Maximilian Steinberg, Symphony No. 1

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Russia’s Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born July 4, 1883, in Vilnius, Lithuania
Died December 6, 1946, in Leningrad
Composed in 1905–06
Premiered March 18, 1908, in St. Petersburg
Performance Time: Approximately 40 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, cymbals, bass drum), 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil and son-in-law, Stravinsky’s rival, Shostakovich’s teacher—Maximilian Steinberg was a central figure in Russian musical life before, during, and after the October Revolution. Yet in spite of these illustrious associations, history has not been kind to Steinberg, whose music is hardly ever heard today. Granted, he was no innovator and never seemed to rock the boat in any way. Still, anyone who could compose a symphony like what we’re going to hear, while still a student in his early twenties, must be taken seriously: one cannot help but admire the young man’s mastery of compositional technique—form, harmony, orchestration—as well as the confidence with which he deploys that technique. Concurrently to his musical studies, Steinberg was also an aspiring scientist at the university, and he graduated with a gold medal in biology in 1906.

The son of a distinguished Hebrew scholar from Vilna, the city that used to be called the ‟Jerusalem of Lithuania,” Steinberg did not immediately adopt the Russian nationalist style of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. His models in the First Symphony seem to be entirely Germanic, with influences ranging from Beethoven and Schumann to Mendelssohn and Wagner. The first movement opens with a pure D major that had become rare in the first years of the new century; the 6/8 time that the classics used so often to evoke the hunt comes to new life in this radiant ‟Allegro non troppo.” The scherzo that follows bristles with energy, with a gentle waltz for a trio section. In the slow movement, a single melodic-rhythmic idea is exploited through a succession of attractive wind solos. The dynamic Finale, complete with the obligatory fugato, also contains a slower episode offering a different take on the fugato theme. Just before the end, we hear two sustained, mysterious chords providing a last-minute moment of suspense, followed by the powerful final chords.

The symphony was dedicated to Aleksandr Glazunov, another teacher of Steinberg’s, who became the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1905. It received its premiere in St. Petersburg on March 18, 1908.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.