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Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Glazunov

August 10, 1865 – March 21, 1936
Фотограф Альфред Федецкий. Портрет русского композитора и дирижёра Александра Константиновича Глазунова. Фотография. Харьков. 1899г Portrait photo of Aleksandr Glazunov taken by Alfred Fedetsky. 1899, Kharkov, Ukraine

Aleksandr Glazunov was a Russian composer, professor and rector of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His works of the late Russian Romantic period reconciled nationalism and cosmopolitanism in Russian music.

Child musical prodigy

Glazunov was born into a wealthy merchant family - his father was a prominent publisher and book trader in St. Petersburg. Glazunov’s mother was a good pianist and had a major influence on Aleksandr’s music education. She hired the best piano teachers for her son. To her great satisfaction, Glazunov was an eager student and as early as 13 he revealed a great talent for composition. In 1879 he met Mily Balakirev, one of the founders of the Russian nationalist school of composers known as The Five or The Mighty Handful.

Impressed by Glazunov’s talent, Balakirev recommended him to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a composer and a member of The Five. Rimsky-Korsakov took it upon himself to teach Glazunov the theory of composition, harmony and instrumental accompaniment. Glazunov was a bright student and was able to cover the whole Conservatory program in just a year and a half.

Glazunov composed his first symphony at the age of 16, which was first played at a free school concert. It was also later performed at the Moscow Exhibition, conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov. Glazunov’s symphony was very well received and was followed by other works, which were just as fine as his first piece.

Steps to success

Glazunov’s life and career is rather an exception to the “standard” tough lives of composers, living in poverty, working hard amidst criticism and receiving fame very late in life, or in many cases only after death. Glazunov had a fairly easy way to success – he never experienced financial hardships, his talent was recognized at an early age and his works were performed shortly after he finished writing them. He had the luxury of hearing his sheet music performed by the orchestra and was able to compare the music he envisioned when he composed it to how it sounded when played by instruments. This undoubtedly helped him mature as composer in a short time.

Glazunov was very lucky to meet Mitrofan Belyaev, a timber magnate and lover of music. Belyaev moved to St. Petersburg at the beginning of the 1880s and became friends with many musicians and members of The Five. His love of music brought him as far as sponsoring Russian composers and their concerts. He especially grew to love Glazunov and became his patron. In 1884, he organized a special closed concert of Glazunov’s works, directed by Rimsky-Korsakov. This was the beginning of a regular event called “Russian Symphony Concerts,” which helped bring young Russian composers to the attention of the public. Belyaev also got exclusive rights to publish all of Glazunov’s sheet music.

In 1884 Belyaev helped Glazunov and his friends to go to Weimar, where Glazunov met Franz Liszt, one of his long time influences. In 1889 Belyaev organized two concerts for Glazunov in Paris during the World Exhibition.

The prime of productiveness

Glazunov’s career blossomed to its peak during the mid nineties of the 19th century. He created the Fourth, the Fifth and the Sixth Symphonies. He also composed three ballets, Les ruses d'amour, The Seasons, and Raymonda, his most famous. The previously written Stenka Razin theme was turned into a ballet.

By the end of the nineties he had established himself as an instrumental composer and worked with great inspiration. He followed Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s approach in using music to express the feelings of his heroes, rather than strictly a background to choreography. In the 19th century Russia had two schools of symphony music – Moscow, with its cosmopolitism followed by Tchaikovsky, and St. Petersburg, which was more academic.

The St. Petersburg school was established by Mikhail Glinka and was adhered to by the composers of The Five. Although Glazunov remained a conservative composer with more of an academic style of music, his works were able to bridge the two traditions, putting an end to the continuous battle.

Glazunov also revealed another talent - an extraordinary memory - when he finished Aleksandr Borodin’s great opera Prince Igor. Borodin worked on it for twenty years, but died without having finished it. Together with Rimsky-Korsakov Glazunov tried to complete the opera in Borodin’s style. Borodin had not left as much as a sketch of what he had intended, but he had played his ideas to Glazunov, who restored the music from memory. Glazunov also learned to skillfully play the violin, the cello and the woodwinds.

St. Petersburg Conservatory

Right before the turn of the century in 1899 Glazunov became a professor of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The 20th century was witnessing an upheaval due to the political crisis. It spilled into the February Revolution of 1905, which demanded a constitutional monarchy but was severely suppressed. Following these events, the government tied to curb liberalism in every way, even in music schools.

Glazunov with Fedor Chaliapin and Vladimir Stasov Glazunov with Fedor Chaliapin and Vladimir Stasov

Rimsky-Korsakov was fired from the Conservatory for his liberal views and Glazunov also left the Conservatory in support of his colleague. However, positive changes came later that year - after the “October Manifesto” the Conservatory was granted new rights, which meant it was free to elect its own management and professors. Glazunov was invited back and became the first elected director of the Conservatory.

His sensitivity and kindness made him a legend among students and staff. He showed great care for the students. He thought it was necessary to attend all examinations. In a month he listened to 771 auditions and wrote a personal report about each student. Glazunov was able to spot musically talented people. He admitted students solely for their talent, never looking at their social status or financial wellbeing. He often spent his own salary to help the poorer students. To one such student, Dmitry Shostakovich, Glazunov provided very generous help, which allowed him to continue his studies. If it hadn’t been for Glazunov, the 20th century may have never received one of the greatest composers of its time. Besides teaching responsibilities, Glazunov now had to handle the maintenance issues as well. He joked that he had to master plumbing pipes in order to properly run the Conservatory.

In 1907 Russia and Europe honored Glazunov on the 25th anniversary of his music career. Both Oxford and Cambridge granted him the title of Honorary Doctor of Music. Despite his great success, Glazunov didn’t have a personal life. He was in his forties and still single, living with his mother. Besides that, he apparently had a destructive addiction to alcohol, which was taking a great toll on his health.

Later, when the Bolsheviks banned alcohol, Glazunov had a particularly hard time. There were rumors that Dmitry Shostakovich, who was still studying at the Conservatory, helped Glazunov obtain alcohol. Glazunov was a great teacher though, according to Shostakovich. He was able to remember every student’s name, compositions and career. Shostakovich remained a life-long admirer of Glazunov.

Troubled times after the 1917 Revolution

The Revolution of 1917 brought great change to Russia. For the Communists music was simply another tool for propaganda. The new demands at the Conservatory were very hard on Glazunov, who had to balance calls for propaganda and his real life work. However, his diplomatic skills helped him keep his post as director and he maintained ties with the new minister of education.

His diplomacy paid off in full in 1918 when Vladimir Lenin signed a decree that granted the Conservatory the status of a higher education institution. Four years later Glazunov was also awarded the title of People’s Artist of the Republic – the height of an artist’s career in the Soviet Union.

The fact that the Bolsheviks so highly favored Glazunov can perhaps be explained by the high profits they were expecting to gain from his cooperation. A musician with world fame, who spoke several foreign languages, a Doctor of Music from Oxford and Cambridge would be a cherry on the cake at different propaganda events. Glazunov could not openly protest, and was tremendously weighed down by that. Looking at pictures of Glazunov during those times one can easily notice his sad and depressed state.

The wind of change had blown into the Conservatory too. The proletariat regime was trying to build the world from scratch while discarding old values and old-school Glazunov, who personally knew the classics of world music, did not fit in the new system. Although he was still a favorite among students, the newly appointed professors never missed an opportunity to clash with him or to point out his outdated views and approaches. The musician, whose creative powers could not co-exist with a hardened heart, suffered tremendously and turned even more to alcohol.


Glazunov received many invitations from abroad to perform and he took the opportunity to get out of Russia and travel through Europe and the United States. He was still as popular as ever overseas – each concert reviving the great successes of former years.

Portrait of the composer Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov. Portrait of Alexander Glazunov.

In 1928 he was invited to take part in as a jury member at the International Shubert contest in Vienna. Traveling with him was Olga Gavrilova, his companion for some time who he finally married a year later at the age of 64. After the contest, Glazunov went for treatment at a clinic in Germany. It was impossible for doctors to undo the years of damage Glazunov had caused to his health and the treatment was unsuccessful.

It was time to return to Russia, but Glazunov was too ill to travel. The thought of going back to the continuous confrontations and talks about adapting to the Soviet regime at the Conservatory also added pressure. Glazunov decided to remain in Europe and emigrate from the Soviet Union. When his health got better, Glazunov moved to France and settled in Paris. But the diplomatic Glazunov didn’t break ties with his homeland; he explained his reason for leaving was his poor health and he maintained a close connection with the Conservatory.

Although Glazunov was old and ill, his immigration to Europe opened a new and exciting chapter in his life, albeit the final chapter. The reviving of his spirits helped his physical revival as well – he traveled extensively throughout Europe giving concerts in France, Portugal and Spain. He traveled to London to complete the first electrical recording of The Seasons and Carnival. Living in the West, Glazunov became infatuated with jazz and in 1934 he wrote his Saxophone Concerto. He was also invited to the United States where he visited New York, Detroit and Chicago. He was very well received everywhere.

The US trip, however, turned sour at the end. He became so ill, he could not keep his engagements, which greatly disappointed the business minded Americans. His adopted daughter later wrote in her memoirs that they were very rude to him and withheld most of the money they had promised him for the tour.

Last years and legacy

The success of Glazunov the composer could not match the success of Glazunov the teacher. By this time modernism had swept through the world of music in the West and conservative Glazunov did not wish to understand nor accept it. His health was also deteriorating greatly, keeping him trapped at home.

During the last years of his life, Glazunov and his wife Olga lived in an apartment near the Bois de Boulogne, which soothed his ailing body and soul. He also tried to maintain his social life and meetings with the great Russian musicians visiting Europe. Glazunov died on March 21, 1936 in Paris at the age of 71. The Concerto in E flat major for alto saxophone and string orchestra was written by Aleksandr Glazunov in 1934. The piece lasts about eighteen minutes and is played without pause...

His last will was to be buried back home – and in 1972 his remains were brought to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and were put to rest in the Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral.

Glazunov left some 200 compositions of endowed, individualistic music. His compositions have a distinct Russian character – melodious and romantic. Glazunov had the rare honor of becoming immensely popular and recognized both as a composer and teacher during his lifetime. 

Written by Olga Prodan, RT

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