Reinhold Glière was born in 1875 in Kiev. He studied violin in Kiev, later studied composition and orchestration with students of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mikhail 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
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
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.