Saturday, May 12, 2012

Glière - Symphony No. 3 'Ilya Muromets'

Most countries or nationalities have their folk heroes. Many of them are based on historical figures, or are an amalgamation of more than one historical figure.  One of Russia's most famous folk heroes is Ilya Muromets. As with England and Europe, Russia had a  period of time where it was a feudal society, including the brave and heroic knight that fought the invader. These knights were called bogatyrs, and Ilya Muromets was one of the greatest. Glière used this folk tale of  Russia as his inspiration for his symphony.

Reinhold Glière was born in 1875 in Kiev. He studied violin in Kiev, later studied composition and orchestration with students of Rimsky-KorsakovMikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov and Anton Arensky. He graduated from school in 1900 and began to teach as well as compose.  One of his private students was Sergei Prokofiev. His third symphony was written in 1911 and premiered in 1912.  After the Russian Revolution, Glière continued to teach and compose.  While his third symphony was definitely a modern work in 1911, his style remained more traditional than avant-garde, so he avoided the accusations of formalism (definition of which was : Music that Stalin didn't like) that threatened Shostakovich, Prokofiev and other Soviet-era composers. He taught at the Moscow Conservatory until 1941, did etho-musicology work to help develop an  Azerbaijani cultural opera, and continued to write cantatas and operas. He wrote no more symphonies after number three.

Glière was obviously a survivor. He created no waves, stayed pretty much within the musical confines that were officially approved of.  He became a living classic, and was derided by some of the more modern composers of Russia. But in his Third Symphony, he created a massive, multi-movement tone poem that is one of the most expansive pieces of music ever composed. He used a huge orchestra, 4 of each woodwind, 4 trumpets, 8 horns, and a wide variety of percussion. His themes are expansive, their development even more so. The Third Symphony is not a piece of music to rush through. It must unfold as a great story book, and it is a story book, written in music. Glière himself marked the score with the appropriate happenings of what the music depicts. The symphony is in 4 Tableaux:

Tableaux I  -  Wandering Pilgrims ; Muromets and Svygator 
The first movement is in two sections. The first section begins with slow, ominous music that depicts Ilya, crippled and unable to walk since birth. There appears some wandering pilgrims that have the gift of healing. They tell Ilya to stand up and walk, to go out and do mighty deeds, for he is no longer crippled.  The music moves ever so slowly through this section as it builds up to Ilya walking under his own power.

The second section concerns Ilya meeting the great bogatyr Svygator, a knight so big that his helmet parts the clouds as he rides on his giant horse. At first Ilya challenges him, but after talking together they become fast friends and Svygator give Ilya much advice and wisdom.  The music depicts wild adventures until they come across a huge stone coffin. Svygator lays in the coffin and as he breathes on Ilya for the last time and gives him all his strength and wisdom, a lid is put on the coffin and he dies. The death of Svygator is heard in a slow descent to the very depths of the orchestra.  The whole-tone scale is used to increase the horror and mystery of the episode.  Ilya then rides off on his horse to Kiev.

Tableaux II - Ilya And Nightingale The Robber 

Ilya is on his way to capture the dreaded monster Nightingale who hides in the shelter of the mighty oaks within the threatening forest. Nightingale kills mortals who dare to enter his forest by whistling a loud, shrieking noise that kills them. The orchestra strings play near the bridge of their instruments (sul ponticello) to give a glassy, unreal sound to represent Ilya's entrance into the dangerous forest.  Nightingale hears Ilya approach, and when he is near he lets loose with his screeching whistle, but to no affect. The orchestra depiction of Nightingale's whistle is some of the most creative orchestration Glière uses in a symphony noted for its imaginative orchestration.  Nightingale now tries to lure Ilya by unleashing his three voluptuous daughters who are not only beautiful but use gold, silver and pearls to try and lure him into the trap. Glière begins a slow unwinding of a Wagner-like sensuality to represent the three daughters. The music builds until Ilya resists their spell by shooting an arrow into the eye of Nightingale. The shrieking whistle is heard once more, but still has no affect on Ilya as he ties Nightingale to his horse and rides to Kiev to the court of Prince Vladimir The Mighty Sun.  The unearthly sound of the strings  heard once again as Ilya rides out of the forest.

Tableaux III - The Court Of Vladimir The Mighty Sun The mood changes at the court of Prince Vladimir The Mighty Sun, the popular ruler of Kiev. There is a festival being held for the boyars (nobles) and bogatyrs of his realm, complete with dancing maidens, musicians, the finest in food and drink. Ilya appears with Nightingale still tied to his horse. He releases Nightingale to let loose with his horrible whistle and all the guests of the festival fall to their knees in fear. Ilya takes his sword and promptly beheads Nightingale, thus showing to Prince Vladimir and the rest that he is worthy to be a bogatyr. Prince Vladimir accepts him as such and the festival continues. The music reflects the story line and paints a vivid picture for this, the shortest movement of the symphony, which can be thought of as the scherzo if in name and purpose if not in form.  This movement eases the tension of the past movements and prepares the listener for what is to come.

Tableaux IV - The Heroic Deeds  and  Petrification Of Ilya
This movement is in two sections, the first section depicts in music the battles fought by Ilya and the other Bogatyrs against invaders of all kinds, real and fictional. The eras of Russian history depicted in this music was a time of Christianity being adopted by Prince Vladimir with his baptism and the resultant battles against pagans trying to turn the country back to paganism.  Glière constructs some of the wildest fugues ever written for orchestra to represent  the battles. The orchestration bristles with sound and excitement as Ilya and the Bogatyrs defeat every enemy that challenges them.

The second section of the movement depicts the final defeat of the Bogatyrs and Ilya. After being victorious in so many battles, the Bogatyrs look to the heavens and ask if there is even a celestial army that can defeat them. The wandering pilgrims of the first movement that cured Ilya are in fact celestial beings themselves that have been watching the proceedings. The Bogatyrs have gone too far in their arrogance, and a celestial army comes down to earth and defeats the Bogatyrs.  While the celestial army defeats the others, Ilya tries to escape but as he runs he is turned to stone.  The orchestra reaches a shattering climax, a really grand racket at the moment Ilya turns to stone. Afterwards, the music turns slow and reflects about all that has happened. The chant that has been heard throughout the symphony in many guises is heard once more, this time in muted tones. The music reaches a minor climax, then slowly evaporates.

My first exposure to this symphony was in the early 1970's on a two long playing record set from the old Soviet Russia recording company Melodiya as distributed by Columbia records. I was smitten, literally wore the recording out with multiple plays. It was a recording that made cuts in the score and a few additions to the score instrumentation-wise from the conductor Nathan Rakhlin. It was a stunning recording despite the cuts and additions with a sound that was top-notch for the time.  There are now a few more recordings of the work,  the one in the accompanying video by the BBC Philharmonic and the conductor Edward Downes being my favorite.

Gustav Mahler, the great conductor/composer thought a symphony should be an entire world unto itself. Gliere's Symphony No. 3 Ilya Muromets is a symphony that meets Mahler's criterion. There are symphonies that are just as long or longer (it takes about eighty minutes) but there are few that are as expansive. It seems to last a lot longer than it actually does, and I mean that as a compliment. There is so much going on, the lines of music take time to develop and they draw you in with their expressiveness.

It is a masterpiece of  illustrative music that is more than picture painting. Of course the story line adds to the enjoyment of the piece,  but it can also stand alone as a symphony without the added story. It was as such that I first grew to love the work 40 years ago, and I return to it on occasion with no less wonder and appreciation of it.  This is one of my all time favorites. I thought it was more than fitting for it to be the subject of my 200th posting on this blog.


  1. Usually Gliere is only know as the composer of a ballet and of a very popular piece :"Dance of the Sailors" . This monumental opus is higly full of a traditional manner of russian composer to embraced music and history .! A real must to hear!.

  2. I absolutely adore this symphony, and long for the day when one of the great orchestras in the world will perform it.

    I do not have Downs' recording, but Harold Faberman conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I love that it is uncut and he does not hurry through it. And actually his recording I believe makes it the longest symphony on record, surpassing Mahler's Symphony No. 3 by a slight amount.

    What I noticed is that Downs' is faster, and I am not certain I would like this. But I must hear it,after you spoke so highly of it.

    My one problem with the Faberman recording is that for all the commitment to perform this piece, unfortunately I don't believe that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was up to the task. By the end of the final movement there are some noticeable intonation problems.

    But I love the piece so very much that I will endure this to enjoy it.

    Thank you for musing about this wonderful work. It was well worth the read. And it is wonderful to hear someone else who truly appreciate's this massive work.

    Tim Meyer - Grand Rapids, MI

  3. Listening to this music for the first time. Just discovered Gliere recently, thanks to KUSC and Spotify. Very helpful description of the music, above; this symphony would have been inaccessible without the notes.

  4. I have known this symphony since I used to hear The Lone Ranger episodes on the radio. They played parts of this symphony to great effect.

    This symphony is magnificent: I contend that God was quiding Gliere's hand as he was writing it down!

  5. There is now finally a reference recording of the work in every sense of the word: The Buffalo Philharmonic under JoAnn Falleta. A truly awesome recording that brings out all the grandeur, beauty, and expansiveness of the score.

  6. God bless you all for your love of this masterpiece. I first heard of it back in 1951, when the Westminster set with Hermann Scherchen came out. As I teen, I became obsessed with the Ormandy performance. Manna from heaven was the Downes (Chandos CHAN 9041) CD with great digital sound and wonder microphone technique. Now this wonderful lady conductor has blazed the way with another, more spirited, version with a good recording, except that the hall reverberation is a bit more then optimum, and has and unrealistic way of moving us out of the muk of the humid earth to the thrill of a great concert hall performance like this. Thank you, JoAnn Falletta, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, for this refreshing alternative.

    Sadly, for me, the Downes has more focused sound, and a more lumbering, slow pace that is perfect for wandering through the reality of the humid earth.

  7. Alan, in your Amazon review of the Downes recording, you say: "This recording is uncut, as far as I can tell. Anyone that can wade through the huge score of over 400 pages can correct me if I'm wrong."
    I've been reading orchestral scores for the past 63 years, so I took up the challenge. The recording is indeed uncut. Listening to this work while reading the score is an amazing experience. The orchestra is usually infernally busy, and it's very hard to hear everything that's going on. - Tobias D. Robison, tobyr21 at gmail dt com.

  8. Thank you for this great information. I share your love for this masterpiece, but was unclear on the story it depicts.

  9. This epic symphony is overwhelming!!! It's so heroic and beautiful. There aren't enough words for describe this wonder music.

  10. I have several recordings of this magnificent work; I came late to this work and Downes recording of it made me fall in love with the piece in a huge way. Faberman is way too slow and plodding plus the Royal Philharmonic isn't top notch. I bought Falleta's recording with the Buffalo Philharmonic after reading so many rave reviews but I didn't like it because it lacked atmosphere for me and the orchestra while decent and good, doesn't have the extraordinary virtuosity that the greatest orchestras have. For me, that incandescent virtuosity has to go to the performance by the London Symphony Orchestra with Botstein. He may rush certain sections of the piece but it's not too bad and it's my go to recording everytime I want to listen to this work. I never tire of the sensuous strings in the 2nd movt or the terrific drive and verve of the 4th movt. Great sound too!

  11. It's in indeed an astonishing symphony - a complete triumph, there is nothing else like it. It transports and delights me.

  12. A wonderful description of a marvellous piece. For further information see

  13. Well, perhaps I stand alone in this, but for me the old Columbia mono recording by Ormandy, abridged judiciously IMHO, is quite enjoyable and clocks in at 55 minutes. The Stowkowski version is shorter still but Ormandy's version is somehow richer. In any case, it is a most remarkable work. I'd also like to recommend Gliere's Suite from the Middle Ages, and I really like his Symphony #5 despite what other commentators have said about mediocre symphonies from this composer.

    1. Thank you for the comments. I listened to the Ormandy version, and once my ears got used to the mono sound, it is quite good. Also, if I am not mistaken, Gliere wrote only 3 symphonies.

  14. I forgot to mention that the Ormandy version is available on YouTube, and the Stowkowski can be heard in one piece on Spotify.

  15. The Stokowski version is also available on Youtube, but the work's running time has been cut in half! The cuts in the Ormandy version are not nearly so drastic!