Written in 1857/8, the Overture on Three Russian Themes
was the first purely orchestral work of Balakirev to be based on Russian folksongs. It is a remarkable composition for a young man in his early twenties. An elegantly treated slow folksong, ‘The silver birch’, acts as an introduction and epilogue, sandwiching an Allegro moderato in sonata form. The first subject of this, ‘In the fields stands a birch tree’, in B minor, is the folksong which was to such an extent to dominate the finale of the fourth symphony of Tchaikovsky who, however, destroyed its essentially three-minim structure by inserting an extra minim, rendering the theme tiresomely four-square. Balakirev’s treatment is much more convincing. The music modulates to the relative major key of D for the contrasting second subject, ‘There was at the feast’, which was to be used by Stravinsky in his ballet Petrushka
. Thus, this overture had important repercussions in Russian music which could not have been foreseen at the time of its first performance in St Petersburg at a University concert in early January, 1859. Nor was it appreciated then that it is not a mere pot-pourri of folk themes, but the earliest example of the successful reconciliation of Russian folk materials with sonata structure, something which Balakirev’s predecessor Glinka had never achieved.
from notes by Edward Garden © 1998