Song of Destiny, Op. 84 (1908)

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Revolution 1905, performed on Jan 16, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The student rebellion of 1905 was devastating for some and inspiring for others; for Alexander Glazunov it turned out to be a rather fortuitous career move. A lowly tutor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he resigned in protest over the firing of Rimsky-Korsakov, but was soon elevated to the directorship of the institution after most of the demands of the activists were met. Naturally reflecting on the Hegelian (or, in his case, Tolstoyan) effects of historical thesis and antithesis on one dispensable mortal, Glazunov soon examined the role of predestination in his own life by reworking the fate motif from the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven, allying himself with others (to name but two examples, the Third Piano Quartet of Brahms and the Piano Pieces, Op. 3 of Richard Strauss) as part of a grand tradition of glorifying this most famous and recognizable of classical music themes; and in so doing, making a strong case for reverence of and learning from the past. Glazunov, by reversing the major-minor relationship of this famous motto, a technique later employed by Sergei Prokofiev when he transformed the Beethovenian “moonlight” motif into the ghostly introduction of the third movement of his own Symphony No. 5, creates a destiny that doesn’t so much knock stridently at the door, as does the corresponding phrase in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, but rather oozes over the transom like the all-pervasive cosmic force that is the centerpiece of that same composer’s Fifth Symphony.

The same winds of change that blew Glazunov into power, however, seemed also to have chilled his hand. Having already created his eight unjustly neglected and very beautiful symphonies and the simply gorgeous Violin Concerto, the new administrator virtually retired from significant composition after completing this rhapsodic tone poem, living another twenty-eight years relatively comfortably, but unchallenged. Eventually becoming disillusioned with the communist system, he moved to Paris and conducted briefly in Detroit and Boston as well. Listen especially to the third subject of this piece, introduced by the flutes and treated as an expansive gouache. Here we experience his luxurious style of composition by titanic washes of sound so memorable in the scores of his own symphonies and those of his contemporaries Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. The very opulence of its environment slowly emboldens the fate motif and its final reprise is much more strident and portentous.

The most talented pupil that Glazunov trained at the conservatory was surely Dmitri Shostakovich, who himself quotes a Wagnerian fate motif in his own final symphony. Ironically, the administrator who was swept into power in an era of radical change eventually became the chief symbol of fogeydom for the young firebrand, although that faintly Oriental flavor of much of the early Shostakovich, especially the First Symphony (written during his student days), is a direct result of exposure to the colorful harmonic language of the traditionalist teacher. It is in fact the heady scent of the Caucasus that permeates the Song of Destiny, contributing signature and exotic beauty to the hero’s life.