Glazunov, 5 Novelettes for String Quartet, Op. 15

August 3, 2015

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)

5 Novelettes for String Quartet, Op. 15 (1886)

The Russian Alexander Glazunov is an example of a gifted composer who pursued a highly successful career and garnered great renown but who nonetheless has faded from view as a somewhat conservative composer overshadowed by more provocative figures who came just before and after his time. He was younger than the "The Might Handful", the fierce nationalists including Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky who were the first to forge a distinctly Russian style. He was also decades younger than Tchaikovsky, the brilliant cosmopolitan with a penchant for the grand European style. As Glazunov found his own style in a pleasing blend of both trends, he was soon usurped by a series of brilliant Russian modernists including Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev whom Glazunov found distasteful as they found him reactionary. Nonetheless, Glazunov was proclaimed a prodigy in his youth, studied with Rimsky-Korsakov who regarded him as a brilliant colleague more than a student, was a respected conductor and become the director of the St. Petersburg conservatory for over two decades. Glazunov the composer produced a substantial body of work including eight symphonies, several concertos, ballets and seven string quartets among numerous other compositions. Today, he is most famous for his ballets "Raymonda", "The Seasons" and his Violin Concerto made famous by Heifetz.

For a time, Glazunov was a member of the "Belyayev Circle", a group of composers connected with the wealthy patron, amateur musician and publisher Mitrofan Belyayev who supported emerging composers and musicians frequently holding salons in his palatial estate. It was for one of these gatherings in 1886 that a 21-year-old Glazunov composed his 5 Novelettes, Op. 16 for string quartet. The term novelette was first used by Schumann as one of several creative titles for short Romantic character pieces and Glazunov's Novelettes comprise a suite of independent numbers, each colorfully evocative across a range of topics: folk music from Spain, the Orient, and Hungry, the Waltz, and music in a reverent, olden style. The pieces feature wonderful melodies, dazzling instrumental techniques and highly skillful construction, all vividly recognizable for their titled associations. Through the music, one is reminded of Tchaikovsky, Borodin and especially Dvořák, the common thread being a pronounced Slavic flavor.

But the title "Novelettes" should not mislead one into thinking of these as mere trinkets for the salon. Each of the pieces bears a three-part ternary form with a wealth of narrative drama and contrast to create something deeper. "Alla Spanuola" begins as a lively serenade but delves into some wilting, late Romantic harmonies of poignant effect. The modal, folk-inspired "Orientale" moves from lively dance to a haunting, exotic lament. The "Interlude in an Ancient Mode" is a kind of Russian hymn with a little fugue inside. The "Waltz" is, itself, a tiny suite of micro-movements. "Alla Hungarian" features a wild, passionate Gypsy-inspired rhapsody in the center and a coda for an extra flourish of development. These are wonderful pieces that grow and blossom with each new hearing. Rich and diverse, they offer a superb introduction to the music of Glazunov, surely an enticement to explore this lesser known "great" composer.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.