Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov (1865 - 1936) was a true Russian Romantic who lived through the first of Russia's great upheavals in the 20th century. He quickly fell out of fashion while a younger generation of composers he had helped to nurture - among them Prokofiev and Shostakovich - came to prominence. Yet now we value his beautifully finished, well-proportioned symphonies, divorced from the times in which they were written. He was certainly not a composer who pushed forward the boundaries of musical knowledge, but the undeniable robustness and sense of well-being behind so many of his earlier works still endears them to listeners.
For the first half of his life, at least, Glazunov seemed born under a lucky star. The child of prosperous parents - his father was a book publisher - he showed strong musical talents from the start, but his compositional skill took wing in his early teens when Rimsky-Korsakov took him on as a private pupil. The older composers described his progress in his memoirs as "hourly, not daily", and memorably described the first performance of the 16-year-old Glazunov's First Symphony on March 29, 1882: "the audience was astonished when the composer stepped forward dressed in his college uniform in response to calls for him". A crucial sponsor at this time was that generous patron of the arts Mitrofan Belyayev, who undertook to publish his new compositions and in 1884 took him on a trip to western Europe, where he met Liszt in Weimar. The circle of composers and performers gathered around their patron, which became known as the "Belyayev Circle", took the cause of Russian music one step further, and Glazunov was very much its young lion.
In addition to his valuable work on the completion of Borodin's Prince Igor following Borodin's death in 1887, Glazunov continued to pursue the symphonic line, and following a brief creative crisis in 1890-1, produced three symphonies that decade which reflect his wholesome, cheerful and fundamentally conservative outlook. The Fourth weaves its thematic material together skilfully in a three-movement form full of fantasy; its successors are experiments in the grand style tempered by sequences of great individuality. He also showed his skill as Tchaikovsky's natural successor with the ballet scores Raymonda (1896) and The Seasons (1899). As a conductor he was less assured, and legend has ascribed him a certain notoriety at the premiere of Rachmaninov's First Symphony in 1897 when his poor (and allegedly drunken) handling of the orchestra contributed to the work's disastrous reception.
In 1899, Glazunov was appointed professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory, resigning in 1905 as part of a widespread protest; the students had gone on strike in sympathy with the victims of the January massacre in Palace Square, director Rimsky-Korsakov had shown his solidarity for them and had promptly been dismissed by the government authorities. At the end of the year, the liberals' demands were met and Glazunov returned to work - this time as the elected Director of the Conservatory, a post he retained for the next quarter of a century.
As he stood his ground on behalf of the institution throughout the upheavals of 1917 and its aftermath, Glazunov's creative output dwindled. The Eighth Symphony of 1906 was the last he completed, and although his later works include such piquant oddities as the Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra, his music was now considered an irrelevance, and he produced nothing of major stature. Shostakovich was among the grateful students at the Conservatory to recall his unstinting support during the uncertainties of the 1920s. The pressures of dealing with the Soviet regime, however, took their toll. After a number of extensive foreign tours he settled in Paris in 1932 with the wife he had so unexpectedly married a few years earlier, and died there in 1936. One of his last and most unexpected legacies was a recording of The Seasons he made in London in 1929; it has a spirit and precision that do much to redeem his infamous reputation as a conductor.
1865 Born 10 August in St Petersburg
1882 Hears his First Symphony performed for the first time, conducted by Balakirev
1885 Wealthy patron Mitrofan Belyayev takes him on a tour of western Europe
1891 Overcomes creative crisis to produce many of his finest works
1899 Appointed Professor of St Petersburg Conservatory
1905 Resigns conservatory post in solidarity with Rimsky-Korsakov; takes up Directorship at end of year
1922 Named People's Artist of the Soviet Republic
1928 Leaves the Soviet Union for the first of many extended trips to the west
1932 Settles in Paris
1936 Dies at Neuilly-sr-Seine, 21 March