Mily Balakirev, classical music composer

Mily Balakirev image

Mily Balakirev


A central figure in the early nationalistic movement of Russian music, Mily Balakirev was an inspiration to the group of composers—known as The Five—at which he was the center. His efforts and support lifted several of these young amateur composers out of obscurity and to heights greater than his own. As a composer himself, however, he was particularly slow to produce any major works. By the time many of his works were completed, he was ironically robbed of the credit of inventiveness that was due him by those he had helped and an even younger generation of composers saw his music as old-fashioned.

Balakirev was born into the family of a poor clerk on January 2, 1837 at Nizhny Novgorod. His mother gave him his first musical lessons, and his talents emerged early in his childhood. At the age of ten, his mother took him to Moscow for ten piano lessons with Alexander Dubuque, a pupil of John Field. Following his mother's death, he attended the Alexandrovsky Institute where his musical talents were noticed by Alexander Ulybyshev. Ulybyshev took Balakirev under his wing, giving him exposure to a vast new expanse of music, including that of Chopin and Glinka. His music studies were entrusted to Karl Eisrach, and eventually he was allowed to lead the count's private orchestra in rehearsals of orchestral and choral works. At the young age of fourteen, he conducted a performance of Mozart's Requiem. His earliest surviving compositions also come from this period.

Following his studies at the Alexandrovsky Institue, Balakirev entered the University of Kazan as a mathematics student in 1853. Once again his musical talents gained him attention and he was able to supplement his limited income by taking on pupils. In 1855, Ulybyshev took the young musician to St. Petersburg to meet Glinka. Glinka encouraged Balakirev to pursue music, recognizing his innate talent, but also noting his poor compositional technique. At the time, there were no printed musical textbooks in Russia and Balakirev's limited knowledge of German prohibited him from studying those that were available. It was this raw, unrefined talent that led to his negative views towards formal training. The following year, Balakirev made his debut as a pianist, performing the opening movement (and only completed movement) of his First Piano Concerto.

With the deaths of both Glinka and Ulybyshev in 1857, Balakirev was left without any significant support. Yet, his time with Glinka set Balakirev on a path to establish a school of Russian music, fiercely nationalistic and independent of the traditions of Western Europe. Starting in 1856, he began surrounding himself with other like-minded individuals—César Cui, Alexander Serov, the Stasov brothers, and Alexander Dargomyzhsky. Over the succeeding years, he brought Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin under his tutelage, promising to train them according to his principles of a distinctly Russian tradition. While Balakirev was able to inspire these young composers to great heights, his methods proved overbearing and meddlesome. Balakirev would unabashedly give "suggestions" concerning their in-progress works, any deviation from his vision was condemned, and in the end, their music sounded like Balakirev. By the late 1860s, The Five was already disbanding.

The formation of the Russian Musical Society and the conservatories in St. Petersburg and Moscow embroiled Balakirev and his protégés in a dispute over the direction of music in Russia. The Society was headed by the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlova, whose taste in music was rather conservative, and the appointment as Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein as the conservatories' directors, both professionally trained musicians, immediately drew the ire of Balakirev. In response, supporters of the Conservatory labeled—quite justly—the composers of The Five as "amateurs." As an alternative to the RMS, Balakirev with Gavriil Lomakin, a local choirmaster, founded the Free School of Music in 1862, which offered concerts and education to students at no cost. To raise money for the school, Balakirev and Lomakin gave a series of concerts between 1862 and 1867, which offered a greater selection of newer music compared to the concerts of the RMS.

In 1867, when Anton Rubinstein left his position as director of the RMS concerts, Balakirev was nominated as his replacement. His heated personality, however, quickly made him enemies and his modern repertoire drew the angst of Elena Pavlovna. After only two years, she dismissed Balakirev from his post. The incident, however, brought together a particularly fruitful professional relationship. In Balakirev's defense, an article appeared written by Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky. Over the next two years, he mentored Tchaikovsky, helping the young composer bring to fruition his first mature masterpiece, the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, and later the Manfred Symphony.

By the end of the decade, however, Balakirev's influence and fortunes were waning. Added to this were the death of his father, and the financial care of his younger sisters. In 1871, rumors began to circulate that he suffered a nervous breakdown. Those who visited him after this event noted that his passionate and intense personality had been replaced with resignation and indifference. He took a five-year break from music and withdrew from his circle of musical friends. His financial situation worsened and he took a position as a railway clerk to provide for himself. By 1876, he began to emerge from his hermitage, but still shied away from his musical friends. He returned to composing, working busily on his symphonic poem Tamara. He attempted to regain his status as a centerpiece of the Russian musical scene but by this time, the industrialist and art patron Mitrofan Belyayev had risen to the forefront, and his meager means were unable to compete with the lavish Friday evening gatherings held by Belyayev. Thus, Balakirev resigned himself to composing, though his music was now considered old-fashioned and largely ignored, completing several major works between 1895 and his death on May 29, 1910.

Composer Title Date Action
Mily Balakirev Islamey (Oriental Fantasy) 01/08/2009 Play Add to playlist
Mily Balakirev Islamey (Oriental Fantasy) 10/29/2010 Play Add to playlist