Born in Kiev on January 11, 1875, Reinhold Glière claimed to be of Belgian-Jewish descent, though the Belgian part has been challenged (he was born Reyngol'd Moritsevich Glier). The son of an instrument maker, he played violin and studied with Arensky, Taneyev, and Ippolitov-Ivanov at the Moscow Conservatory. His own music proved to be strongly nationalistic. He collected folk melodies throughout Europe and Asia and often chose distinctly Russian subjects for his music. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the remarkably programmatic Symphony No. 3 "Il'ya Muromets."
Glière was director of the Kiev Conservatory in 1914-20 (having already been a professor of composition there) and then joined the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory until 1941. His students at various times included Miaskovsky, Khachaturian, and Prokofiev. He also held some official positions, including Chairman of the organizing committee of the Union of Soviet Composers (1938-48). After the Revolution, he composed no more symphonies, and concentrated on Soviet-approved ballets and operas (often dealing with folk subjects), avoiding the sort of official censure dealt out to Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others. He died in Moscow on June 23, 1956, having remained active and respected to the end.
Like many of the Russian nationalist composers, Glière was not entirely comfortable with the standard form of the symphony, but the writing in his four-movement Third, finished in 1911 and premiered the next year, is quite evocative, and structurally he seems somewhat influenced by Liszt's tone-poem symphonies. Whether because of the Third's length or perceived weaknesses in its construction, it was long heard only in severely cut versions, but in recent years the entire work has finally become accepted.
Il'ya Muromets is a rather odd Russian folk hero. Glière's score explicitly lays out the legends and the program his symphony follows: Il'ya Muromets was the son of a peasant and had been motionless for 30 (or 33 -- sources differ) years. Two gods ordered him to get out of his chair and become a hero, so he acquired a horse and went in search of the great hero Svyagotor. Flying their horses around, they "divert[ed] themselves with heroic games" until Svyagotor became trapped in a huge coffin and died, whereupon his powers were transferred to Il'ya Muromets. He went on to kill the evil and much-feared Solovei the Brigand and defeated the pagan army of Batygha the Wicked by killing the giant Oudalaya Polyenitsa. But ultimately Il'ya Muromets returned to his original motionless state after he and his men were turned to stone fleeing magical warriors who doubled in number each time they were struck, quickly becoming an army.
This turn of events allows Glière to give his score a cyclic ending in which the opening music returns. There are other themes repeated both within and across different movements, helping to unify this vast work. But it's the varied orchestration (whether shimmering or colorfully bold), the profusion of compelling melodies, and the intricately layered parts which make the work so attractive. Few programmatic symphonies are so vividly depictional, so magically atmospheric.
"Il'ya Muromets" is a difficult work to pull off. Its first advocate on recordings, in 1940, was Leopold Stokowski, who returned to it in 1957. But he greatly abbreviated the piece, even moreso in '57, so even though it sounds magical, it's not a first recommendation. The first conductor to record the work in its entirety was Hermann Scherchen in 1952 (consider that his version is 79 minutes, while Stokowski in '57 -- supposedly in collaboration with Glière -- whittled it down to 38 minutes!). There is a notoriously leisurely recording by Harold Farberman that rambles for 92 minutes, though it's an affectionate and colorful reading that is worth acquiring by devotees of this work. But the supreme version dates from 1991. Leading the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra of Bratislava, Donald Johanos delivers a 76-minute thrill-ride. Fortunately, reissued on Naxos, it's a budget release available for around $7-8. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer. He has just finished recording his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.