Remember My Name: Fame and Mily Balakirev

Hoo, boy, the new wordpress media player sure doesn’t do all the things the old yahoo player did. Dear technology: sometimes, change for change’s sake isn’t good. Anyhow. I will try and go through all my old posts and update them, groan, when there is time. Meantime…

Here are some random facts about Mily Balakirev. “Who?” you may ask. Bear with me.

1. Balakirev, who lived from 1837 to 1910, was among the earliest Russian composers to feel a need for distinctly “Russian” music. Much of what he composed was based on Russian folk tunes, including one work, according to liner notes, that was sung to Balakirev by a “blind beggar who accompanies himself on an old harp that was out of tune.” He rejected – or tried to reject – the influence of the West, referring to Bach as a “composing machine” whose works were “maids of beauty, frozen and soulless,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov writes in his memoirs.

2. Balakirev was influential among Russian composers for a time. He led a group called the Moguchaya Kuchka, which translates inadequately as the Mighty Handful, who were all interested in a Russian brand of music, and whose number included Modest Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. I mean, Peter Tchaikovsky dedicated Romeo and Juliet to Balakirev. Respect.

3. A number of Russian composers later hat tipped – no, that’s not strong enough – stole the entire hat from a Balakirev riff. Or maybe everybody involved is just stealing from the Rodina and her folk music. A bit of Balakirev’s “Overture on Three Russian Themes” is also used by Stravinsky in “Petrushka;” both are based on a folk song called “There was at the feast.”

Balakirev’s Overture


Stravinsky’s Petrushka


There’s another folk song in that piece, “In the fields stands a birch tree,” that’s used in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s fourth.

Balakirev’s birch


Tchaikovsky’s finale


Then there’s Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade theme, described by author Francis Maes as “a near-plagiarism of Balakirev’s “Tamara.”





4. Balakirev was a weird dude. He eventually fell out with many of the Handful for his “my-way-or-the-highway”-type scrutiny of their compositions and, later, criticism of their lives. Rimsky-Korsakov writes in his memoirs that Balakirev believed Mussorgsky had “a fondness for wine and had estranged him even then by saying so.” Balakirev went from an atheist early in his life to deeply devout Russian orthodoxy later – so much so that Rimsky-Korsakov suspected him of crossing himself when he yawned. For a while, Balakirev withdrew from musical life and worked as a clerk for the Warsaw railroad. He became fond of animals, and concerned himself with the morals of his dog Druzhok, sometimes carrying him to keep him from becoming entrapped by female doggies’ wiles, Rimsky-Korsakov writes. “All this medley of Christian meekness, backbiting, fondness for beasts, misanthropy, artistic interests, and a triviality worthy of an old maid from a hospice, all these struck everyone who saw him in those days,” the memoirs recall.

5. You’ve at least heard of these other dudes Balakirev worked with, but I’m betting you can’t even pronounce Balakirev. Search for Scheherazade on Amazon, and (uhhhh if you spell it right) you get 462 results. Only 21 come up for our temptress Tamara. So are these other guys just that much better than Balakirev? Did Balakirev’s odd character traits do him in? What makes someone famous? No answers here, just curiosity.

(Works in dad’s collection: 1) Balakirev: Symphonies 1 & 2. Russia. Tamara. Overture on Three Russian Themes. The Philharmonia. Yevgeny Svetlanov. 2) Balakirev: Symphony No. 2. Tamara. Piano Concerto, Op. 1. Howard Shelley, Piano. BBC Philharmonic. Vassily Sinaisky.)

One thought on “Remember My Name: Fame and Mily Balakirev

  1. Okay, so I didn’t see this post when you first posted it. I apologize for the tardiness in the comment. But holy cow! I had no idea about this composer whatsoever, I’m ashamed to say. My jaw dropped at some of the comparisons. Almost verbatim. That’s just incredible.