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Glazunov’s Symphony No. 4: The Bridge Worth Crossing (Part 2)

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At face value, this symphony already poses some interesting features. The Fourth Symphony only has three movements: two relatively long and complex outer movements and a Scherzo in between. While none of the movements use Sonata form, Glazunov creates his own modified versions of theme and variation and sonata-rondo. Much like Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, this symphony’s main basis is an immense cyclical form of a handful of concrete themes. However, this is not a feature that the Nationalists never approved of, for they were great fans of thematic transformation such as achieved by Liszt (Taylor). What makes this symphony most unusual is the seeming lack of actual Russian folk influence on the thematic material and instead an influence of Tchaikovskian abstract ballet music.
The introduction of the first movement (Andante) begins with a melancholy English horn solo reminiscent of Russian folk singing. However, the theme’s complexity is far greater than a folk song as it is taken up by the whole orchestra, spun off in many directions, modulated multiple times, and resting on densely orchestrated Phrygian cadences. This sort of harmonic tension is reminiscent of Wagner, who was not at all approved of by either Russian school, and yet it has simplicity as if the theme spontaneously grew out of itself.
At the tempo change (Allegro Moderato), a series of developing Variations on a new theme begins much like Schumann or Brahms would have done in their own compositions. However, it is unusual that this is the first movement, and so no real sonata form is to be found in any of movements of this symphony. Developing Variations was a favored form for Russian composers of all backgrounds, but it should be noted that Glazunov was especially interested in experimenting with structure. In this way, he is much more “Germanic” in his sensibilities than his former mentors. Lyricism abounds as each variation takes its course, and a phenomenally expressive climax occurs before a recapitulation of the beginning Andante material to end the movement.
The second movement is a Scherzo (Allegro vivace), and it shares the best of both Russian schools. Like a tone poem, it is meant to depict the painting Diana’s Chase by Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin (Anderson). Böcklin painted two such works with this title, so it may be assumed that perhaps both were in Glazunov’s mind as well. However, unlike a tone poem (and perhaps akin to Debussy than Richard Strauss), this scherzo only hints at this painting through its mood, but it holds to the strict Ternary form that scherzos normally follow. The pentatonicism of the melodies hints towards the exoticism which composers like Borodin had mastered. Its compound rhythm and joyful energy are meant to depict the chase itself, with a lyrical Trio section that steps back in speed. Thus, this scherzo is able to combine running and dancing impressions as if it were ballet music. Tchaikovsky’s footprint is perhaps the strongest here, as he did similar dance-like scherzos in his own symphonies.
With the lack of a slow movement in this symphony, Glazunov replaces it with a slow Andante introduction in the final third movement. The pale color of the orchestra is much different from how the first movement began, but there is a certain positive energy underlying. The energy builds until trumpets herald a fanfare that begins the Finale (Allegro) which resembles a sonata Rondo of unusual proportions. The refrain is a joyous, almost peasant-like dance which any Nationalist would have been proud to compliment. The first episode is a complex development of many new themes, some laid-back, some more energetic. However, Glazunov does something very unusual: a surprise allusion of the themes from the scherzo and the first movement with astounding rapidity, to the point that many are almost overlapping. It all becomes clear that this symphony was cyclical all along when these themes, rather than clash, perfectly accompany each other. Like the recapitulation section of a sonata, the second episode finally achieves complete thematic transformation when he lets the main theme of the first movement take full hold of the music, still in the same mode as before (which was minor), but now accompanied by a major keyed and revitalized contrapuntal accompaniment that alludes to the many rhythmic patterns found in all the movements.
Glazunov’s orchestration, like its thematic material, combines Nationalist and Cosmopolitan tastes simultaneously. Tchaikovskian lyricism blends with Rimsky-Korsakovian harmony, allowing for an enormous palette of colors for thematic transformation at will. This is where Glazunov is telling his audience, “Look, just as I have synthesized all elements in this symphony like a chemistry experiment, I have now perfectly reconciled both the Nationalist and Cosmopolitan styles.” The Fourth Symphony continued to be one of Glazunov’s most popular works in his lifetime.
More can be said in favor of this excellent symphony, but the most important point to take away is that the music was made with a purpose. In 19th century Russia, there was no such thing as “independent” composers who wrote music out of context with what was happening around them. Ideology had become so important that music itself was immersed in a politics of its own, one that had become bipartisan. And yet, there were composers such as Glazunov who actively strove to unite the differing schools, because he realized that he not been given a chance at true self-expression when he was taught to be a one-sided composer. That is why Glazunov described this symphony as “personal, free, subjective impressions of myself” (Barnett), because it was a step away from viewing music simply as a voice of the Universal. It is not that Glazunov became anti-patriot; rather, the stylistic changes did not supplant his love for his country because that was never why he changed in the first place (the same can be said of Tchaikovsky). Glazunov was among the first of his generation to see a major trend towards a reconciled, open-minded musical Russia, and we have his works today to hear for ourselves just how this was able to come about.

Works Cited:
Anderson, Keith. Glazunov: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4. Munich, Germany: HNH International Ltd, 1998. Print.
Barnett, Rob. Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) The Complete Symphonies. CD Review.
Huth, Andrew. Glazunov: Symphonies 4 and 7. UK: Warner Classics Ltd, 2006. Print.
Serebrier, Jose. "Glazunov’s Nine Symphonies: An Appreciation." Listen Music Magazine. 09/10 2009: n. page. Print. <>.
Stadelmann, Matthias. "Gale Encyclopedia of Russian History." Mighty Handful. 2013. <>.
Taylor, Philip. Glazunov: Symphonies. Colchester, Essex, England: Chandos Records Ltd, 1999. 4-7. Print.
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  1. Cheyenne's Avatar
    Very insightful stuff about the division of the Russian musical schools and the political atmosphere. You made me want to go take a listen. Any recommended performances?
  2. Ramako's Avatar
    You write well, and your passion for Glazunov comes through. I enjoyed reading it.
    Updated Dec-17-2013 at 00:38 by Ramako
  3. Huilunsoittaja's Avatar
    It's one thing to have a recording, it's another thing to see and hear a live performance. Jose Serebrier is one of the best Glazunov interpreters of our time:

  4. Huilunsoittaja's Avatar
    Thanks for the note, joen! The older picture is certainly the only one Glazunov had in mind
  5. Huilunsoittaja's Avatar
    By the way, a message to all readers: please don't quote this paper outside of this website, I'm nervous that some analysis is not accurate. This symphony needs much better study of it than what I came up with.