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Alexander Glazunov: the most influential composer you may never have heard of

Alexander Glazunov was born in Russia in 1865. He grew up steeped in the late romantic tradition of Russian music. The music of Tchaikovski was a great influence on his compositional style. As a composer, he was a prodigy and completed his first symphony at the age of 16 and it was performed by a prominent Russian orchestra.

Unlike his Russian contemporaries, known as the Russian Five - Cui, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, and Rimsky-Korsakov who were autodidacts, he was well versed in all the elements of tradition Western composition in terms of counterpoint and harmony. Glazunov began studying the Russian style of music with Rimsky-Korsakov and eventually the two of them undertook the editing of the music of Mussorgsky and Borodin.

Glasunov composed music in almost every genre and was a brilliant orchestrator. Les Sylphides is a ballet based on Glasunov's orchestration of several of Chopin's piano works.

As head of a conservatory in St. Petersburg, Glasunov was the teacher and mentor of Shostakovitch. His teaching was based on fusing the Western tradition of harmony and counterpoint with Russian nationalist music, encouraging and influencing the music of a new generation of composers that included Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. He didn't particularly like the music of Stravinsky, but he listened to it over and over again until he understood it.

Glasunov left the conservatory and Russia in 1934 for Paris and died there in 1936.

Music history often concentrates on biographies and works, leaving out the contemporaneous perspective. Glasunov lived through a tumultuous time in history, particularly Russian history. As we are coping with a global pandemic that has been devastating to the music industry and musicians it might be good to remember that Glasunov and his contemporaries lived through the Russian Revolution, World War I and the global pandemic of Spanish influenza. The music continued, the composers kept composing, the musicians kept playing. Music survived.

This is Glasunov's string quartet Op. 1 No. 1, the first work of his published when he was 17 years old.

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