Glière’s Symphony No. 3, Ilya Muromets

Notes by TŌN flutist Denis Savelyev

The Story
Ilya Muromets is Glière’s most monumental orchestral composition. The basis of the story is the epic tale The Tale of the Bogatyr Ilya Muromets – A Peasant’s Son. Muromets is a famous folk hero of ancient Kievan Rus’, and is associated with an actual historical figure: the medieval warrior and monk Ilya Pechersky. Glière, who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, taught at the Moscow Conservatory, Gnesin Institute and Kiev Conservatory, where his students included Sergei Prokofiev. His third symphony achieved huge popularity in Russia and around the world. A massive, multi-movement tone poem, the symphony is written in four tableaux (movements).

Wandering Pilgrims—Ilya Muromets and Svyatogor
Tableaux I begins with portentous and slow music representing the early childhood of Muromets, crippled and unable to walk since birth, until he is healed by some wandering pilgrims. The second section of this movement is about our hero meeting a new friend, Svyatogor, who teaches Ilya about wisdom. The music changes as Svyatogor dies, then Ilya then rides off on his horse to Kiev.

Solovey the Brigand
The second movement is about Ilya capturing the dreaded monster Solovey the Brigand, or Nightingale the Robber, who hides in the shelter of the mighty oaks of a threatening forest. Ilya shoots an arrow into Solovey’s eye, ties him to his horse, and rides to the court of Prince Vladimir in Kiev.

At the Court of Vladimir, the Mighty Sun
Tableaux III has an absolutely different, dancing feel. Ilya appears with Solovey still tied to his horse, but releases him upon arrival at court. All the guests fall to their knees with fear, but Ilya beheads the monster, demonstrating to Prince Vladimir that he is worthy to be a bogatyr, which is similar to a knight.

The Heroism and Petrification of Ilya Muromets
The final movement shows Ilya’s and his fellow bogatyrs’ battles against those who are trying to turn the country back to paganism. The last section of the movement depicts the defeat of Ilya and the bogatyrs. All of the bogatyrs are haughty over their victories in battle until a celestial army comes down to earth and defeats them. Ilya tries to run away and turns into stone. The music reaches its climax in minor chords, then slowly evaporates. The symphony is filled with emotion and contemplation, conveying a heroic and beautiful story.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1

Notes by TŌN harpist Emily Melendes

In the Navy
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1 has perhaps the strangest origin story of any musical work I’ve performed. Born in Russia, Rimsky-Korsakov was fascinated by music from early boyhood; he marveled at the wonders of opera, learned to play the piano, and even began writing compositions at the age of ten. When he turned 17, however, his family decided piano lessons should take a back seat to a career in the Russian navy. His former piano teacher suggested he study theory and composition in lieu of an instrument, a path that in 1861 led him to Mily Balakirev, who would become Rimsky-Korsakov’s mentor and collaborator. Balakirev gave the fledgling composer a monumental initial challenge: write an entire symphony. Rimsky-Korsakov set about this task eagerly, but naval duty interfered, and at the age of 18 he began a three-year tour with only an initial draft of the symphony’s first and final movements. He initially preferred the company of his composition to that of his fellow seamen and wrote the second movement of his symphony while at sea, dutifully stopping to buy additional scores at port cities to further his self-taught studies. Quickly, though, the wonders of the world took hold of him. For the first time he experienced London, Rio de Janiero, and Niagra Falls. He absorbed the writings of Goethe, Schiller, and Homer, and returned home to St. Petersburg in 1865 to compose the third movement of his symphony, the Scherzo. Balakirev edited and polished the work, and by December 31st of that same year, Balakirev conducted and premiered the symphony at his Free School of Music.

The First “Russian Symphony”
Rimsky-Korsakov’s friends hailed the work as the first truly Russian symphony due to Rimsky-Korsakov’s use of Russian folk melodies and his avoidance of traditionally German compositional techniques. I find it interesting, though, that the first “Russian symphony” came about through Rimsky-Korsakov’s tour of the wider world, and I enjoy looking at his work through this lens. The piece brims with youthful exuberance and pizzazz, and while perhaps lacking the sophisticated compositional mastery of his later works, to me it tells a tale of adventure and discovery, one rife with Russian identity and tender recollections of home. From the bombastic statement of the first movement, to the swelling sincerity of the second, the frenzied energy of the Scherzo, and the densely packed resplendency of the fourth movement, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1 is a treat both to hear and to perform. I hope you enjoy its creativity and imagination as much as I have.