Symphony No. 3, “Ilya Muramets,” Op. 42 (1911)

By Anthony Burton

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 Third–and last–Symphony was composed between 1909 and 1911, and first performed in Moscow in 1912. It thus belongs to the final flowering of confident late Romanticism in the years before the outbreak of World War I. The confidence was not only stylistic but also economic. The work is scored for a very large orchestra, including quadruple woodwinds, eight horns, and four each of trumpets and trombones, and its four movements normally totaling seventy minutes or so.

Although the work’s dimensions suggest the possible influence of the symphonies of Mahler–and although Gliere studied conducting in Berlin with a celebrated early exponent of Mahler, Oskar Fried–the nervous discontinuities of the Mahlerian style are far removed from Gliere’s mighty frescos. The Symphony’s stylistic roots lie in Wagner’s music–dramas, notably the Ring cycle and Parsifal, with their powerful orchestral writing, strong evocations of atmosphere, and broad time-scales. It also shows the influence of Richard Strauss’s tone-poems of the 1890s, with their orchestral virtuosity and vivid pictorialism, and of Scriabin’s adventures in post-Wagnerian harmony. An older Russian tradition, going back as far as Glinka, can be heard in some distinctive melodic writing in the baritone register, with cellos to the fore, and in moments of Oriental exoticism. And Russian music also offers two significant precedents, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, for a symphony based firmly on a narrative program.

The subject of Gliere’s Third Symphony is Ilya Muramets, Ilya of Murom, one of the central figures of the Old Russian bylini, or heroic chants. In these, he is portrayed as a bogatyr, or knight errant, at the 10th-century court of Saint Vladimir I of Kiev; but he is also given a role in the thirteenth-century battles between Christian Kiev-Rus and the Golden Horde of Mongol-Tatars. According to the New Encyclopaedia Britannica, “because of his simple heart, rough honesty, and obstinate strength, Ilya has remained a durable symbol to the eastern Slavs.” Episodes from the legends of Ilya are recounted in detail in the preface to Gliere’s score, and form the basis for each of the four movements.

The first movement has a double title, corresponding to its division into a slow introduction and a main Allegro risoluto: “Wandering Pilgrims; Ilya Muramets and Svyatogor.” Ilya, the son of a peasant, spends the first thirty years of his life immobile, sitting on top of the household stove; he gets up only at the bidding of two ancient holy men, who predict that he will become a powerful bogatyr. The brooding stillness of the opening of the introduction depicts the still, dreaming Ilya, and an old Russian Orthodox chant melody characterizes the pilgrims.

Ilya rides off in search of the bogatyr Svyatogor, so mighty a figure that the earth can scarcely bear his weight; the two of them roam the peaks of the Holy Mountains. One day, they come across an immense casket: Svyatogor climbs into it, but cannot extricate himself; his powers are transmitted to Ilya as he dies. Ilya rides off towards the capital, Kiev, his mighty steed leaping over rivers and lakes, its tail sweeping away whole cities as it passes. At the start of this Allegro section, an angular motif announces Ilya the hero; later, a brass chorale represents Svyatogor; a development section corresponds to their heroic games on the mountain tops. Svyatogor’s chorale theme comes to the fore as he meets his unexpected fate; Ilya’s theme acquires a new richness, before his final wild ride.

The second movement is an extended Andante (the most Wagnerian movement of the four) called “Nightingale the Robber.” In a dark forest lives Nightingale the Robber, a supernatural creature who overcomes mortals with his whistling birdcalls and ferocious animal cries; with him live his three daughters, who lure passers-by with their precious jewels. But Ilya resists all their enchantments, sending an arrow into Robber the Nightingale’s eye, and binding him to his stirrup as he sets off for the court of Vladimir. Gliere establishes the sinister atmosphere of the forest with some crepuscular string and wind writing, over which the enchanter’s birdcalls come to the fore. After Ilya’s arrival, to a new fanfare motif, there is a long, gradually unfolding section in which Robber the Nightingale’s daughters work their seductive wiles on him, the growing erotic charge of the music enhanced by a proliferation of birdsong. After the climactic scene of action, Ilya rides off into the distance with his prisoner, and we are left in the forest, still dark and threatening.

The scherzo of the Symphony (its most obviously Russian movement) is called “At the Court of Vladimir the Mighty Sun.” A feast is in progress at the Prince’s palace, attended by many boyars (dukes) and bogatyrs. Arriving at the palace gate, Ilya orders Nightingale the Robber to unleash the full force of his unearthly cries; they bring the palace toppling down, and only the Prince himself remains standing. Ilya then slices off Nightingale the Robber’s head. Having thus demonstrated his prowess, he is welcomed by the Prince as an honored guest, and by the bogatyrs as their brother-in-arms. Most of the movement is given over to the brilliant music of the feast, with the action restricted to a brief, graphic interlude.

Like the first movement, the finale has a title reflecting its division into two parts: “The Heroic Deeds and Petrification of Ilya Muramets.” The first part describes the battle between Vladimir’s knights and the heathen army of the golden land. Ilya and twelve fellow-bogatyrs hold off the entire invading army for twelve days; then Ilya fights in single combat with the titan Oudalaya Polenitsa for a whole day and night, in the end felling him with a formidable blow, and bringing his head back to the camp to the acclaim of his colleagues. After an introduction of mounting excitement, the action is depicted in an Allegro furioso which begins as a strenuous fugue. Eventually, a glowing new melody proclaims victory, and is combined with Ilya’s first-movement theme to drive the music towards a massive climax.

At this crucial point, Ilya and his colleagues commit the act of hubris which seals their fate: in the excitement of victory, they cry out: “Where is the Heavenly Army, that we bogatyrs may annihilate it?” At once two warriors appear and challenge the bogatyrs; when they are cut down, four spring up, then eight, and the Heavenly Army multiplies again and again. The bogatyrs flee towards the mountains, but are turned to stone by their opponents; Ilya Muramets is the last to succumb. Gliere makes it clear that Ilya is the ring-leader of the impious challenge, by basing an extended brass passage on his fanfare motif; and also that the Heavenly Army is led by the two pilgrims of the first movement, by reintroducing their chant theme, and giving it increasing prominence as the unequal battle reaches its conclusion. The coda suggests that after Ilya has been overcome by petrification, at the final resounding climax, his past life flashes before him. There are reminiscences of the earlier theme of victory, of the battle fugue, of the feast at Vladimir’s court, of the enchantments of the forest, and of the mighty Svyatogor; and this cyclic regression through the Symphony leads inexorably to the return of the slow introduction, as Ilya’s heroic career ends as it began, in immobility.