is almost always there, but it’s this time finally overshadowed by delicate beauty, an unadulterated, straightforward movement that shows despite any political strife, turmoil or agenda, Lyapunov, when he wanted to, could write a real sucker of a melody.

The final movement begins in a real celebratory, not quite triumphant or majestic, but proud, and yet, even in among this celebration, tambourine and all, we still hear that theme shading and changing the mood of the work. It feels, at least for a while, like we’re going somewhere happy here, and things slow down but still seem to keep a smile, and even towards the increasingly tense, stormy end, our persistent opening theme has stuck with us, and while it isn’t the most joyous, irrefutably optimistic of conclusions, it seems the piece does end on a positive note. Maybe? But then just there at the very end… I dunno.

This was a piece that, at first, didn’t grab me much, didn’t do a lot for me, but once I wrapped my head around it a bit more, let the details of it sink it, it came to grow on me, and I can’t see how an honest, inspired performance of this work wouldn’t be very successful in the concert hall. It would be a treat to hear. But as with many things, we will have to wait and see.

Also, if you thought this was heavy and even abstruse, get ready for three giant, heavy, dark, recondite symphonies for next week. Also, I just said recondite.


4 thoughts on “Sergei Lyapunov: Symphony no. 2

  1. I will have to check this out. I love that dark Russian stuff. If fear is about to overhelm me, I will just push the panic button on the iPad and switch to Rossini! 😨🎶

      1. Am I cool enough for Shostakovich???? I just finished a draft post on the “Leningrad” symphony. But it will not be published before late spring. 😊

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