A Symphonic Saga

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert A Symphonic Saga: Glière’s Ilya Muramets, performed on April 16, 2000 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In this afternoon’s concert, two recurrent features of the American Symphony Orchestra’s continuing effort to challenge the boundaries of the standard repertory (or the idea of a standard repertory itself) come into play. Ilya Muramets may be arguably the greatest composition of the Russian composer Reinhold Moritsevich Gliere, yet it is certainly not the most famous. If any symphonic work by him is familiar, it is the Red Poppy ballet (1927), or perhaps the Bronze Horseman ballet (1949). In Gliere we therefore encounter once again a composer only remotely familiar, with one or two works that one may or may not know. But also once again, this composer and in particular this work have among musicians and music enthusiasts a substantial underground aura and following. This Symphony is rarely performed (and may never have been performed before today in its entirety in this country) but is known by reputation. The founder of the American Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, was one of Muramets’ ardent defenders, but in true Stokowski fashion, he generated his own version, which deleted approximately half of the original material. Another champion of this piece is the American composer/conductor Harold Farberman (who will have a work premiered by the ASO next season). He made a historic recording–the first complete one–with the London Symphony Orchestra.

An epic work by a relatively obscure composer seems to court oblivion. These factors are compounded in the case of Gliere by several other historical factors. Gliere died in 1956, nearly forty years after the Russian Revolution. This particular work, however, was written at a unique point in Russian history, the three decades before the outbreak of World War I. This was a moment of rapid economic expansion, cultural vibrancy, and the evolution of both liberal and radical political agitation. The Russian monarchy had been deeply damaged by the Russo-Japanese War, with its humiliation of the Russian navy at the Battle of Tsushima. The Revolution of 1905 ushered in a period of expectancy, optimism, and intense debate over the future of the Russian nation. If one wants to understand Gliere’s musical work from the perspective of Russian culture, the closest and most significant analogy is the work of the Russian painter Vasily Surikov (1848-1916). Surikov produced three large, brilliant examples of Russian historical painting including “The Morning of the Streltsy Execution,” (1885) “Boyarina Morozova,” (1887) and “Yermak Conquering Siberia” (1895). These three paintings are massive in scale, psychologically penetrating, unbelievably rich in detail, and dramatically structured with many variations in tension and repose. Each of them is bound by an overarching theme, yet they allude to dimensions of the crossroads facing monarchical autocracy. Russia in 1912 might have become more reactionary or moved toward democracy, or a socialist state, or possibly Communism.

The moment of transition that defines this period of time also finds an analogy in the matter of music. Gliere was at once the contemporary of Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and of Stravinsky (1882-1971). He was caught between two conflicting directions in instrumental and symphonic music–towards modernism and towards the idea of musical realism. His command of music as a descriptive and suggestive medium fostered his reputation as a founder of the official art form know as Soviet Ballet. He had also been a student of Alexander Taneyev (1850-1918) and Anton Arensky (1861-1906). As Muramets demonstrates, he was familiar with the evocations of Russian nationalism by such predecessors as Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and another teacher, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859-1935). But when Gliere’s Symphony premiered in 1912, Stravinsky had already written The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka 1911), Debussy had gained a wide reputation, and Schoenberg was well on his journey away from post-Wagnerian chromaticism.

Gliere’s obscurity and particularly the neglect of this work can be attributed in part to politics inside and outside of music. Although a conservative composer, Gliere was a figure in the Soviet cultural establishment. He died just at the moment of the post-Stalinist thaw. Unlike Shostakovich, Gliere never benefited during his lifetime from the ebb and flow of East/West tensions. At the same time, to most younger generations, his music represented a throwback not only in its mode of composition and its sonorities, but also in the way the music interacted with narration, text, and illustration.

Anthony Burton has noted that at first glance the sheer scale of the Symphony suggests Mahler, but as Burton properly observes, there is not much Mahler in this work. Midway in his career, Mahler foreswore explicit program music and was never particularly drawn to the tone poem. If a German analogy is appropriate, one might do better to think of Strauss. But the genuine models of Muramets are indeed Russian, since the subject of the Symphony goes to the heart of the political debate in which all Russia was engaged at the time of its composition. Would Russia move further economically and socially in the direction of the West, or would it, as many contemporary painters and writers argued, seek sustenance from its folk past for modern inspiration? The inspiration of this Symphony suggests a parallel between Gliere and many of his eastern European colleagues, who struggled in the first years of the twentieth century to re-appropriate a national myth and history on behalf of the modern. These contemporaries include Dvořák , whose last orchestral works are tone poems based on poetic retellings of folk tales, and Bartók, one of whose first orchestral pieces is the tone poem Kossuth (1903).

This work represents a pinnacle in the tradition of the use of the orchestra alone as the provider of an experience of listening that is suggestive and illustrative. Ilya Muramets is an opera in instrumental sound alone, without voices or text. It uses form and color to outline a story in a manner specific enough to help hold the audience’s attention, and yet it provides enough freedom enough to permit each listener to draw a myriad of influences about its meaning. By using instrumental sound alone, Gliere explores the boundaries between precision and ambiguity, and creates a space for interpretation that goes beyond what might be possible for the reader of a written account. Indeed the length and ambition of this work makes it akin to Jean-Christophe by Romaine Rolland, War and Peace by Tolstoy, or the novels of Sienkewicz, but it is also related to other contemporary forms and genres in theater, poetry, painting. In our current cinematic age we might identify the visual as the primary medium of storytelling. But this Symphony and indeed all great works in its class (even the unsuccessful ones such as by Siegmund von Hausegger’s Barbarossa) suggest that it is eminently possible to provide the listener with all the tension of the theater, the private engagement of the reader, the detail of the visual, as well as the indescribable, nearly spiritual sensibilities invoked by music, with the orchestra alone. And in this regard, Gliere is at his best. Ilya Muramets, despite its great scale, deserves a genuine place in the repertory. It resounds even for the jaded and over-stimulated ears of audiences in our time who have been subject to endless hours of movie and television music. Like the tone poems of Strauss, this work still makes its point by placing great music at the very center of the process of how the experience of time is transformed.