Something cool you might have missed: Oriental Rhapsody by Alexander Glazunov


Alexander Glazunov looking like the most dangerous tuberculosis victim of all-time.

It’s been eons since I’ve had the time to post anything in this space, and I’ve been feeling the effects of writer’s withdrawal. This condition has been an absolute plague based on the simple fact that I’m a horrible writer and therefore should feel better when NOT writing, but what can I say? Since I last wrote anything of substance the NCAA Tournament started, the Republicans have had something like 71 primary elections, and my interest has been piqued by a movie called “The Hunger Games” that looks to have the appealing plot of teenagers killing one another for the pleasure of adults (something I occasionally fantasize about when thinking of flash mobs and the junior prom).

At any rate, the other major development recently has been the acquisition of my first real acceptable stereo system, complete with receiver, floor speakers, and turntable. I already tested it out with the original instrumentation Royal Fireworks Music, and I’m pleased to report that it sounds pretty nice. Last night I was even able to corral Sandy to sit down and listen to Janacek’s masterful Taras Bulba, which I believe she enjoyed (we both really like Gogol). After that, I had it in my mind to listen to something else, but it was getting late, so I stopped after the first movement of a piece that I hadn’t listened to in some time and decided I was going to write about it because it’s just that cool. That piece is the Oriental Rhapsody by Alexander Glazunov.

Glazunov is an interesting character in Russian music history – he was supremely gifted and had that insane ability that Mozart had to hear something once and play it again from memory which actually borders on the occult, frankly. As a teacher, he boasts a list of pupils that few can rival and he has several compositions that are still part of the standard repertoire. He was generous, with countless stories out there of his exceptional treatment of the students and faculty at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He was humble, writing the Polovtsian Dances himself in the style of Borodin but giving every ounce of the credit to the dead chemist. He was an alcoholic of the highest order, perhaps music’s greatest drunk this (or that) side of Finland. He had a terrific mustache and wore fine cravats.

But we don’t really seem to give a shit about Alexander Glazunov. He is eternally lost in the shuffle between Tschaikovsky and The Mighty Five and Shostakovich and Stravinsky, even though many of his greatest works can stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov or Borodin. Perhaps more than any other composer save Tschaikovsky, Glazunov was able to mix the nationalist Russian style with a “cultured” European sound, not at all surprising for a guy who spent that much time in St. Petersburg. A lot of people don’t think he mixed these styles quite enough, and he gets labeled as “derivative” pretty regularly, but what he lacked in brazen originality he made up for with sheer mastery of the many tools of composition. Glazunov’s music is indeed very refined, maybe too much so for its time and place. I wouldn’t dare compare Glazunov to Haydn in general, but they have one major thing in common: the polish and sophistication of their compositions belie the complexity of them.

The Oriental Rhapsody is my favorite Glazunov work, though it is probably the work most likely to have the aforementioned “D” word lobbed at it (like this!). It’s true that Oriental Rhapsody was composed almost immediately after Scheherazade, but so was a lot of other good shit, including the more famous Caucasian Sketches by Ippolitov-Ivanov. The very concept of white guys writing music about the brown people in sunny vacation spots around the world is old hat – shit, Rameau wrote an opera called Les Indes galantes. I don’t care if something isn’t brimming with originality as long as it’s good. The Colonel may have that secret recipe with 11 herbs and spices, but his chicken isn’t nearly as enjoyable as the much less original stuff purveyed by Popeye.

The Oriental Rhapsody runneth over with gorgeous melodies and flashy colors. From the mysterious watchman’s call of the horn to the tad-bit-sinister ballad of an old man to the raucous celebration of warriors returning from battle, this music has it all. It really is a shame that it doesn’t get performed more often than the never that it does now. It’s one of those works that I imagine people would really enjoy if they heard it, but would never go to see if it was on a season brochure. That’s sort of the point of this categorical exercise, I guess. Here’s a YouTube playlist of the fine Naxos recording featuring the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Igor Golovchin: Glazunov – Oriental Rhapsody ;

One thought on “Something cool you might have missed: Oriental Rhapsody by Alexander Glazunov

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