Gliere’s Ilya Muramets:  a “Wagner Symphony”

By Robert McColley, Fanfare

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

Reinhold Gliere’s Symphony No. 3 (1911), Ilya Muramets, carried into the twentieth century a host of great legacies of the nineteenth century: one is first struck by its distinctly Russian sound, its rich orchestral palette reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov, and its splendid melodies, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. Like the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz and the Manfred Symphony of Tchaikovsky, it also illustrates a story.

But Ilya Muramets is more: like the great symphonies of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, it is a “Wagner Symphony.” It achieves a marriage between the expanded expressive range of music achieved by Richard Wagner in his great music-dramas and the classical form of the symphony first brought to perfection by the First Viennese School. Ilya, a hero, has a leitmotif (usefully translated as “signature tune” by Anna Russell) reminiscent of Siegfried’s in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs. The theme emerges in the slow introduction to the first movement, and undergoes both modification and transformation in the course of the work. A dignified chorale tune serves to identify the old hero, or bogatyr, who will guide Ilya in the course of the first movement.

At the farthest expressive pole from Ilya’s joyous, upbeat tune, is the dismal growl signifying Solovei the brigand, which rises out of the musical mists that open the second movement. Solovei’s gruesome personality requires fewer notes to express than Alberich’s, in the Ring or Klingsor’s, in Parsifal, but they have in common a sinister fracturing of normal harmony and rhythm. The long, lovely melody that makes up the second section of the second movement functions much as the flower-maiden scene in Act II of Parsifal, and here the stories are also in parallel: alluring feminine beauty attracts the unwary hero to his doom.

Though suffused with Wagnerian signature tunes, and so long as to make scheduling at normal concerts a problem, Gliere’s Third Symphony is, nevertheless, a carefully crafted, easy-to-follow, formally satisfying symphony in the great tradition. The first movement has clear-cut divisions: slow introduction, heroic first subject, solemn second subject building to a climax, a rousing long development beginning with galloping figures in the orchestra, a shortened recapitulation heralded by the solemn second subject, and a short, brilliant coda. The first subject has had such a workout in the development, it hardly needs restatement. This is a scheme sometimes used in the symphonies of the late nineteenth century, most familiarly in the first movement to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. The second subject ends with the death and entombment of the old bogatyr, and the short coda illustrates Ilya pulling himself together and heading off for new adventure.

The second movement follows a familiar A-B-A pattern. A–music illustrating the sinister forest, the shrill nightingales, and the dreadful Solovei–is immensely long, and B–the gorgeous music of the temptresses, luring victims toward the brigand–is longer still, building to a tremendous climax. Sacrificing symmetry to forward motion, the composer shortens and modifies his recapitulation of A, at the same time giving us a musical representation of the violent confrontation between Ilya and Solovei.

The scherzo, illustrating a festival at the city of Vladimir the Fair Sun, is brief, conventional, and altogether charming. The curious difference here is that, in place of the expected trio section there is a dramatic interlude depicting the arrival of Ilya with his wounded, captive brigand, who is promptly beheaded. This of course, sets off a new round of rejoicing aptly illustrated by repeating the scherzo.

The finale begins with a clear formal scheme similar to that of the first movement: an introduction which rapidly produces a sort of musical whirlwind, setting the mood for the many battles of the Ilya and his bogatyrs. The long first subject (or first subject-group, a better term for an episode that last five minutes or so) begins with a theme clearly related to the first subject of the first movement; it launches into an exciting fugue, then many variations and permutations. Finally the second subject arrives, a peaceful interlude in the form of a melody both lovely and distinctly Russian. As this fades away and the music of conflict returns we enter a development section in which, by turns virtually every tune in the symphony returns, often in counterpoint with another returning tune, and almost always undergoing subtle transformation. Instead of a conventional recapitulation, the movement then brings back all the themes (except that of the brigand) in progressively slower, gentler, and more static forms, signifying the cessation of warfare, and the ultimate demise of the bogatyrs–their turning to stone. Thus a very long, exciting symphony, with some of the grandest and most exciting climaxes in music, has a long, increasingly peaceful, and, to this listener, eminently satisfying conclusion.