1866: Balakirev: Symphony No.1 in C Major, age 30

Igor Golovschin/Russian State Symphony

  1. Largo – Allegro vivo
  2. Scherzo. Vivo – Poco meno mosso – Tempo I
  3. Andante
  4. Finale. Allegro moderato


  • piccolo, three flutes (the third doubling piccolo), oboe, English horn, three clarinets, two bassoons
  • four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba
  • timpani, triangle, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, two harps
  • strings

Sketching began in 1864 but the first performance, with Balakirev himself conducting, did not take place until 1898. In 1949, Herbert von Karajan recorded it with the Philharmonia Orchestra. In December 1955, Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra made the first stereo recording in the U.K..

Symphony No 1 in C major was started in 1864 and, according to Rimsky-Korsakov in his autobiography, about one-third of the first movement had been written down in score by 1866. The rest of the work had been extemporized to his friends—Balakirev was a magnificent pianist. But the symphony was then laid aside and not taken up again until the early 1890s; it was finished by the end of 1897 and first performed the following year. It was begun, then, before Tchaikovsky had written any of his symphonies and not completed until after the death of Balakirev’s Moscow contemporary. But it shows no signs of its protracted conception and is one of the greatest nineteenth-century Russian symphonies.

The first movement, Allegro vivo, is preceded by an introductory Largo which contains the seeds of the whole movement, for both the first and second subjects of the Allegro are derived from it. While ostensibly in sonata form, the continuous development of the scintillating material is a feature of Balakirev’s style, and the mosaic patterns burgeon in all directions without adhering to strict formal rigidities, culminating in a final apotheosis in the guise of an augmentation of all the parts, accompanied by fresco-like diminutions of themselves.

The substantial Scherzo originally intended for this symphony was later included in Balakirev’s second symphony; because of the length of the other movements, the Scherzo here is much more pithy, ideally suited to its place in the scheme. An atmosphere of mystery surrounds the first subject, and the second, announced by the cor anglais—very prominently used throughout the symphony—twists and turns within itself in sinuous fashion. A central, slightly slower, trio section is tinged with bitter-sweetness.

The slow movement is a gorgeous poetic nocturne in D flat major, a rich key of which Balakirev was particularly fond. It only gradually unfolds itself, revealing ever new facets of the two principal subjects in the sonata-rondo structure, very unusual for a slow movement.

It breaks off in harp arpeggios which lead directly into the Finale, a superb symphonic study in rhythm based on three Russian folksongs. The first (‘Sharlatarla from Partarla’) was given to Balakirev by Rimsky-Korsakov, whose uncle Petr Petrovich had sung it to him as a boy. The second, starting with a reiterated note on the clarinet, had been sung to the composer, when he was travelling third class on the Finnish railway, by a blind beggar who accompanied himself on an old harp which was out of tune, afterwards passing round his hat. This virile tune has hardly any melody to speak of, but is an ideal vehicle for Balakirev’s overflowing vitality. The third folksong possesses rhythmic punch of an unusual nature: the main accent is on the fourth beat, and the rest of the tune seems to work away from this beat, an accent on the penultimate note of the phrase being the only other discernible stress. Its initial rhythmic bite is enhanced by the melody’s being allotted to the cellos in their upper register, only one of the masterstrokes of orchestration employed by Balakirev. The folksongs, sufficiently different to be easily distinguishable, are contrasted and combined in a kaleidesope of sound, bringing to an end a symphony which is full of subtle touches and profound inventiveness.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top