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Revival! The forgotten works of Anatoly Lyadov

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

This Sunday, Nov. 9, CBC Radio 2’s In Concert is launching a new segment called The Revival Hour. Each week, In Concert will dig up an unjustly forgotten composer from the sands of time and devote the final segment of the show to that composer’s music. This week, it’s the perennially passed-over Russian composer Anatoly Lyadov.

Fire up the playlist at the bottom of the page, and read on to find out why Lyadov’s overlooked oeuvre should be your new obsession.

Who was Anatoly Lyadov?

Lyadov is best known as a minor character in the life stories of many better-known composers. He was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, a teacher of Prokofiev, a casual acquaintance of Tchaikovsky and an early champion of Alexander Glazunov. It’s probably telling that his Wikipedia page is largely cobbled together from scraps of biographies and memoirs of other composers.

But, Lyadov stands up in his own right, at least as an interesting aside in music history. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1855 to a family of talented but somewhat feckless musicians, and he kind of continued along that path for most of his life. When he was studying composition as a young man at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he was expelled for not bothering to show up to his classes.

Later in life, Lyadov developed a bad habit of procrastinating that came to a head when he had to turn over a lucrative ballet commission to the young Igor Stravinsky, who took the opportunity to write his breakout work, The Firebird. (Note: This story may not be entirely true, but that doesn’t keep it from being awesome.)

Lyadov’s poor work ethic didn’t stop him from writing some fantastic music, in the vein of Rimsky-Korsakov and Modest Mussorgsky. He had no truck with the newfangled innovations of crazy avant-gardists like Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, but his skill in writing ultra-traditional music ensured that his fellow musicians loved him anyway.

Why have I never heard of him?

It’s hard to say why Lyadov’s music didn’t catch on like some of his peers’ did. It may have something to do with his tendency to avoid the “big” genres. He never wrote a symphony, or an opera, or even a ballet score. A quick scan of his complete works reveals a few short pieces for orchestra, some songs, a long list of solo piano pieces — and that’s pretty much it. It’s a list full of unassuming miniatures and trifles: hardly the work of an artist with an eye on posterity.

But, maybe that’s part of Lyadov’s charm. His best works are perfectly crafted, self-contained gems. Not everything has to be a Mahler symphony.

Why should I check him out?

If you’re into music like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, you need Lyadov in your life. His music falls squarely into that Russian tradition of lush, evocative, accessible music that tells a great story and lets you get on with your day.

And also, for any music history buffs out there, Lyadov is sort of the missing link in the chain of Russian music. He’s the guy that connects Rimsky-Korsakov’s generation of composers with Prokofiev’s.

1. The Enchanted Lake

Possibly Lyadov’s most famous piece, this tone poem is one of three Russian folklore-inspired pieces for orchestra that Lyadov wrote in the early years of the 20th century. The other two, Baba Yaga and Kikimora, are worth a listen as well. But, this “fairy tale scene,” as Lyadov called it, is mood music par excellence.

2. Prelude in B-flat minor

Sometimes Lyadov is a musical dead ringer for Chopin. Especially in this prelude. It’s like Lyadov tied Chopin’s famous E minor prelude in knots and transposed it up a tritone.

3. Dance of the Amazon

So far, we’ve focussed mostly on Lyadov’s subtler side. Let’s take a look at what he could do in a more rambunctious mood. The Dance of the Amazon recalls some of the more bombastic moments in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnole.

4. Barcarolle

And, now we’re back in Chopin mode. It wouldn’t be fair to accuse Lyadov of aping Chopin’s own Barcarolle, since both of them are based on a fairly distinctive model: the rowing songs sung by gondoliers in Venice. Still, if you like the Chopin, you’ll probably enjoy this, too.

5. Skorbnaya Pesn’

This is the last orchestra piece that Lyadov ever wrote. Lyadov called it a threnody, a piece composed in memory of a deceased loved one.

6. Four Pieces

These (extra-miniature) piano miniatures, also composed late in Lyadov’s life, show him in a bit more of an adventurous mood. The four pieces, in order, are subtitled “Grimace,” “Darkness,” “Temptation,” and “Reminiscence.”