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Glazunov’s Symphony No. 4: The Bridge Worth Crossing (Part 1)

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In the second half the 19th century, a civil war of musical sorts brewed in Russia. During the 1800s, there was a surge of artistic expression in Russia on all sides, from literature to art to music. Of all the intense identity crises that hit, musical academia was perhaps hit the hardest. In the course of 50 years, a clear division of ideology split musical academia in two: in St. Petersburg, a set of composers known as the “Mighty Handful” had set up camp and declared themselves as the true torchbearers of musical Russia (Stadelmann). They claimed that through their rejection of many (though not all) European styles, they would use their ingenuity to create an authentically original form of music that would represent their country (Stadelmann). They were otherwise known as the Nationalists, which included them and their many followers. They were very strict in their beliefs, and considered anyone who did not conform to their ideas not only a bad composer, but a traitor to Russia itself.
On the other hand, another camp had formed in Moscow who called themselves the Cosmopolitans. Anton Rubinstein, who had helped found both St. Petersburg and Moscow conservatories, was the father of this school of thought, and of all Russian composers of his time, was accused most for a “colorless international style” (Huth). Cosmopolitans were eclectic admirers of German compositional style, and interested in expressing personal emotions rather than depicting the emotions of their nation at large. Among those who followed in the footsteps of Rubinstein, Piotr Tchaikovsky, a former student of the St. Petersburg, became the most influential member of the Cosmopolitan school (Taylor). It is through a series of personal musical revolts and reactions that individual composers chose sides, but a great deal of them simply followed suit wherever they landed in their life. Such is the case with Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936).
Glazunov grew up in St. Petersburg, the Nationalist hub of Russia. He trained with both Mily Balakirev and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, immediately caused a sensation in musical academia as a prodigy, and was declared a successor of the Nationalist school. In many ways, he was used almost as a pawn weapon against the Moscow Cosmopolitan School since they had no equal bragging rights of a prodigy. He composed his first symphony at the age of 16, which he dedicated to his beloved mentor Rimsky-Korsakov, and it highlights his great maturity already as a teenager (Anderson). Elements of his early style continued throughout his career, a notable trait that contrasts him from many contemporaries, such as Stravinsky, who dramatically changed their language over time.
However, Glazunov had an identity crisis of his own, and one that afflicted differently than other composers around him. When he encountered Tchaikovsky in late 1880s, they developed a close friendship and appreciation for each other, even to the point of Glazunov’s idolization of Tchaikovsky, “whose friendliness, international outlook and eminence were a liberating influence from the more dogmatic ideas of the Kuchka [The Mighty Handful]” (Huth). Glazunov’s Symphony No. 3 (1890), which took him two arduous years to complete, was dedicated to Tchaikovsky, hoping to gain his favor and signal to his audiences that he no longer viewed Tchaikovsky with disgust the way his own mentors had for so long. However, this piece was from such a transitory stage in his life that his efforts are more conspicuous than perhaps he meant it to be, meaning it was a complex problem: how could he possibly combine Tchaikovsky’s textures, emotionality and lyricism with the compositional techniques of his own favorite Nationalists, notably Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin?
In 1893, Glazunov completed his Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, op. 48 only days after Tchaikovsky’s death, and it premiered two months later with Rimsky-Korsakov conducting (Taylor). If dedicating a work to Tchaikovsky was slight enough to the Nationalist school, the dedicatee of this new symphony would have bordered on scandalous: it was dedicated to none other than Anton Rubinstein, perhaps the most hotly criticized Russian composer of his time. As Andrew Huth puts it, “Glazunov’s dedication seems to invite us to hear his Fourth Symphony as a deliberately cosmopolitan work by a Russian composer looking outwards to the West, rather than inwards to his own country.”
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