Mikhail Gnesin, From Shelley

by Peter Laki

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

Born February 2, 1883, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia
Died May 5, 1957, in Moscow
Composed in 1906–08
Performance Time: Approximately 8 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French Horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, 2 harps, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

A generation before Samuel Barber wrote his Music for a Scene from Shelley after Prometheus Unbound, Mikhail Gnesin was inspired by the same play for his own ‟symphonic fragment.” Shelley was particularly admired by the poets of the Russian Silver Age; one of the leading Russian poets of the time, Konstantin Balmont, translated the complete works of the great English Romantic.

Gnesin studied with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov around the same time that Stravinsky did, and they were rather good friends for a while. (The famous Gnesin Institute of Moscow bears the name of this eminent composer and his three sisters, all pianists.) Gnesin was one of the founders of the Society for Jewish Folk Music and later became known as the ‟Jewish Glinka” for his Jewish operas. In his book Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-garde, Larry Sitsky compares Gnesin to Krein: ‟In contrast to Krein, Gnesin was a much more cerebral composer, concerned with the inward-looking and the contemplative rather than the external sensuality of his colleague.”

The present composition is Gnesin’s first orchestral score, written during his years of study under Rimsky-Korsakov. On the front page, we find the following excerpt from Prometheus Unbound in Balmont’s translation:

There was a change: the impalpable thin air
And the all-circling sunlight were transformed,
As if the sense of love dissolved in them
Had folded itself round the spherèd world.

(Act III, sc. 4)

A vision of light and sun, then, fills the pages of Gnesin’s short symphonic poem, which develops a single brief motif in rich orchestral colors, describing a gradual crescendo and accelerando followed by a diminuendo and ritardando. It was all intended to please Rimsky-Korsakov but, as we may learn from the latter’s memoirs, the master realized that the young man was only trying to placate him by the simplicity of his music, and that the young generation had begun to move in some new stylistic directions. Still, From Shelley was an auspicious start for a composer who went on to have a distinguished career in Russia and the Soviet Union.

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