Music Memories: Alexander Glazunov

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
 Russian composer, Alexander Glazunov

Alexander Glazunov was born on August 10, 1865. Glazunov was a Russian composer during the end of the Russian Empire and the birth of the Soviet Union, a political transition that he survived better than many of his colleagues.

When Glazunov was born, composition in Russia, and particularly in St. Petersburg, was dominated by a group of young composers known as “The Five.” The members of the group—Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov—were believers in musical nationalism, the idea that Russian composers should draw their inspiration from Russian stories and folk music. As a group, they tended to be mistrustful of academic training, which they associated with the west.

Glazunov was a composing prodigy, writing his first pieces when he was only eleven. He was still only 14 when he met Rimsky-Korsakov, who was impressed enough by Glazunov’s early work to take him on as a private student. Rimsky-Korsakov later said that during this period, Glazunov’s “musical development progressed not by the day, but literally by the hour.” After only two years of study, Rimsky-Korsakov ended their lessons, saying that there was nothing more he could teach Glazunov.

Glazunov’s first symphony was premiered in 1882. The piece was enthusiastically received, and when Glazunov walked onto the stage to receive the cheers of the audience, the crowd was shocked to see a 17-year-old boy wearing a school uniform.

Shortly after that premiere, Glazunov met Mitrofan Belyayev, a wealthy timber merchant and amateur musician, who took a great interest in Glazunov’s career, and became an important Russian patron of the arts as a result. In 1885, Belyayev established a music publishing house in Germany (because Russia was not a party to international copyright treaties, and Germany was) to publish music by young Russian composers.

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The following year, Belyayev began sponsoring the “Russian Symphony Concerts” series, devoted to Russian composers, primarily to The Five and to the younger composers in what became known as “the Belyayev circle.” Many of Glazunov’s early works were premiered as part of this series, and Glazunov became part of Belyayev’s advisory group, helping him to decide which music to program and to publish.

Glazunov’s early work was very much in the nationalist style of The Five, but he quickly came to believe that the opposition they created between nationalism and academic training was a false one. By the time of his fourth symphony in 1893, his music was merging a nationalist style with the more formal structures of Western European music.

In 1888, Glazunov made his debut as a conductor. He was, by all accounts, never a very good conductor—his lifelong alcoholism may have been a factor – but he very much enjoyed conducting, and was happy to accept the position as principal conductor of Belyayev’s Russian Symphony Concerts in 1896.

Glazunov was at the height of his career in the 1890s and 1900s, receiving international acclaim. His most enduring works from this period include his 4th and 5th symphonies, his violin concerto, and his ballet The Seasons.

He accepted a professorship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and became its director in 1905. Glazunov worked to reform the conservatory, calling for higher standards and a revised curriculum, and introducing an opera studio and a student orchestra. He was noted for his compassion for his less wealthy students, and insisted on taking part in the year-end evaluation and exams for every student.

After the October Revolution of 1917, Glazunov worked comfortably with the Bolshevik regime in the new Soviet Union. His relationship with his students and faculty was growing less comfortable, though, as they began to rebel against his conservatism, asking for more modern music to be included in the curriculum. The political stress – both nationally and at the conservatory – may have been a factor in his declining output as a composer, and his drinking was only getting worse.

In 1919, Glazunov’s most notable student entered the conservatory, 13-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich. Glazunov took a special interest in Shostakovich, perhaps seeing himself in the teenaged prodigy, and in 1926, arranged for the premiere of Shostakovich’s first symphony.

The stress of running the conservatory was becoming too much, and in 1928, Glazunov left on a tour of Europe and America. He never returned to the Soviet Union, though he would not formally give up the directorship until 1930. He settled in Paris in 1929, and lived there for the rest of his life. He claimed that ill-health prevented him from returning; that claim allowed him to remain in good graces with the Soviet government, unlike other Russian emigre composers who were more blunt about the political motives for their departure.

Glazunov died in Paris on March 21, 1936. He’d written relatively little in his last twenty years, and he’d been in exile for nearly a decade. His style had never changed much with the times, and his newest pieces didn’t sound much different from his early work. He was seen at the time of his death as something of a relic from the past. In fact, some in St. Petersburg were surprised to learn of his death, because they thought he’d been dead for years.

Today, Glazunov is more respected than he was at his death. Even those composers who had once found his music too old-fashioned eventually acknowledged the importance of his fusion of Russian tradition with western structure. His craftsmanship is admirable, and he seems to have absorbed the best qualities from each of his mentors. He is perhaps not in the very top rank of composers, but there is much to enjoy in his music, and there are many recordings of his major works to choose from.

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Like his mentors in The Five, Glazunov was relatively uninterested in chamber music, and his major works are orchestral. He wrote eight symphonies—he began a ninth, but never finished it—and five concertos, one each for violin, cello (a “Concert Ballad”), and saxophone, and two for piano. All of those pieces, plus the ballet The Seasons, are available for streaming in a large collection of his complete symphonies and concertos. Much of his other orchestral work can be found in volumes of the series “Anthology of Russian Symphony Music,” available for streaming or download.