Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev is one of those composers who are better known for the influence they had on their contemporaries than for their own output. Born in 1836 in Nizhny Novgorod, he was already an accomplished pianist when, in 1855, he met Mikhail Glinka, famous as the composer of the operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila. It was largely due to Glinka's encouragement that Balakirev determined on a musical career. Balakirev, by the force of his personality and example, became the driving force behind the Russian nationalist movement in St Petersburg in the 1860s. Sometimes inspired, often dogmatic and opinionated, he developed his idiosyncratic ideas about the ideal nature of Russian music and guided the progress of the group of young composers - Cui, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin - who were later dubbed the Kuchka ('the mighty handful') by the influential critic Stasov. Many of the most striking achievements of these composers can be traced to techniques first developed by Balakirev.
In addition to his teaching, moral encouragement and the example of his own compositions (often unfinished and heard at the piano only as 'works in progress'), Balakirev made an enormous contribution to Russian musical life as a pianist, conductor and administrator. In the early 1870s, however, he suffered some sort of psychological crisis which was compounded by financial pressures and musical discouragement. He withdrew completely from musical life and worked for some years as a railway official. When he gradually returned to music he was a changed man: misanthropic, a political reactionary and a gloomy and bigoted upholder of extreme religious orthodoxy. In his later years he suffered isolation and neglect. His former associates had either died (Musorgsky in 1881, Borodin in 1887) or, like the liberal Rimsky-Korsakov and Stasov, now found dealings with him impossible.
For all his brilliance, Balakirev was a slow and painstaking composer and many of his major works were completed only several years after they had been begun. Among the most important are the First Symphony (begun in 1864 but completed only in 1898), the Second Symphony (1900-08), the symphonic poem Tamar (c1867-82), Islamey (1869), a Piano Sonata (1900-05, but incorporating material from the 1850s) and a Piano Concerto begun in 1861 and completed by his pupil Lyapunov after Balakirev's death in 1910.
Profile © Andew Huth