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234th Season

Alexander Glazunov


Alexander Glazunov was born July 29, 1865 in St Petersburg, and lived a comfortable life as the son of a successful bookseller and publisher father. His mother was a good amateur pianist and his father played the violin. Glazunov studied with Balakirev, who encouraged him into a musical career, suggesting that the boy should study composition with his mother‘s teacher - a young musician, called Rimsky-Korsakov. Glazunov became his favorite pupil; in his teacher‘s words he improved "not from day to day but from hour to hour."

Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev encouraged the youth to compose and when, at just 16 years old, Glazunov produced his first symphony, they saw to it that it was performed. In Rimsky-Korsakov‘s words the work was a success, "The public was astounded when the composer came forwards in his high school uniform to acknowledge their applause." However, there were the inevitable gripes and rumor circulated that his wealthy parents had commissioned ‘you know who‘ to write the piece for him.

At Rimsky‘s invitation, a wealthy timber merchant named Belayev was present at this concert of Glazunov‘s first symphony. He liked the work so much that he traveled to Moscow to hear it performed for a second time. Belayev and Glazunov developed a close friendship, and the timber merchant decided to form a music-publishing house, and to sponsor the Russian Symphony Concerts to bring the young Russian composers to the attention of the public. Glazunov found himself associated with the informal group of Russian nationalist composers, Borodin, Lyadov, Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Glazunov also earned the nickname "The little Glinka."

Glazunov‘s Second Symphony and a tone poem, Stenka Razin, were immediately successful, both with the public and critics, and attracted the attention of Franz Liszt, who conducted the First Symphony at Weimar in 1884. Glazunov conducted his Second Symphony, together with Stenka Razin, in a series of Russian concerts arranged by Belayev at the Paris Exhibition of 1899. In the same year, Glazunov was appointed professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory. After the student demonstrations of 1905 calmed down he was elected director, a position he retained in name until 1930, although after 1928 he remained abroad, chiefly in Paris.

He made no secret of being a musical conservative, and demonstrated this by walking out of a performance of an early work by a student of his, Sergei Prokofiev. Despite his distaste for Prokofiev‘s discords, he encouraged the young student and secured a performance of his original First Symphony (later destroyed). He also gave considerable encouragement to Shostakovich who remained a lifelong admirer of Glazunov. Writing about him in his memoirs, Shostakovich noted that Glazunov was able to remember every student‘s name, their career and compositions. He also wrote frankly, detailing not only the older man‘s strict teaching methods but also his addiction to vodka, which he drank surreptitiously through a rubber tube during lectures. Glazunov was also notorious in St. Petersburg for his all night drinking escapades with fellow composers.

Glazunov‘s fame increased steadily; by 1902 he was well known in England, and his name appeared regularly on American concert programs. He also traveled in Europe and conducted his own music. His one-act ballet The Seasons, created for Petipa, figured prominently in Pavlova‘s programs that toured the world.

Besides the piano, which he played masterfully, Glazunov played a variety of instruments. They included violin, cello and woodwinds, and in the last years of his life he was infatuated with jazz.

Glazunov felt no love for the new order that came to power after 1917; nevertheless, he remained in Leningrad until 1928, bringing a valuable sense of continuity to the Conservatory. In 1928 he left for Paris. He composed little in his last years, and died on March 21, 1936 in Paris. His last will was to be buried in Russia. Glazunov‘s remains were transferred to St.-Petersburg and put to rest at the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

He wrote in every genre but opera. He wrote chamber music, many choral works with orchestra, eight symphonies, (for superstition he deliberately left unfinished a ninth symphony) a Violin Concerto, completed in 1904, two piano concertos and many more. He also assisted Rimsky-Korsakov in completing the opera Prince Igor, after Borodin‘s untimely death. Glazunov himself later refuted the legend that he was able to write down from memory the piano rendition of the overture that Borodin had played for him just once.

Glazunov‘s ballets include Raymonda, first staged in St. Petersburg in 1898, with choreography by Marius Petipa. Les ruses d‘amour followed in 1900, with The Seasons in the same year. He orchestrated music by Chopin for Les Sylphides. The choreographer Fokine also made use of Stenka Razin for a ballet of that name. His 1894 composition Scenes de Ballet was not intended to be a dance piece but was written as a gift for the Russian Opera Orchestra in St. Petersburg.

Glazunov‘s music was and is individualistic, melodious, and filled with talent. His style ranged from Russian nationalism to Lisztian romanticism to classicism and his music was a true bridge between the Russian and the so-called German style of composition. He utilized folk melodies and songs that give his music its distinctly Russian character. Immensely popular in his day, and greatly honored as both a teacher and a composer, the works most often performed and recognized are those of his early life. Today, many consider his music old fashioned, and stereotyped, and it is less frequently performed.

Mariinsky Theatre:
1 Theatre Square
St. Petersburg
Mariinsky-2 (New Theatre):
34 Dekabristov Street
St. Petersburg
Mariinsky Concert Hall:
20 Pisareva street
St. Petersburg

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