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BALAKIREV (1837 - 1910)


Mily Balakirev was the self-appointed leader of the Mighty Five or Handful, a group of Russian nationalist composers from the second half of the 19th century, including CÚsar Cui, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Balakirev was inspired to write the piece after a trip to the Caucasus, as he relates in a letter:

" . . . the majestic beauty of luxuriant nature there and the beauty of the inhabitants that harmonizes with it -all these things together made a deep impression on me . . . Since I interested myself in the vocal music there, I made the acquaintance of a Circassian prince, who frequently came to me and played folk tunes on his instrument, that was something like a violin. One of them, called Islamey, a dance-tune, pleased me extraordinarily and . . . I began to arrange it for the piano. The second theme was communicated to me in Moscow by an Armenian actor, who came from the Crimea and is, as he assured me, well known among the Crimean Tatars".

The piece was composed in the course of one month, in stark contrast to Balakirev's usual habit of sometimes taking years to complete a work. It is divided into three distinct parts, an opening which introduces the main theme, a middle that introduces an entirely new theme (both described in the above quote), and a third which returns to the main theme.

The many existing editions have numerous easier alternatives to passages, because of its immense difficulty. Its technical difficulty made it a favorite with virtuosi such as Nikolai Rubinstein (who premiered the piece) and Franz Liszt. Balakirev, considered a virtuoso pianist in his time, once admitted that there were passages in the piece that he himself could not play.

Despite some dismissal that the work is merely a showpiece, Islamey has had a lasting impact on piano solo music; Ravel remarked to a friend that his goal in writing "Gaspard de la nuit" was to compose a piece that was "more difficult than Balakirev's Islamey." Alexander Borodin included quotations from the piece in his opera Prince Igor, while Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov did the same in Scheherazade.

Recent musicological work has shown that the melodies that Balakirev preserved in this work are still present in folk music in the former USSR.