Balakirev, Milii

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Balakirev, Milii Alekseevich


Born Dec. 21, 1836 (Jan. 2,1837), in Nizhny Novgorod; died May 16(29), 1910, in St. Petersburg. Russian composer, pianist, conductor, musical and social figure. Born into the family of a civil servant from the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry).

Balakirev studied with the pianist A. Diubiuk and the conductor K. Eisrich in Nizhny Novgorod. His musical development was promoted by his friendship with the writer and musical critic A. D. Ulybyshev. From 1853 to 1855, Balakirev was an auditor in the mathematics department of the University of Kazan, and in 1856 he made his debut in St. Petersburg as a pianist and conductor. The formation of his aesthetic tastes and ideological position was greatly influenced by his friendship with the critic V. V. Stasov. Under Balakirev’s direction a musical circle variously known as the “New Russian School of Music,” the “Balakirev Circle,” or the “Mighty Bunch” (in English “The Five”) was formed in the early 1860’s. In 1862, Balakirev, together with the choir director G. Ia. Lomakin, organized the Free Music School in St. Petersburg, which became both a cradle of mass musical education and a center for propagating Russian music. From 1867 to 1869 he was chief conductor of the Russian Musical Society.

Balakirev helped to popularize the operas of M. I. Glinka. In 1866 he conducted the opera Ivan Susanin in Prague; in 1867 he directed the Prague production of the opera Ruslan and Liudmila.

The late 1850’s and the 1860’s were a period of intense creative activity for Balakirev. His compositions of those years, including the Overture on Three Russian Themes (1858; second version, 1881), a second overture on three Russian themes, 1,000 Years (1862; in a later version becoming the symphonic poem Rus’,1887, 1907), and the Czech overture (1867; in its second version becoming the symphonic poem In Bohemia,1906), developed the traditions of Glinka and clearly reflected the characteristic features and style of the New Russian School, in particular its reliance on genuine folk song. In 1866, his collection Forty Russian Folk Songs for Voice and Piano was published; it was the first classical model for the reworking of folk songs.

In the 1870’s, Balakirev left the Free Music School, stopped writing and giving concerts, and broke with the members of the circle. In the early 1880’s he resumed his musical activity, but it had lost its militant “60’s” character. From 1881 to 1908, Balakirev was again the head of the Free Music School, and at the same time (1883–94) became the director of the Court Choir.

The central theme in Balakirev’s work is the people. Folk images and pictures of Russian life and nature permeate the greater part of his work. Also characteristic of Balakirev is his interest in themes of the East (the Caucasus) and in the musical cultures of other countries (Polish, Czech, Spanish).

Balakirev’s basic sphere of work is instrumental music (for symphony and piano); he worked primarily in the field of symphonic program music. The best example of Balakirev’s symphonic poems is Támara (c. 1882, after Lermontov’s poem of the same name), built on original musical themes suggesting landscapes and folk dances. The birth of the genre of the Russian epic symphony is linked with Balakirev’s name. The conception of Balakirev’s first symphony dates back to the 1860’s (fragments appeared in 1862, the first part in 1864, and the symphony was finished in 1898.) His second symphony was written in 1908.

Balakirev was one of the creators of an original Russian keyboard style. The best of his compositions for piano is the eastern fantasy Islamei (1869), combining vivid beauty and original folk-genre coloring with virtuoso bravura.

Balakirev’s romances and songs occupy a prominent place in Russian vocal chamber music.


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Balakirev: Letopis’ zhizni i tvorchestva. Compiled by A. S. Liapunova and E. E. Iazovitskaia. Leningrad, 1967.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.