Famed dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev wrote to Russian composer Anatoly Liadov in 1909 about the possibility of writing a score for a ballet based on a folk-influenced scenario involving the mythical Firebird and the evil magician Koschei.
It is not known whether Liadov (1855-1914) failed to accept the commission or was unable to fulfill it, but either way, the project later went to Igor Stravinsky, and the resulting ballet — The Firebird — catapulted the then-unknown composer to international fame.
This footnote is how Anatoly Liadov has ignobly come to be remembered in music history. “That will hound his legacy forever,” said Francis Maes, a professor in the department of art history, musicology and theater studies at Ghent University in Belgium. He also is the author of A History of Russian Music, which was published in the United States in 2002.
But if Liadov never attained the success of Stravinsky, he was nonetheless a noted teacher, conductor and composer. Several of his orchestral works continue to be performed, including arguably his most famous, The Enchanted Lake (Volshebnoye ozero), a tone poem or fable-tableau, as he called it, which had its premiere in 1909. Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform the piece, along with the Suite from The Firebird in concerts Sept. 21-22 and 26.
“How picturesque it is,” the composer wrote to a friend about The Enchanted Lake, “how clear, the multitude of stars hovering over the mysteries of the deep. But above all, no entreaties and no complaints; only nature — cold, malevolent and fantastic as a fairy tale. One has to feel the change of the colors, the chiaroscuro, the incessantly changeable stillness and seeming immobility.”
Maes points out, “He called himself a ‘pianissimo composer’ and that’s very clear from that music.” Liadov was enthralled with poetry, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the writings of Belgian poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, whose symbolist play "Pelléas et Mélisande" became the source for Debussy’s opera by the same name.
“How picturesque it is, how clear, the multitude of stars hovering over the mysteries of the deep. One has to feel the change of the colors, the chiaroscuro, the incessantly changeable stillness and seeming immobility.” — Anatoly Liadov on his Enchanted Lake
It’s suggested but not known for sure that he based The Enchanted Lake on a painting by Russian landscape painter Arseny Meshchersky. “In any case, he was trying to capture the atmospheric quality of a mountain lake, and also give the impression of the stillness, the mystery,” Maes said.
It’s possible that some of the music for this work derives from Liadov’s unfinished opera, Zoryushka, and Maes hears echoes of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, with its mix of the natural and supernatural. Though there is no concrete evidence of a connection to the latter, The Enchanted Lake debuted just two years after the opera, and the musicologist is convinced that Rimsky-Korsakov’s Wagnerian-tinged musical palette influenced Liadov’s approach to depicting nature.
One of the most memorable aspects of the work is the orchestration, which Maes described as very refined and original. “It brings the piece alive,” he said. At the same time, part of the piece’s continuing appeal comes from fulfilling audience expectations past and present of the fantastical in Russian music, à la Glinka, Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov.
When Stravinsky wrote The Firebird, which was intended to be the first true Russian ballet, he was inspired by the Mighty Handful — a group of largely self-taught composers who banded together in the 1860s: César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. They sought to create a distinctly Russian school of classical music, drawing on Orientalism and the country’s folk traditions. “In fact, the music of The Firebird was not so original,” Maes said. “It’s absolutely great. It’s very effective. But it’s still very much based on the models of the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, which Stravinsky transposed to the ballet.”
The academic and nationalistic strains eventually came together when Rimsky-Korsakov at age 27 became a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, after undergoing remedial self-training at home to prepare himself for his classes. Liadov was one his students and went on to lead theory and counterpoint classes at the conservatory and ultimately taught composition upon the death of his mentor. His long list of students included Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Myaskovsky, one of two Russian composers championed by Frederick Stock, then CSO music director.
Liadov’s place as a composer "was rather modest,” Maes said. The composer wrote small piano works but seldom ventured into the larger forms. “He was a miniaturist, and the scores that we love by his hand are precisely that," he said. "That was his great strength.”
Rimsky-Korsakov once said the music in his Capriccio espagnol was not about sound, but color. “And Enchanted Lake is in that same vein,” Maes said. “It’s also a piece of color. And it’s so beautiful in the way that he worked it out that its legacy in concert culture is quite secure. People will always want to hear this.”
"The Mountain Lake," a series of paintings by Arseny Meshchersky, supposedly inspired Anatoly Liadov to create his most famous work, the tone poem "The Enchanted Lake."