Nikolay Afanasyev

Nikolay Afanasyev (1821-1898)

Nationality: Russian
Born: January 12, 1821, Tobolsk Died: June 3, 1898, St. Petersburg (age 77)

String Quartet in a minor, The Volga

(for 2 violins, viola and cello)
I. Moderato
II. Allegretto
III. Adagio
IV. Allegro non troppo
Duration: 24 minutes (approximately)
Composed: c. 1860 (age 38-39)
Published: 1866 (age 44-45)
2 recordings, 4 videos
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Leipzig String Quartet
Moscow String Quartet
(part 1 of 3)
Moscow String Quartet
(part 2 of 3)
Moscow String Quartet
(part 3 of 3)
From Edition Silvertrust

Nikolay Afanasyev Nikolai Afanasiev (1821-1898) (also spelled Afanassiev, Afanasyev et. al.) was born in the Siberian city of Tobolsk. Other than violin and piano lessons which he received from his father, he had no formal musical training as none was to be had within Russia at that time. In his memoirs, he wrote that he learned the art of composition by studying the works of famous composers such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. He excelled as a violinist and at the age of 17 was appointed concertmaster of the Moscow Opera Orchestra. He subsequently toured Russia and Western Europe as a soloist before settling in St. Petersburg where he spent the rest of his life. Of the major Russian composers, only Alyabiev and Glinka predate him. While such composers as Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin later became known for establishing the so-called Russian National School of composition, i.e. using Russian folk melody, they were hardly the first. Afanasiev's music, and he wrote in virtually every genre, is filled with the melodies of Russian folk songs and the rhythms of Russian folk dances. Though he and his music are, to some extent, still known within Russian, today he is virtually unknown elsewhere, although his Quartet "The Volga" enjoyed a modicum of popularity for some decades during the last part of the 19th century, especially in Germany.

Some sources say that Afanasiev composed as many as 12 string quartets. However, the only one which seems to have survived is the string quartet he composed for the 1860 competition held by The Russian Muscial Society. He subtitled it "The Volga" and it went on to win the First Prize.

Writing in his Handbook for String Quartet Players, the famous chamber music scholar Wilhelm Altmann has this to say about Afanasiev's Volga Quartet:

“Afanasiev's Prize-winning Volga Quartet of 1860 (first published in 1866) makes frequent use of Russian folk melody and from the title, it is clear we are to imagine the life and tribulations of the Volga boatmen on the river. Certainly, the rhythms often conjure up the motion of waves. The work is written in true quartet style and each instrument is given ample opportunities with the thematic material. While the harmonic structure is straight forward, the rhythms are at times complicated. Even today (writing in 1936) this quartet is certain to make a strong impression and is enjoyable to play. The opening movement, Moderato, has for its main theme a heavy folk song of the Volga Boatmen. The voice leading is quite engrossing and sounds quite good. The five-beat meter of the second movement, Allegretto, is dance-like. It serves as a scherzo. An atmospheric Adagio full of ripe melody follows. The finale, Allegro non troppo, combines lyricism with further dance-like rhythms."

If you are looking for a really Russian-sounding work from the Romantic era, here is a work which will fill the bill. It is sure to be a hit in the concert hall, but is also bound to give great pleasure to amateurs. Those who make its acquaintance, be they professional or amateur, will be glad that they have.

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