Monday, October 6, 2014

Balakirev - Symphony No. 1 In C Major

Mily Balakirev was a brilliant pianist and composer who had an impact on the development of Russian national music, but could have had an even greater impact if he would have completed some of his early compositions in a timely fashion. The reasons for the delay in finishing some of his major works have been written about, with the main reason being that Balakirev suffered a nervous breakdown (whatever that is) in the early 1870's, as friends that visited him found his personality had shifted to lethargy and lack of interest in music. His interest in music gradually returned, but he had changed. He retreated into a strict and severe belief in the Russian Orthodox Church, and lived as a recluse with a house full of animals.

The first symphony is an example of the time it took for him to complete a work, as sketches were begun in 1864 with some of the first movement being completed by 1866, but the entire work wasn't finished until 1897, thirty-three years after it was started.  Despite the length of time the work was on the shelf, the music written later matched the style of the earlier music,  but by that time the current trends in music had past Balakirev by, and his music was considered old-fashioned.

Balakirev conducted the premiere of the work in 1898. Symphony No. 1 In C Major is in four movements:

I. Largo - Allegro vivo -  The movement begins with a slow introduction that contains fragments that are expanded into the two themes of the exposition. After the introduction, the first theme (which is built from the opening measures of the introduction) is played. The second theme is then played in the cellos. These two themes undergo a type of ongoing development throughout the movement, which is in a highly individual type of sonata form. Once the first go-round of the two themes has played through, the first theme is played and developed, then a different theme is played that begins in the clarinet. Then an actual development section begins. There is no formal recapitulation section as the themes continue to be developed until a coda brings the movement to a rousing close.

II. Scherzo: Vivo - Poco meno mosso -  A bustling scherzo in A minor with the flavor of a Russian folk song leads to a slightly sad middle section in D minor.  After the scherzo repeats, the theme of the trio appears in the coda in a different guise and the movement ends with harmonics in the divided first and second violins.

III. Andante -  Written in D-flat major, the initial theme of the movement is played by the clarinet over a gently moving accompaniment by the harp, muted violins and violas and pizzicato cellos and bass. This theme is developed until another theme (in E major) is heard in the low strings which leads ot a variant of the initial theme.  The movement proceeds with  variants of the two themes in a combination of sonata and rondo form. The movement returns to the clarinet to play its rendition of the main theme, after which there is a transitional section for harp that leads the way to the finale that is played without pause.

IV. Finale: Allegro moderato -  The low strings begin the movement with a Russian theme in C major that is played and developed until transitional material leads to a second theme in D major that is first played by the clarinet. A very short third theme is then heard in the violas and then violas and strings. The three themes (all of which are Russian folksongs) are varied and developed throughout with Balakirev showing his skill in handling orchestral color. The movement ends with a coda for full orchestra in Tempo di polacca (in the tempo of a Polonaise). 

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