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Anatol Liadov

born: 11 May 1855
died: 28 August 1914
country: Russia

'Liadov is a composer whom everybody knows by name, and of whom everybody knows a piece or two. There, as a rule, the matter ends.’ These are the opening sentences of Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi’s short ‘life’ of Liadov published in 1936 and they succinctly summarize the neglect Liadov suffered after his death in 1914. If that was the situation in 1936, it certainly has not got better. How many people today know his name? And of those who do, how many know any of his works?

Anatol Konstantinovich Liadov, in common with most of his musical contemporaries, studied the piano. Though he remained throughout his life an accomplished pianist, his musical studies, both as a performer and a composer, can perhaps be best described as haphazard. He was born on 11 May 1855 in St Petersburg. His father, Konstantin Nikolayevich Liadov, was the conductor of the Russian Opera at the Mariinsky Theatre and regarded as one of Russia’s finest musicians. With three uncles who were also professional musicians, Anatol would appear to have had the perfect musical start in life; this was unfortunately far from the case.

Anatol’s mother died while he was still a young child. His father proved to be a poor role model, but one who had a lasting influence.

Konstantin Liadov died on 7 December 1868 when Anatol was just thirteen years old. His early upbringing, without supervision or structure, had left its mark and when he finally entered the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1870 he proved unable to apply himself to study. He was expelled from his class in 1876 for failing to attend regularly.

Despite his poor record as a student, Liadov was widely admired by the composers of his day. In the summer of 1873 Mussorgsky wrote to the influential writer and critic Stasov: ‘A new talent has appeared in our midst, a genuine, thoroughly original, thoroughly Russian talent … He is bright and unaffected, he has boldness and power. Cui, Borodin and my humble self are delighted with him … As for his own scribblings, well, you will judge for yourself. Korsakov has been holding forth on them quite a lot.’

The legacy of his wretched childhood was such that despite the comfortable circumstances of his later life he still complained that the world was ‘tedious, disappointing, trying, purposeless, terrible’.

In 1905, on the occasion of Liadov’s fiftieth birthday, the Russian critic Karatyghin published an essay, observing sadly: ‘He has every conceivable gift: a marvellous technique, originality, a genuine poetic fancy, an abundance of rare humour … unerring taste, great intelligence: and all he gives us, year in year out, is about ten pages of music, or even less. This is a mortal sin against Apollo who endowed him so lavishly. He realizes this himself, I think.’

That Liadov failed to complete any large-scale projects undoubtedly overshadowed his other, not inconsiderable, achievements. He was a highly successful conductor and in the 1890s frequently took charge of Imperial Russian Music Society concerts.

Liadov’s largest published body of work is for the piano. He worked on his piano pieces like a jeweller—constantly polishing and refining them. If he was slow in starting a composition, he was even slower completing it and consequently only a few of these pieces last longer than five minutes (the majority considerably less). His two most substantial piano works are the Variations on a Polish folk theme, Op 51 (1901), and the Variations on a theme by Glinka, Op 35 (1894). For the most part the remainder of Liadov’s piano music is a succession of tiny preludes, mazurkas, waltzes and other typical salon pieces. Though often small in scale, each piece is immaculately finished. Their emotional range may sometimes appear restricted, yet Liadov’s art creates an elegant sound-world which is both strangely fascinating and genuinely moving.

For the last three years of his life Liadov suffered from ill health. Liadov continued to speak of his planned projects, including a final section to his tone poem Iz Apokalipsisa, Op 66 (‘From the Apocalypse’), and an orchestral work on the theme of a Russian legend. Not surprisingly, none of these projects was ever completed, if ever started. He died at Polïnovka, his country estate, on 28 August 1914, shortly after the outbreak of war.

from notes by Stephen Coombs ©


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