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Commemorating the birth of Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, born January 2

Commemorating the birth of Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, born January 2 featured image

A scary-looking passage from Islamey


Balakirev was a Russian pianist, conductor, and composer. His M.O. was to promote musical nationalism and place Russia firmly on the musical map, which was not difficult, given the rich talent pool to draw from. He formed what became known as “The Five” with fellow composers, to promote his ideas about what constituted Russian music, and his influence was felt long after he left the group. The other members were Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

As I started writing this blog, conductor Kerry Stratton happened to stroll in to prep for his show, “The Oasis”. I asked him what he thought Balakirev was best known for. “Ah, Balakirev,” he said in his trademark velvety voice, “The Five. He who is the good nagger. He nagged Tchaikovsky into re-doing his Romeo and Juliet overture-fantasy; he nagged him over, and over, and over.” We have Balakirev to thank for ensuring Romeo and Juliet became such a wonderful work. Despite his ability to inspire others, he didn’t have any formal musical education himself, vehemently opposed academic training, and had a big problem with people who disagreed with him. Eventually, he was let go from a few job postings and suffered a nervous breakdown.

His piano work, Islamey, is insanely difficult, and is the piece that tips an undecided ticket buyer to purchase, to see if the pianist can be the “lion tamer”. It’s the same feeling I have when watching a men’s high-stakes figure skating competition, breathlessly waiting to see if the skater lands the three promised quads in the long program. Balakirev, himself a virtuoso, admitted some of Islamey was “unmanageable”.

Boris Berezovsky, a Russian pianist with a monster technique, tackles this work head-on. He manages just fine.

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, born January 2, 1837 in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, and died May 29, 1910 in St. Petersberg.

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