Introducing Alexander Glazunov
Alexander Glazunov has a good story to tell. During his most active years, he was considered to be a very important composer in Russia, an esteem recovered after his death. His music is not performed often in the United States, but music lovers know his name, as his concertos for violin and for saxophone have achieved considerable popularity. Boston Classical Orchestra is bringing a few of his delightful works to historic Faneuil Hall in both March and April. We thought you would like to learn a bit about the man whose music you will be enjoying.
Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov was born on August 10, 1865 in St. Petersburg, Russia. That he was born into a life of financial and intellectual privilege – his father was a wealthy publisher, and his mother was a pianist – would later provide a measure of irony to his life. Glazunov quickly demonstrated extraordinary musical talent: Starting the piano at age nine, he began composing two years later, and at age 14 he became a student of Nikoiai Rimsky-Korsakov, introductions provided by Mily Balakirev (the revered founder of “The Five” — an informal group of great Russian composers also including Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modeste Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov — which epitomized and virtually codified a nationalistic romanticism in Russian music beginning at about 1860). The great Rimsky even premiered in 1882 the piece which had brought Glazunov to his attention three years earlier, and no less a musical hero than Borodin expressed his admiration for both pupil and work. Rimsky-Korsakov noted that his young student’s “musical development progressed not by the day, but literally by the hour.” By age sixteen, Glazunov had composed the first of eight symphonies (a ninth was to be unfinished) and his first string quartet. Balakirev conducted the premiere of young Alexander’s symphony in 1882. Cui was enraptured: “An amazing work,” he said, “frightening in its precocious maturity”.
By his 18th birthday, Alexander Glazunov was already a composer, indeed a man, for whom a limitless future had been laid with storybook detail. Of course, the logical next step in Glazunov’s story, a wealthy patron who would show off his prodigy to Europe, appeared on cue, in the person of Mitrofan Belyayev. In 1884 Glazunov was taken to Weimar, where he met Liszt and began to absorb some of the “modern” styles of Liszt and Wagner. Such an exposure never took hold on Glazunov, but perhaps it did inspire him to reveal his own ‘voice’ as a composer. His fame spreading rapidly throughout Europe, Glazunov expressed that voice with increasing adeptness, and the 1890’s produced numerous examples of his best music to-date. He also made his conducting debut in 1888 and even premiered Rachmaninoff’s first symphony in 1897. (That was a dismal event, with a severe lack of orchestral rehearsal joined with Glazunov’s allegedly drunken behavior on the podium.) During the next decade, it is commonly acknowledged, he enjoyed his greatest period of creativity. In 1899 he was appointed professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1905, in an act of uncharacteristic political demonstrativeness, Alexander resigned from the Conservatory to protest the recent firing of Rimsky-Korsakov, a dismissal engineered by the Czarist government. Befitting the script, Rimsky-Korsakov was re-hired and Glazunov later became the director of the conservatory. There, in 1919, he mentored the 13 year old Dimitri Shostakovich, a prodigy at the time surely destined to share Glazunov’s footsteps. (The Soviets would resist allowing a set of new prints.)
Poor conducting and even poorer drinking habits aside, Glazunov’s prestige did not wane. Indeed, he led the St. Petersburg Conservatory to a position of pre-eminence in Soviet higher education and became a darling of the Bolsheviks. How ironic that this child of privilege and continual good fortune would be able to avoid the jealous enmity of the bureaucrats. How ironic that this favorite of the revolutionaries would, nonetheless, toil famously to minimize the influence of the State upon conservatory students, as it tried to churn out the first batches of ‘musical’ apparatchiks. He had long-since become seen as a very conservative composer, and after 1914 he composed less and less. Glazunov, an adored child of Russian romantic nationalism, yet somehow also the deeply respected colleague of the State, was becoming disenchanted with, disenfranchised from life in Mother Russia.
Glazunov toured the United States unsuccessfully in 1928 and traveled the world for several years more, finally settling in Paris. There, he composed a saxophone quartet with various movements. He felt strongly that this standard ‘jazz’ instrument belonged in ‘classically’ conceived compositions also. In 1934 he wrote the Concerto in Eb Major for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra, Op. 109, and it premiered on November 25th of that year in Sweden with Danish saxophonist Sigurd Rascher.
The concerto is in one movement, which consists of various tempi and styles, from flowing passages to a virtuoso cadenza, followed by a bright and fast finale. The concerto begins in 4/4 allegro moderato that ends in G Minor; after a short development there is a singing Andante in C-flat Major in 3/4 time, which transitions into a cadenza. The conclusion begins after the cadenza with a condensed fugato in 12/8 time, in C Minor. All the previous elements appear again throughout the concerto’s development. In a letter to his friend M.O. Steinberg, Glazunov made several notes regarding the work and its structure, pointing out that the divisi strings were to substitute for the missing wind section. He remarked that a “condensed Fugato” in C Minor after the cadenza signaled the conclusion of the work. The concerto has become a standard part of the Saxophone repertoire.