Balakirev employs a large orchestra including cor anglais, tuba, two harps and a battery of percussion. The introduction, Andante maestoso, depicts a deep gorge in the Caucasus mountains, in which the River Terek ‘roars in the gloom’. In an ancient tower on a ‘dark crag’ lived the Princess Tamara, ‘beautiful as an angel from heaven, evil and cunning as a demon’. A rapidly moving ‘agitato’ Allegro constitutes the principal part of the work. After initial Circassian dance-like material, Tamara herself is portrayed by two themes, one sinuously and chromatically turning in upon itself, with oriental and pagan effect, and the other (with harp accompaniment) luscious and voluptuous, for she lures male passers-by to spend the night with her. After considerable development of these themes, by which time a hapless traveller has entered the castle and been enticed onto Tamara’s couch, the revelries begin, Vivace. ‘Then fingers were warmly interlaced, lips fell upon lips, and strange savage sounds the whole night through, echoed to the vaults.’ As dawn approaches, at the most frenzied climax of all with the full orchestra and a final overpowering stroke of the tam-tam, her lover is hurled from the battlements, the introductory material returns, and the ‘rushing and tumbling waves’ of the River Terek ‘seem to weep’ as the silent corpse swirls past in their current. A suspicion of Tamara’s second, voluptuous, theme is heard as there is ‘at the window a flutter of white, a wafted whisper of “Farewell”’. The music gradually subsides into the depths whence it sprang, as the fairy-tale picture fades into the distance.
Except for Borodin’s Polovstian Dances, no other nineteenth-century Russian music can be compared with Tamara for exotic savagery and Romantic lusciousness; Sheherazade, so indebted to it, while attractive in many ways, is pallid by comparison. And Balakirev in his music has achieved a perfect match with the out-and-out Romanticism of the poem.
from notes by Edward Garden © 1998