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Liebesfreud: Music

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908); Allegro in B flat Major (1899) from “The Fridays”

In his Chronicle of my Musical Life (a wonderful read, incidentally), Rimsky reflects on the period following immediately upon his appointment as Professor of Practical Composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (1871) and admits, ruefully, to having written “String Quartets stuffed with fugal passages”.
(Having come to the awful realization that his studies with Mily Balakirev—self-appointed father figure, spiritual guide, mentor, and moral exemplar to the group of self-consciously nationalistic musicians based in the Imperial capital—had taught him nothing, he embarked on a truly awe-inspiring course of self-instruction in all aspects of music that constitute a composer’s technical equipment.)
A little later, he mentions work on a quartet and a sextet and some of the contrapuntal accomplishments they contain, and then observes that “chamber music was not my field”.
Apparently, like Rachmaninoff, he needed space—vertical space, at least—in which to express himself and a glance at his catalogue confirms this; operas constitute the bulk of his enormous output.

In later years, his rare experiments in quartet-writing all had some connection with one Mitrofan Belaieff, who must have been quite a guy. Nowadays we would probably call Belaieff a “timber baron” or “lumber tycoon”, but what’s important is that he was rich and loved music.
Astonishingly, Belaieff used his wealth to express his love of music by, for instance, underwriting the Russian Symphony Concerts in St. Petersburg, and by establishing a publishing house for Russian composers—in Leipzig, so that they could benefit from international copyright agreements which excluded Russia.
He is credited with being a highly competent violist (oxymoron?), and his Friday evening quartet sessions were apparently glittering occasions in the lives of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia; occasions for hearing worthwhile accounts of the classical repertoire and for presenting whatever new works may recently have been penned by the composers who belonged to this circle.
Three of these—Borodin, Lyadov, and Glazounov—collaborated with Rimsky at least twice on full-length quartets in honor of Belaieff’s name-day (they would each write one movement) and sixteen additional contributions to the soirées (by the collaborators and by various others who have richly earned their neglect) were published—by Belaieff, of course—as “The Fridays”.

You can play through Volume One of this collection with increasing dismay—even the good composers sound half-hearted—swallow hard, open Volume Two, and find your feelings transformed by a radiantly lovely gift to the Romantic quartet literature: Rimsky’s Allegro. It is in “Sonata Form” as that term was understood by almost all composers after Schubert: a couple of conspicuously attractive, self-completing melodic paragraphs and some transitional activity provide Exposition and Recapitulation; in between there will be a less stable section based on fragments of those melodies (Development); and there will most likely be a more or less extended afterthought or leave-taking (Coda).
Haydn, no doubt, would have been puzzled by the notion that these structures paid him homage, but he wasn’t around to hear them, so that needn’t bother us unduly.
Two aspects of this quaint, 19th Century misconception, however, strike me very forcibly. One is how incredibly efficient “Sonata Form” is as a mechanism for organizing musical discourse even when it no longer emerges organically from the materials but is externally imposed on them. The other (not unrelated) is that when those melodic paragraphs are as heartfelt and poetically beautiful as they are, say, in Schumann (above all in Schumann!) and as they are here, what the composer thinks he’s writing and what we choose to call it are completely irrelevant: this is wonderful music.