After Glinka, Balakirev is the most influential composer in 19th-century Russian music, yet strangely, his works are not heard as frequently as such a grand claim might imply.
Balakirev was a magnetic teacher and accomplished pianist, but he never had a position in musical life to mirror his abilities: although he was an effective force within his own set, he failed to establish relations with those who might have been able to help him in his career; nor was he skilled at sustaining friendships with his peers. He also had his idiosyncrasies, including a penchant for keys in two and five sharps and flats, and he sometimes imposed this preference on works he influenced (such as Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet). He also worked extremely slowly: works begun in his prime were finished only in old age (Symphony No. 1 was started in 1864 but completed in 1897); so ideas which originated with Balakirev were first fully realised in works by his disciples (including Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov) completed while he was still tweaking the originals. Fortunately, from this point of view, his language didn’t develop hugely over that period, although public attention shifted to new generations of musicians.
The Russian musical scene meanwhile developed rapidly over Balakirev’s lifetime, emerging from the private sphere (where performances of instrumental and vocal music mainly took place before 1860) into the public, using large halls, and with lively press discussion. Opera, essentially a large-scale public venture, did not attract Balakirev as a composer, though he wrote incidental music for the theatre (King Lear).
Balakirev was of modest but not humble birth. His mother introduced him to the piano, and he later took a course of lessons with Alexander Dubuque in Moscow. Thanks to the patronage (and library) of Alexander Ulybyshev, he was able to extend his musical horizons. Ulybyshev was a music-loving landowner in Nizhniy Novgorod who in the 1840s and 1850s wrote books on Mozart and Beethoven. On completing his secondary education in Nizhniy Novgorod in 1853, Balakirev studied mathematics at the University of Kazan. He first made an impression, however, as a virtuoso pianist and his output as a composer reflects the early influence of Chopin in the forms he used (nocturnes, scherzos, mazurkas, waltzes) as does the style of his early works (especially the First Piano Concerto). He moved to the Russian capital in the mid-1850s, and soon met up with leading composing lights, including Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, Cui, Serov and L’vov as well as the influential Stasov brothers and wealthy music enthusiasts Princes Odoyevsky and Wielhorski. Balakirev followed Glinka, who died in 1857, in apostolic succession: Glinka entrusted his niece’s musical education to him and gave him some Spanish material which he then used in his Overture on a Spanish March Theme. Balakirev also composed a Fantasy on themes from A Life for the Tsar, directed the operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmila in Prague in February 1867 and edited many of Glinka’s compositions for publication, beginning the task in 1876. So Balakirev’s musical ideas had their roots in the art of Glinka.
Balakirev’s first publication, some songs, was issued in 1858 and he continued composing for voice and piano intermittently. In the late 1850s and early 1860s he formed a circle of musicians which lasted through that decade. It was made up of young men with a talent for music but little theoretical knowledge (Rimsky-Korsakov joined in 1861), and accomplished performers with the same shortcoming (Borodin, from 1862, and Musorgsky, from 1858). Balakirev taught by examining scores by composers he admired such as Beethoven and Schumann, encouraging his pupils to tackle projects on a scale for which they were unprepared (for instance, Rimsky-Korsakov’s First Symphony, its first version written between 1861 and 1865). He would subject their compositions to bar-by-bar scrutiny, fitting them to his own thinking. Also associated with Balakirev’s group was the older critic and composer César Cui (whose musical personality had been formed by the nationalist Polish composer Moniuszko). In this company, Balakirev came closest to being a professional musician, with the others earning their main living from other activities. The older Dargomyzhsky and the critic Vladimir Stasov shared many of the group’s ideals: they championed ‘modern’ music (by Schumann, Berlioz and Liszt), and cultivated Russian themes (in every sense of the term). This group formed the nucleus of ‘The Five’, a concept derived from a wider collection of composers referred to by Stasov in 1867 as ‘the mighty handful’. The name ‘The Five’ might suggest artists in a close-knit friendship sharing thoughts and artistic ideals. But that impression is as false for the Balakirev circle as for the French ‘Les Six’ 50 years later: they were young musicians who had a little in common, each of whom soon went his own way.
For a brief period in the late 1860s and early 1870s Tchaikovsky, even as a graduate of the St Petersburg Conservatoire, partially submitted to Balakirev’s guidance. Having been educated musically to look westwards and backwards, Tchaikovsky was enriched as a composer by Balakirev’s sympathetic attitude towards Russian musical ingredients, his ideas about how to accommodate them in artistically satisfying structures, and his openness to contemporary composition. The rapturous reception the Balakirev circle gave the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, with its compelling exploitation of a Ukrainian folksong, testify to their recognition of a kindred spirit.
The 1860s were the high point of Balakirev’s career. He worked with the disciples mentioned earlier, and made arrangements of Russian folksongs. He was committed to the Free School of Music, opened in 1862 as a more Russian and democratic alternative to the Conservatoire which was regarded as expensive and elitist. The School emphasised choral singing, the speciality of its director Gavriil Lomakin. Balakirev replaced Lomakin in 1868, holding the post until 1874. For two seasons Balakirev also conducted the orchestral concerts the Russian Music Society gave in St Petersburg (1867-69), but this appointment ended when the Society’s patroness found Balakirev’s programmes too uncompromisingly modern and Russian. While the attitudes of Anton Rubinstein, the director of the St Petersburg Conservatoire, were conservative and hostile to Balakirev and his ideas, his younger brother Nicholas, director of the Conservatoire in Moscow, was more open-minded and provided a platform for some works by the radical composers from the capital (he is the dedicatee of Balakirev’s oriental fantasy Islamey).
In the early 1870s Balakirev experienced a breakdown and withdrew from music for about a decade. He took employment with a railway company in 1872 and became absorbed in Orthodox Christianity and extreme political views. He picked up the threads of his musical career in the 1880s, but without it regaining earlier momentum. He resumed the directorship of the Free School in 1881 and he was appointed musical director of the Imperial Court Kapella (or Chapel Choir), a post he held from 1883 to 1894. There he made some settings and arrangements of music for the Russian church.
Even if Balakirev did not fulfill the expectations of his early years, his legacy of compositions does not deserve neglect. Besides their interest as the background to better-known pieces by his celebrated disciples, many of them are things of beauty and value in their own right.