Monday 18 June 2018

Back in the USSR - a tale of two composers

Reinhold Glière
Reinhold Glière

George Hamilton

Back in 2012, when football's European Championship was straddling Poland and Ukraine, my itinerary took me to the eastern city of Donetsk. Not for the first time, I might add, but there was still an element of surprise on touchdown.

The old Soviet-style aerodrome had been transformed into the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport complete with a huge terminal, all bright neon, shiny steel and sparkling glass. Sadly, the airport is no more, destroyed in the unrest in the region.

I had no idea that the composer was from around those parts, but a little digging disclosed that he came from Sontsovka, a country village in the region, which got its name from the local aristocrat, Dmitri Sontsov. Sergey's father managed his estates.

(It's interesting to note that after the revolution in 1917, the village's name was changed to Krasnoye, which happens to be Russian for red. That's its name to this very day.)

Prokofiev's mother was a pianist. She gave him his first lessons and identified his prodigious talent. So impressed was the director of the Moscow conservatory when he was taken for an audition that he put the family in touch with Reinhold Glière.

Glière was one of the brightest stars on the music scene at the time. He came down from Moscow to spend the summer of 1902 teaching the 11-year-old. It went so well, Glière returned to Sontsovka the following year.

Prokofiev would go on to become a prolific composer - seven symphonies, ballet music, concertos for piano, cello and violin, and film scores, too - a much more recognisable name than his one-time teacher.

But It was Glière - not Prokofiev - who started me off on this rumination, for it's to his home city of Kiev that the Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Liverpool has brought me.

Reinhold Glier was born in 1875, the son of a German father and a Polish mother. He adopted the unusual spelling as a stage name, which no doubt added to his allure and mystique. One unintended effect was to give rise to the myth that he was of Belgian descent.

Sergey Prokofiev wasn't his only pupil of note. Aram Khachaturian was another who benefited from the guidance of a man who would become head of the fledgling conservatory in Kiev.

In this post, he became a key figure in the promotion of Soviet musical culture. His reward was a professorship in Moscow.

There were none of the brushes with authority that bedevilled Shostakovich and, indeed, Prokofiev, too. Of course, any composer who'd come up with a piece celebrating 'Twenty-Five Years of the Red Army', or a 'Solemn Overture for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution' would be unlikely to fall foul of the Party.

But for all of that, there is an enduring appeal right across the spectrum of what he wrote - music using Russian themes, celebrating Russian tradition.

In his gloriously evocative 'Harp Concerto' - written in 1938, the first such work by a Russian composer - there are sumptuous echoes of Tchaikovsky.

Like the great Romantic, Glière was also successful in the field of ballet, though his Red Poppy (later renamed The Red Flower to avoid any narcotic connections) had a revolutionary theme. Its Russian Sailor's Dance is probably his best-known piece.

A mighty symphony - his third - stands as the monument to Reinhold Glière's creativity. Based on a medieval epic, it's a musical recreation of the legend of Ilya Muromets, the peasant knight who drove the Tatar invaders from the kingdom of Kiev.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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