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Alexander Glazunov: Alexander Glazunov (b. St Petersburg, 29 July 1865; d. Paris, 21 March 1936).
It seems to be a strange law of art that those composers whose rise to success is smooth, and whose subsequent career is free of violent perturbations, suffer an abrupt decline in reputation the moment they are safely underground. It was so with Mendelssohn, Gounod, Massenet, Saint-Saens, Bruch - all regarded nowadays with a lack of reverence that would have puzzled their contemporaries. As to Alexander Glazunov, once accepted as the spiritual heir of Glinka, Tchaikovsky and the 'Kuchka' - the 'mighty five' - he has not even been accorded the dubious immortality of one overwhelmingly popular work like the A ve Maria or Danse Macabre. It is true that the ballet music of Raymonda and The Seasons have maintained their place in the gramophone catalogues since the earliest days of the LP; but it would be a highly knowledgeable music lover who could whistle a few bars of either.
From the beginning, Alexander Glazunov was a darling of fate. He was born in St Petersburg on the 29th July 1865, son of a successful publisher. His mother was a good amateur pianist, and studied with Balakirev. At the age of twelve, Alexander Glazunov enrolled in the Realschule and dropped piano lessons for a while; but Balakirev influenced him to return to music, even suggesting that the boy should go to Mme Glazunova's teacher - a young musician, whom he himself had recommended, called Rimsky-Korsakov. Alexander Glazunov became Rimsky's favourite pupil; he and Balakirev encouraged the youth to compose, and when Alexander Glazunov produced* a symphony in E flat major, they saw to it that it was performed. Alexander Glazunov was then sixteen. At this concert, a wealthy timber merchant named Belayev was present, at Rimsky's invitation. He liked the work so much that he travelled to Moscow to hear it performed for a second time. Belayev and Alexander Glazunov developed a close friendship, and the timber merchant decided to form a music publishing house to bring the young Russian composers to the attention of the public. A Second Symphony and a tone poem, Stenka Razin, were immediately successful. That open-hearted publicist Franz Liszt conducted the First Symphony at Weimar, and the Second Symphony was heard, together with Stenka Razin, at the Paris Exhibition of 1899, in a series of Russian concerts arranged by Belayev. In the same year, Alexander Glazunov was appointed professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory; in 1905, he was elected Director. He made no secret of being a musical conservative, and walked out of a performance of an early Prokoviev work. It must be added that, in spite of his distaste for Prokoviev's discords, he encouraged the young student and secured a performance of his original First Symphony (later destroyed).
Alexander Glazunov's fame increased steadily; by 1902 he was well known in England, and his name appeared regularly on American concert programmes. He travelled in Europe and conducted his own music. His one-act ballet The Seasons figured prominently in Pavlova's programmes. His eight symphonies were held in high esteem, and regarded as - next to Tchaikovsky's six - the most substantial contribution to the Russian symphonic repertoire.
Alexander 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 that year he left for Paris. He composed little in his last years, and died in 1936, feeling - like many Russian exiles - that fate had played him a disagreeable trick.
It is difficult to know whether Alexander Glazunov's music will one day achieve a revival. As one listens to his symphonies- mostly available in Russian recordings - it is easy to see why they were popular. And why the Violin Concerto still is. You might be listening to Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov - or Taneiev or Liadov, for that matter; but there are none of the surges of emotion that characterise Tchaikovsky, and none of Rimsky's orchestral fireworks. His friend Stasov, the most powerful music critic of the age, said of him: '[His music] is characterised by its incredibly large sweep, power, inspiration, optimism, marvellous beauty, rich imagination, humour, sentimentality and passion. ...' But a typical modern evaluation - from R. A. Leonard's History of Russian Music, comments on Alexander Glazunov's generation: 'Neither as a group nor individually were they genuinely creative. Instead they worked chiefly with formulas, which they evolved either by imitating the Nationalist works of their great predecessors or the standard procedures of the West.' To the modern ear, this sounds more accurate than Stasov's biased assessment.
At the same time, it is worth bearing in mind James Bakst's comment that Alexander Glazunov was basically an 'objective' composer, whose music has a quality of serenity and objective contemplation 'from a distance'. Before composing this article, the writer listened his way through most of five symphonies, two piano concertos, the violin concerto, two piano sonatas, Stenka Razin, The Seasons, Raymonda and the Third String Quartet. The rather obvious use of the Volga Boat Song in Stenka Razin aroused a certain irritation. But the surging climax of the Fourth Symphony, the gaiety and vitality of the opening movement of the Fifth, arrested any inclination to dismiss Alexander Glazunov as a feeble, imitative composer. He may be no innovator, but he is a true musician, whose work often has the power to move the emotions - even if only to nostalgia, as in the Second Piano Concerto. It is significant that Alexander Glazunov was labelled 'the little Glinka' at the beginning of his career, and later became known as 'the Russian Mendelssohn'. He has something in common with both composers, as well as with Liszt. In such company, he cannot complain.
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