Special feature: Vasily Kalinnikov, the forgotten Russian Romantic

(Today’s post is my second “special feature,” highlighting a composer who, while not completely unknown, remains on the fringes of the classical repertoire. These features will be posted at irregular times, depending on my schedule for the week – planned future subjects include Edmund Rubbra, Federico Mompou, Willem Pijper, and Nikolai Roslavets.)

From Tchaikovsky to Mussorgsky, a number of Russian composers from the Romantic era have been frequently performed to wide acclaim in the West. However, as is often the case, many other composers popular in Russia are often overlooked in concert programs; today’s post concerns one of these forgotten masters, Vasily Kalinnikov.

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Vasily Kalinnikov (Wikipedia)

Kalinnikov was born on January 13, 1866 near the city of Oryol in what is now western Russia. The son of a policeman, he studied in the Oryol seminary and became director of the seminary choir at 14. A few years later, he sought to enroll in the Moscow Conservatory but could not afford the tuition; instead, he won a scholarship to the Moscow Philharmonic Society School (now the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts), where he was given lessons in bassoon and composition by the composer Alexander Ilyinsky.

To increase his income, Kalinnikov played bassoon, violin, and timpani in a theatre orchestra and also worked as a music copyist. It was in this period that his compositional career began in earnest; although he had written several choral works in the prior years, Kalinnikov’s Serenade for string orchestra and Suite for orchestra are some of his first mature compositions.

During his studies in Moscow, Kalinnikov befriended Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who would ultimately serve as one of the greatest champions of his music. In 1892, Tchaikovsky recommended him as director of the Maly Theatre, and he took up a position at the Moscow Italian Theatre in the same year. Unfortunately, Kalinnikov was unable to build on these successes; by this time, he had contracted tuberculosis, and his diagnosis was worsening.

Because of these unfortunate circumstances, Kalinnikov was forced to move south to the warmer climate of the Crimea, and he lived in Yalta for the rest of his life. Despite his failing health, Kalinnikov’s years in Crimea were his most productive; in addition to several symphonic poems, piano compositions and vocal works, he composed the pieces for which he is best known today; his two symphonies and the incidental music to Count Aleksey Tolstoy’s play Tsar Boris.

Kalinnikov’s first symphony, written between 1894 and 1895, is a classic example of the melodic gifts with which many Russian composers were endowed. Imbued with rich folk melodies, the symphony contains clear influences from the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, but several aspects set it apart from the work of these masters. The exuberance and vivacity of the three faster movements and the pureness and beauty of the second create a riveting atmosphere, while the colorful instrumentation brings out each section of the orchestra.

This symphony was premiered in Kiev in 1897 under the baton of Aleksandr Vinogradsky (who also premiered many orchestral works by Kalinnikov’s friend Tchaikovsky.) After receiving rave reviews – the audience gave encores for both the second and third movements – performances outside of Russia followed, taking place in Moscow, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. Thanks to the efforts of a number of contemporaries, Kalinnikov’s first symphony remained popular during the USSR period and continues to maintain its place in the Russian orchestral repertoire. However, it remains relatively unknown in the US, although a concert band transcription of the finale has made its way into the repertoire.

The second symphony, completed in 1897 and also based on folk melodies, keeps the exuberance and brightness so characteristic of Kalinnikov’s style, but it is somewhat more tonally adventurous, tending towards the direction of Borodin rather than that of Tchaikovsky. Although lesser known and less performed than his first, some find the second symphony to be a more mature and developed work.

In 1901, four years after completing his second symphony and two days before his 35th birthday, Kalinnikov lost his battle with tuberculosis. Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, two titans of Russian music, played integral roles in keeping Kalinnikov’s work alive – with help from Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky had his publisher, P. Jurgenson, purchased three of Kalinnikov’s songs and his second symphony. Later, Jurgenson also had the composer’s first symphony published, paying the fees he would have paid Kalinnikov to his widow.

Despite his relatively short life, Kalinnikov was a fairly prolific composer, writing twelve orchestral works, around twenty songs and choral pieces, nine works for solo piano, and the opera In 1812 (left unfinished at his death.) He was survived by a younger brother, Viktor, a choral composer who taught at the Moscow Philharmonic Society School.

Thanks to the efforts of several local and community orchestras (one of which I had the chance to hear perform last year), Kalinnikov’s first symphony is becoming more well-known in the orchestral repertoire, and many of his other works are equally deserving of more frequent performances in the West. To that end, I will leave you with another little-played work by Kalinnikov, his Elegie for solo piano.

As usual, please leave a like, follow, or comment if you enjoyed this or any other post on my blog! Look out for my next entry later this week, which will profile three great Canadian composers of the 20th century – Jean Coulthard, Barbara Pentland, and Violet Archer.

(All information in this post was derived from Wikipedia, a biography of Kalinnikov on the Parker Symphony Orchestra website, and a short article about Aleksandr Vinogradsky.)

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