Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Balakirev - Tamara

Mily Balakirev's influence as a mentor, pianist and conductor was substantial. He was the guiding light to the group of Russian composers known as The Five, and also gave advice to the young Tchaikovsky. His influence was most strongly felt in the development of nationalism in Russian music. He championed the use of Russian folk tales and literature as inspiration for Russian composers, along with a kind of orientalism that stemmed from the vast expanse of the country itself and all of the differing cultures it contained.  But his work as a composer was sporadic. He had the tendency to begin a work but not finish it until years later. His second piano concerto was begun in 1861, was taken up again years later but remained unfinished after his death in 1910 (his protege Sergei Lyapunov finished the concerto). His tone poem Tamara was started in 1867 and was completed in 1882.

Shortly after Balakirev began the work in 1867 he went through depression so severe that his friends hid all of his works in progress for feat that he would destroy them. In 1876 he had recovered enough to take up the work again but it took him another three yeas to finish the piano score. He waited another two years before he orchestrated the work and it finally had its premiere in 1883. It is dedicated to Franz Liszt and he asked for a four handed arrangement of the work for study, which Balakirev did shortly after the request.

Mikhail Lermontov
Tamara is based on the poem Tamara by  Mikhail Lermontov, a highly influential writer, poet and artist of Russian romanticism, who died in a duel at the age of 26.  Lermontov based the poem on a local legend of the Caucasus region where he had been exiled. The poem deals with a beautiful but evil princess named Tamara that lives in a tower in a ravine that the river Terek flows. She is a temptress and lures male travelers to her castle. She has sex with them all night long, kills them in the morning and throws the corpse into the river to float away.

The work begins with music that represents the water of the river. The main body of the work focuses on two love themes representing Tamara's seductiveness. Balakirev expands these two themes and develops them until the music reaches a climax as Tamara murders the traveler. The work ends as it began with the rippling of the river Terek as it carries away the corpse.

Balakirev was one of the most naturally gifted musicians of 19th century Russia, and while he was influential he may have been even more so if not for the mental illness he suffered from. After his so-called recovery from depression he was never the same person. He coped with mental illness enough to function, but he didn't really develop past the point where he was at in 1867.  Nevertheless, he managed to write some great works, with Tamara being one of the best.

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