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Autumnal Composition 2022

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev

(2 January 1837 — 29 May 1910)


Mily Balakirev was born into a noble Russian family in Nizhny Novgorod. His father, Alexey Konstantinovich Balakirev (1809-1869) was a Titular Councilor (a Ranked Official whose position remained in effect until the Russian Revolution of 1917). Alexey belonged to the ancient dynasty founded by Ivan Vasilievich Balakirev, a Moscow boyar. The boyar, or bolyar, was a member of the highest rank of the feudal nobility in many European nations of that epoch.


I looked up the Table of Ranks of Officials in Tsarist Russia. The bureaucracy, even then, out-ranked in number and potential bribes, any other bureaucratic blob on Earth! The Tsarist Swamp was wide and muddy and deep. It was replaced by the Soviet Swamp. So much for a Revolution of The People!


The mother of this composer was Elizaveta Ivanovna Balakireva (née Yasherova). The title of nobility was first granted to her father, Ivan Vasilievich. That Russian had journeyed a considerable distance, from the civilian government rank of Collegiate Registrar — to a State Councillor. The name Mily was a traditional male name in her family, and thus was given to her son who appears to have been an only child.

She gave piano lessons to this son, starting when he was four years of age. When Mily turned ten, in 1847, she took him to Moscow during the summer holidays for a course of ten piano lessons with a pianist by the name of Alexander Dubuque. Tragically, this woman died of smallpox during that year of 1847.


Balakirev had been studying at the Nizhny Novgorod gymnasium, but, after the death of his mother, he was transferred to the Nizhny Novgorod Noble Institute of Alexander II. There, he studied for four years, from 1849 until 1853. His remarkable musical skills were soon noticed, and he found a patron in Alexander Ulybyshev, who was considered the leading musical figure and patron in Nizhny Novgorod. Ulybyshev owned a vast musical library and was the author of a biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as other books on Mozart and on Ludwig van Beethoven.


The formal musical training of this adolescent was thereafter placed in the hands of the pianist Karl Eisrach, who arranged scheduled regular musical evenings at the Ulybyshev estate. Through master Eisrach, Balakirev was given opportunities to read, to play, and to listen to music. He was beneficently exposed to the music of Frédéric Chopin and Mikhail Glinka. Eisrach and Ulybyshev also permitted Balakirev to direct the private orchestra of a Russian count, in the rehearsals of orchestral and choral works.

Having mastered the basics of his musical art by the age of fourteen, Balakirev then conducted a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. The next year, 1852, he directed rehearsals of Beethoven’s First and Eighth Symphonies. His earliest surviving compositions date from this same year, a movement for wind instruments and strings; the first movement of a septet for flute, clarinet, piano, and strings; and a Grande Fantaisie on Russian Folksongs for piano and orchestra.


In 1853, Balakirev left the Alexandrovsky Institute and was enrolled in the University of Kazan as a mathematics student. The harmonious linkage between mathematics and music was probably utilized by his fertile mind, as was the profitable linkage between an active social life and job opportunities. He soon became a conspicuous member of the local social set as a pianist and was thereby able to supplement his limited finances by taking on pupils.


He spent his holidays either at his native Nizhny Novgorod or on the Ulybyshev country estate at Lukino. There, amidst the verdant nature and the welcome freedom from school, he played numerous Beethoven sonatas to assist his patron who was writing a book on this German composer. Balakirev was learning quite well how to adjust his performance art to suit the audience, which, in this case, was his patron.


His compositions from this period include a piano fantasy based on themes from Glinka’s opera, A Life for the Tsar; (a patriotic composition that made generous use of Slavic folk music and Glinka’s modified use of leitmotifs); three songs that would receive publication in 1908; and the opening movement (the only one completed) of his First Piano Concerto.

Balakirev completed his courses in the late autumn of 1855; Ulybyshev then took him to Saint Petersburg where he met Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857). Glinka was the first Russian composer to gain wide recognition within Russia. He is considered the fountainhead of Russian classical music, even though Balakirev was the progenitor of purely nationalistic Russian music. To a large extent, Glinka gained the credit for the seed crystal that had been Mily Balakirev.


The older Glinka deemed the compositional technique of Balakirev to be deficient, even defective, but he thought highly of his talent and encouraged him to embark upon music as a career. It must be noted that there were, at this time, no music textbooks in Russian. The German language understood by Balakirev was barely adequate to permit him to read German. Mily therefore learned his métier in the most non-academic of ways, through his own compositions and through analyzing the works of other composers.


The association of these two musicians and composers was marked by discussions and practical interchanges of materials. Glinka broadened the musical range of Balakirev by sending him several Spanish musical themes. He also entrusted this younger composer with the musical instruction of his own four-year-old niece, undoubtedly for some form of remuneration.

Balakirev made his public debut in a university concert in February 1856, playing the now-completed movement from his First Piano Concerto. This performance was followed one month later with a concert of his compositions for piano and chamber instruments. In 1858, he played the solo part in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto for the Tsar. In 1859, he received publication of 12 songs. He nevertheless existed, day-to-day, in extreme poverty, supporting himself mainly through piano instruction and playing at soirées for the aristocracy.


Since his initial, and only, experience was as a pianist, he was most influenced by composers for his own instrument, the piano; and in the repertory and in the style of his own compositions. He wrote in all of the genres that had been cultivated by Frédéric Chopin, except for the Ballade, thereby cultivating a comparable charm to the Polish composer/pianist.


The other keyboard composer of considerable influence upon Balakirev was Franz Liszt. This development is apparent in Islamey, as well as in the transcriptions by Balakirev of works by other composers and the symphonic poem Tamara.


The affinity of Balakirev for the music of Glinka becomes most apparent in his handling of Russian folk songs. Balakirev, however, progressed beyond the technique of Glinka which used variations on the melodic line with changing backgrounds. That motif is very Russian in origin and remained a constant in the development of Russian classical music. The traditional Russian folk songs (much like the folk songs of the United Kingdom and of America) have their roots in religion, specifically in the Orthodox Church services of Tsarist Russia.

What Balakirev achieved was ingeniously innovative and it justifies calling him the leader of the Russian school of classical music. He devised in musical composition the reconciliation of two disparate forms: the rules of composition of classical music with the local or colloquial treatment of the folk song. He made use of the fragmentation of motifs, counterpoint, and a structure that augmented the key relationships between those two distinctly different forms.


While composing his two Overtures on Russian Themes, Balakirev became engrossed in collecting folk songs and arranging them. He consequently became aware of the frequency of the Dorian mode. It’s not clear whether this man was schooled, academically, in this Ancient Greek melodic mode, or scale structure; of if he figured out by himself the existence of this medieval musical mode that eventually became one of the modern modal diatonic scales. This very intuitive learner also pinpointed the tendency for a melody to alternate between the major key and its relative minor on its flat seventh key, along with the proclivity for a composer to accentuate notes that are not consistent with a dominant harmony.


He incorporated those structural elements of sound into his treatment and interpretation of the Russian folk song. Because of his captivation by and immersion in the folk song, Balakirev would later vehemently espouse a form of classical music that was characteristically Russian.

With the death of Glinka in 1857 and of Ulybyshev in 1858, Balakirev no longer claimed any influential supporters. He made use of the experiences he’d gained with these men, especially with Glinka. This older composer had awakened within Balakirev a passion for Russian nationalism, prompting this younger composer to vigorously advocate the Russian school of music that was distinctly its own, free of influences from southern and western Europe.


Balakirev therefore shrewdly gathered together a circle of composers with similar creative ideals and ideas, men whom he promised to train, based upon his own musical principles. These musicians would become known as The Five, or the Mighty Handful, or The Mighty Five:


Mily Balakirev, the leader; César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin.


Based in Saint Petersburg, these composers gave voice, a collaborative voice, and a unified force, to this national style of music during the middle of the 19th century, from 1856 until 1870.


For an ancient country to produce this patriotic type of art form, that late in its history, was more indicative of the fact that Russia was less a nation than an empire, less a coherent whole, than an amalgamation of parts of cultures and expansive territories.

The musical attitudes and aesthetics of The Five evinced an antipathy toward German music, but Mily Balakirev was quite well-grounded in the style of German symphonic music. Since he was fundamentally self-taught as a composer, this Teutonic influence on him is noteworthy. His King Lear overture was written when he was but twenty-two years of age; the piece is not a symphonic poem in the mode of Franz Liszt, but runs more along the compositional lines of the concert overtures of Beethoven, with a strong reliance on the dramatic qualities of the sonata form.


During his organization of The Five, Balakirev also invited into his sphere of influence numerous significant musical artists who would assist him in realizing his lofty goal of nationalistic classical music: composer and music critic Alexander Serov (the father of painter Valentin Serov), the Stasov brothers, and Alexander Dargomyzhsky, who would bridge the gaps in Russian opera composition between Mikhail Glinka and the later generation of The Five and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.


Balakirev was a teacher of dynamic magnetism, with an inspirational yet intimidating personality that was powerfully persuasive, in varying ways, upon impressionable young minds. He quite naturally motivated his students, comrades really, to reach toward unheard-of heights of musical creativity. Unfortunately, along with the disciplined inculcation of uniquely Russian talents, Balakirev also produced countless enemies. He was a daring despot who alienated even his most promising students and disciples; it may have been the ripening talents that those individuals were protecting from a ruthlessly controlling virtuoso.

It’s always a double-edged sword for a certain type of imaginative mind. Driven by a fervent need to push the conceptual envelope toward sui generis forms, and to realize, or bring into reality, those uniquely brand-new abstractions, the artist can also push beyond the limits of integrity, decency, and kindness, as well as his own sanity. The artist with the well-honed and well-balanced conscience ought not be an aberrant archetype. Sadly, because of childhood tragedy, Balakirev was forced into a position of self-centered survival. From that harsh corner of a severely egocentric domain, the boy failed to emerge as a mature human being, a man capable of giving to, and receiving from, a fellow human being the most basic of emotions.


Financial and artistic misfortunes eventually befell this composer, causing him a sort of nervous breakdown in 1871. From 1872 until 1876, Balakirev almost completely withdrew from the world of music that he’d so single-mindedly crafted. He worked a menial job, as a railway clerk, whence he underwent an even more traumatic mental and emotional experience. The consequence of this second phase of anguish was not growth, but a form of psychic flight, an escape from reality through a harshly rigid religiosity and a venomous bigotry, both of which were intermixed with the uniquely irrational Russian superstitions about life, and death.


The Mily Balakirev of the past was no more. The man who re-entered the world of music, a realm that had once enchanted and energized him, that man was relegated to the directorship at a school, known as a Free School.


Quelle ironie!

Mily Balakirev had been opposed, and vehemently so, to any academic education of music. He deemed the academician and his approach to the art of music as major threats to the imagination. This opinion flew in the face (indeed, it still flies in the face) of the pretentiously cultured, profit-making sphere of academia. For where would symphonic splendour be without the trip-wire web of university grants and professors posing as experts in this field, in any field!


This Russian composer adamantly believed in composing music as early in one’s life as possible, and learning through one’s own creative endeavour. He considered the act of creation to be the best teacher that any musician can have. This method worked tremendously well for Balakirev who was an instinctive and intuitive musical artist. He was a phenomenally quick study, able — and eager — to improvise and innovate within his superb natural sense of harmony, an extraordinarily keen auditory memory, and magnificent technical precision.


Such an approach, however, does not work for every imaginative mind; that cleverly practical process can quickly, and oftentimes cruelly, separate the adeptly skilled, but amateur technician from the immensely gifted individual.

In handing down this doctrinaire rule, Balakirev broke his own rule about not imposing such rules on the artist. This self-taught, minimally trained composer was stepping on the toes of every traditional foot that had guided previous composers for centuries: to eschew scholarly courses such as music theory, orchestration, harmony, counterpoint, melodic forms, compositional technique — the list is almost endless.


The academic requirements for any budding artist to study both the historic achievements, as well as the latest in his art form, those stifling stipulations usually generate a ceaseless curriculum that keeps the student a student, never permitting him to master the art he set out to discover and cherish.


While a young person, starting in early adolescence, needs the hand of a proficient professional to oversee the fundamental training of his talent, formal instruction cannot be a substitute or a replacement for incipient ability. Balakirev perhaps did not receive sufficient technical schooling as a composer, but he scarcely suffered any ill effects from that dearth. His only training was as a pianist, but his mind was abundantly fertile in the applications of his genius to already established forms, as well as to forms that he would invent.

His most magnificent invention was, of course, The Five. The Mighty Five advanced an auditory art form: nationalist Russian classical music that remains unparalleled in its sublime expression of a place and a time within a nation that would undergo unspeakable horrors in the wanton destruction of that ardent and genuine nationalism. From that fount of love, and loyalty for one’s country, there emerged symphonic sounds and melodic sensations that are profoundly moving, regardless of one’s nationality.


For Mily Balakirev, the gift of his muse resided in his imaginative daring, a force that championed Russian music as superior to that of any other nation. It was a form of aesthetic chauvinism, but it was a belief sorely needed by the musical world of Tsarist Russia. For a brief time, too brief a time, the unrestrained sound of music thrived without the strict imposition of university prescribed regulations and restrictions, of pompous professional classifications and codifications, of the suffocating governmental edicts that would become the Soviet way of life, and of art.


Toward the end of his life, about a decade before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Balakirev resumed musical composition, perhaps as a form of catharsis. He completed several works that had gone unfinished and had languished for decades. It has been said that this composer did not receive his full creative due as a result of this sporadic approach to composition. He seemed in no rush to complete certain pieces, unlike other musical geniuses who measured their output with the precise and urgent timing of a symphonic stop-watch. Indeed, the clock of his emotional life seemed stopped, permanently, sometime around 1870, the fateful end of the collaborative accomplishments of The Mighty Five.

His last works were uttered and set forth in the style and techniques of his youth, the phase when his genius first matured. That gift did not mature and arrive at its fullest fruition; his personality, artistic and otherwise, remained grimly arrested in its development. This occurrence is grievous for any person, but is much more-so for an artist. Those special sensibilities were granted to him by his Maker, for the higher purpose of sublime realization.


Modern “culture” persists in striving to attain, or maintain, only that puerilely adolescent sensibility, the moronic mindset of dullards which, lucratively promoted by globalist pigs, has debased so-called art for the masses. Business is that sweet spot where art and commerce intersect. Currently, that spot is bitter, sour, rancid, and rotten.


The mass-marketed degradation of les beaux arts, of the classics, of the fine arts, of belles lettres, of the humanities — it’s utterly inhuman. It is the truly great cultural tragedy of our time. Somehow, I feel, see, and hear the spirit of that dynamic and melodic rebel, Mily Balakirev, and those of his Mighty Handful, with raised fists, rebelling mightily against those travesties of the human imagination.