A Symphonic Saga

By Leon Botstein

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

In this afternoon’s concert, two recurrent features of the American Symphony Orchestra’s continuing effort to challenge the boundaries of the standard repertory (or the idea of a standard repertory itself) come into play. Ilya Muramets may be arguably the greatest composition of the Russian composer Reinhold Moritsevich Gliere, yet it is certainly not the most famous. If any symphonic work by him is familiar, it is the Red Poppy ballet (1927), or perhaps the Bronze Horseman ballet (1949). In Gliere we therefore encounter once again a composer only remotely familiar, with one or two works that one may or may not know. But also once again, this composer and in particular this work have among musicians and music enthusiasts a substantial underground aura and following. This Symphony is rarely performed (and may never have been performed before today in its entirety in this country) but is known by reputation. The founder of the American Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, was one of Muramets’ ardent defenders, but in true Stokowski fashion, he generated his own version, which deleted approximately half of the original material. Another champion of this piece is the American composer/conductor Harold Farberman (who will have a work premiered by the ASO next season). He made a historic recording–the first complete one–with the London Symphony Orchestra.

An epic work by a relatively obscure composer seems to court oblivion. These factors are compounded in the case of Gliere by several other historical factors. Gliere died in 1956, nearly forty years after the Russian Revolution. This particular work, however, was written at a unique point in Russian history, the three decades before the outbreak of World War I. This was a moment of rapid economic expansion, cultural vibrancy, and the evolution of both liberal and radical political agitation. The Russian monarchy had been deeply damaged by the Russo-Japanese War, with its humiliation of the Russian navy at the Battle of Tsushima. The Revolution of 1905 ushered in a period of expectancy, optimism, and intense debate over the future of the Russian nation. If one wants to understand Gliere’s musical work from the perspective of Russian culture, the closest and most significant analogy is the work of the Russian painter Vasily Surikov (1848-1916). Surikov produced three large, brilliant examples of Russian historical painting including “The Morning of the Streltsy Execution,” (1885) “Boyarina Morozova,” (1887) and “Yermak Conquering Siberia” (1895). These three paintings are massive in scale, psychologically penetrating, unbelievably rich in detail, and dramatically structured with many variations in tension and repose. Each of them is bound by an overarching theme, yet they allude to dimensions of the crossroads facing monarchical autocracy. Russia in 1912 might have become more reactionary or moved toward democracy, or a socialist state, or possibly Communism.

The moment of transition that defines this period of time also finds an analogy in the matter of music. Gliere was at once the contemporary of Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and of Stravinsky (1882-1971). He was caught between two conflicting directions in instrumental and symphonic music–towards modernism and towards the idea of musical realism. His command of music as a descriptive and suggestive medium fostered his reputation as a founder of the official art form know as Soviet Ballet. He had also been a student of Alexander Taneyev (1850-1918) and Anton Arensky (1861-1906). As Muramets demonstrates, he was familiar with the evocations of Russian nationalism by such predecessors as Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and another teacher, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859-1935). But when Gliere’s Symphony premiered in 1912, Stravinsky had already written The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka 1911), Debussy had gained a wide reputation, and Schoenberg was well on his journey away from post-Wagnerian chromaticism.

Gliere’s obscurity and particularly the neglect of this work can be attributed in part to politics inside and outside of music. Although a conservative composer, Gliere was a figure in the Soviet cultural establishment. He died just at the moment of the post-Stalinist thaw. Unlike Shostakovich, Gliere never benefited during his lifetime from the ebb and flow of East/West tensions. At the same time, to most younger generations, his music represented a throwback not only in its mode of composition and its sonorities, but also in the way the music interacted with narration, text, and illustration.

Anthony Burton has noted that at first glance the sheer scale of the Symphony suggests Mahler, but as Burton properly observes, there is not much Mahler in this work. Midway in his career, Mahler foreswore explicit program music and was never particularly drawn to the tone poem. If a German analogy is appropriate, one might do better to think of Strauss. But the genuine models of Muramets are indeed Russian, since the subject of the Symphony goes to the heart of the political debate in which all Russia was engaged at the time of its composition. Would Russia move further economically and socially in the direction of the West, or would it, as many contemporary painters and writers argued, seek sustenance from its folk past for modern inspiration? The inspiration of this Symphony suggests a parallel between Gliere and many of his eastern European colleagues, who struggled in the first years of the twentieth century to re-appropriate a national myth and history on behalf of the modern. These contemporaries include Dvořák , whose last orchestral works are tone poems based on poetic retellings of folk tales, and Bartók, one of whose first orchestral pieces is the tone poem Kossuth (1903).

This work represents a pinnacle in the tradition of the use of the orchestra alone as the provider of an experience of listening that is suggestive and illustrative. Ilya Muramets is an opera in instrumental sound alone, without voices or text. It uses form and color to outline a story in a manner specific enough to help hold the audience’s attention, and yet it provides enough freedom enough to permit each listener to draw a myriad of influences about its meaning. By using instrumental sound alone, Gliere explores the boundaries between precision and ambiguity, and creates a space for interpretation that goes beyond what might be possible for the reader of a written account. Indeed the length and ambition of this work makes it akin to Jean-Christophe by Romaine Rolland, War and Peace by Tolstoy, or the novels of Sienkewicz, but it is also related to other contemporary forms and genres in theater, poetry, painting. In our current cinematic age we might identify the visual as the primary medium of storytelling. But this Symphony and indeed all great works in its class (even the unsuccessful ones such as by Siegmund von Hausegger’s Barbarossa) suggest that it is eminently possible to provide the listener with all the tension of the theater, the private engagement of the reader, the detail of the visual, as well as the indescribable, nearly spiritual sensibilities invoked by music, with the orchestra alone. And in this regard, Gliere is at his best. Ilya Muramets, despite its great scale, deserves a genuine place in the repertory. It resounds even for the jaded and over-stimulated ears of audiences in our time who have been subject to endless hours of movie and television music. Like the tone poems of Strauss, this work still makes its point by placing great music at the very center of the process of how the experience of time is transformed.

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.

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.