Alexander Glazunov

Russian composer Aleksandr Glazunov is known for having successfully bridged the music of the two 19th century Russian schools of composition; he combined the academic with the cosmopolitan. Though he leaned toward the lyricism of Tchaikovsky, he is also said to have been the “heir to Balakirev’s nationalism.”  His work ended the battle between the two schools of thought and created a new Russian style.

Glazunov was born in 1865 into a wealthy merchant family in St Petersburg. His father was a successful book publisher and his mother a talented pianist who encouraged his musical development. At the age of nine, Glazunov started piano lessons and at the age of eleven he followed composition lessons with Elenkovsky. His immense talent was apparent and, after a meeting with Balakirev in 1879, was recommended to Rimsky-Korsakov, a member of “The Five” also known as the “Mighty Handful,” for composition lessons. Rimsky-Korsakov taught Aleksandr the theory of composition, harmony, and accompaniment. The lessons were incredibly successful. Rimsky-Korsakov even said that Glazunov progressed “not from day to day but from hour to hour.” These lessons lasted less than two years, as he was able to learn so rapidly. The two formed a lifelong friendship during this time. At the age of 16, Glazunov had already completed his First Symphony (1881-82), which was premiered in 1882 under the direction of Balakirev. The symphony was later conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov at the Moscow Exhibition. Later in the same year, Glazunov completed his First String Quartet (1882).

Glazunov’s talent did not go unnoticed by the wealthy art patron Mitrofan Belyayev, who provided financial support for him and other young Russian composers. Belyayev also showed his support through the organization of “Russian Symphony Concerts,” a series which began with a concert of only Glazunov’s works conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov, and later expanded to include other young and promising Russian composers. Beyayev later gained exclusive rights to publish Glazunov’s music. It was also with the help of Belyayev that Glazunov was able to travel to Weimar, where he was introduced to Liszt, a composer who had long influenced him.

In 1885, Belyayev formed what came to be known as the “Belyayev Circle,” which was comprised of composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov, Vītols, Blumenfeld, and Ewald. The group aimed to continue the development of Russian music.

The Russian composer Borodin died suddenly in 1887 leaving many works unfinished. Glazunov was influenced by Borodin’s work and in addition had a meaningful friendship with him. After Borodin’s unexpected death, he and Rimsky-Korsakov dedicated themselves to completing Borodin’s work. Glazunov had an incredible musical memory and was able to recall Borodin performing the overture to Prince Igor many years before, and wrote out the entire overture by memory. They also orchestrated his Third Symphony among others.

Glazunov was influenced by Borodin’s work and had a meaningful friendship with him.

In 1888, Glazunov made his conducting debut and in 1889 he conducted his Second Symphony (1886) in Paris at the World Exhibition. Despite showing a passion for conducting, it remained an art he was never able to fully master. He even ruined the premiere of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony when he showed up drunk, having barely studied the score. (This had an adverse psychological repercussions for Rachmaninov.)

In 1899, Glazunov was appointed as a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Rimsky-Korsakov also taught. Glazunov even briefly resigned in 1905 to protest against the dismissal of Rimsky-Korsakov. After returning to his post, he held it until 1930, despite actually leaving the country in 1928. Glazunov proved to be essential for the improvement and continuance of the conservatory. He improved the curriculum, raised standards, and was able to defend the conservatory as an institution, largely due to his stable working relationship with the new regime in the year 1917. Through his positive relationship with Lunacharsky, the minister of education, the conservatory received special status and was protected via Glazunov’s prestige. Some of his contributions to the curriculum include the additions of an opera studio and a student philharmonic orchestra. Glazunov also formed a connection with each and every student; he listened to every exam and gave personal written feedback to each student. He also helped talented students in financial need, most notably Dmitri Shostakovich. Eventually, the other professors began to find his methods too conservative; embittered, he took the opportunity to travel to Western Europe in 1928, and finally resigned in 1930.

Glazunov experienced a creative crisis for two years between 1890 and 1891, but thereafter was able to compose prolifically and with a more mature style. Compositions from this time include three symphonies (numbers 4 through 6), 2 string quartets (numbers 4 and 5), and 3 ballets – Raymonda aymonda (1896-7),  Les russes d’amour (1900), and The Seasons (1900). Raymonda became his most popular ballet while The Seasons brilliantly captures the sounds and feelings of the four seasons in a very animated and captivating manner. This period best represents his ability to bridge the two schools of Russia, the cosmopolitan style of Moscow and the academic style of St Petersburg. Influences from both Tchaikovsky and Glinka can be heard in his music in terms of his use of lyricism and nationalism, respectively; his music, thus, put an end to the battle between the two schools. His music also embodies the grandiose nature of Borodin’s work while embracing Rimsky-Korsakov’s virtuous orchestration techniques. This period is also marked by the beginning of his time at the conservatory, in which he was at the height of his creativity.

Eventually his work at the conservatory did take a toll on his creativity and productiveness. His compositions, such as his Second Piano Concerto (1917), show his struggling creativity. However his First Piano Concerto (1910-11), which was conceived earlier, still reflects his level of mastery from the years prior. His String Quartet no. 6 (1921) was, however, a very successful piece and was performed around Europe in the 1920s by the Glazunov Quartet.

World War I and the proceeding civil wars were difficult for Glazunov, however he remained active as a conductor. In 1922 he was named the People’s Artist of the Republic and retained a good relationship with the regime – although he did not agree with them – leading to a bout of depression.


...named the People’s Artist of the Republic and retained a good relationship with the regime.

Glazunov eventually settled in Paris and was influenced by Western European music. This is evident in his use extensive use of the saxophone between 1932 and 1934 in his Saxophone Quartet and Saxophone Concerto, respectively. These pieces consist of single continuous movements. The quartet lasts 35 minutes and the concerto 18, both with nonstop playing. Throughout his life, he also learned to play many of the orchestral instruments, leading to very informed instrumental writing.

Glazunov dedicated his life solely to music, and in turn had an almost nonexistent personal life. He lived with his mother into his 40s and suffered from a severe addiction to alcohol. Shostakovich even recalled that he would, as a student, sneak alcohol to Glazunov during the Bolshevik ban on alcohol. It was only at the age of 64 that Glazunov married Olga Gavrilova. Glazunov enjoyed great popularity in his lifetime, but in the end he was considered old-fashioned by the new composers. Still, he remained a prominent composer in a time of commotion an uncertainty. After a period of deteriorating health, Glazunov died in Paris in 1936.

Mikhail Glinka

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