Who Is Kalinnikov?

by L. C. Harnsberger

On May 19th, 2019, the La Mirada Symphony will be playing “Symphony No. 1” by Kalinnikov. I’ve studied music and performed with many orchestras, but I’ve never heard of Kalinnikov; so when I heard about the opportunity to play this piece, I immediately had an inquisitive internal conversation:

“Who is Kalinnikov?”

“Didn’t he write ‘Scheherazade’ and ‘Flight of the Bumblebee?’ Ooh, I love his music!”

“Ummm, no…that is Rimsky-Korsakov.”

“Oh, is Kalinnikov a type of vodka?”

This could have gone on for a while, but my curiosity soon got the better of me and I looked into this talented, yet little-known composer. Kalinnikov is not a well-known composer in the US, but that definitely doesn’t mean he is forgettable! In fact, his music is a fantastic example of late-romantic Russian music that will appeal to any fan of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, or even the aforementioned Rimsky-Korsakov.

So, “who is Kalinnikov?”

Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov was born in Russia in 1866. His talents were recognized early on as he was provided a scholarship to the Moscow Philharmonic Society School where he studied composition while also professionally playing bassoon, timpani, and violin. At the age of 26, Kalinnikov was recommended by none other than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to become the main conductor of the internationally acclaimed Maly Theater in Moscow.

What else happened in 1866?

  • The United States passed the “Civil Rights Act of 1866”
  • Alfred Nobel invented dynamite
  • The ASPCA was founded
  • Jesse James and his gang robbed their first bank
  • Composer Erik Satie, artist Wassily Kandinsky, and authors Beatrix Potter and H. G. Wells were born

Kalinnikov completed his first symphony in 1895 while living in Yalta in the South Crimea. He had left Moscow in 1892 because of health problems that left him unable to conduct or perform. While living in Yalta, he completed many of his most popular compositions including two symphonies, incidental music to Tolstoy’s play “Tsar Boris,” songs, and numerous works for piano, chorus, and orchestra.

Unfortunately, Kalinnikov’s illness became progressively worse and he passed away just two days shy of his 35th birthday; by then he had only written about 40 works. By comparison, Schubert died at 31 with over 900 works written, and Mozart had completed more than 600 works by his death at 35.

In Russia, his music is frequently performed, and his reputation as a master composer is well known. So why is it that Kalinnikov is so unknown in the United States? Well, he actually was better known in the early 20th century when his first symphony was quite popular and performed by many of the leading symphony orchestras. In fact, the legendary conductor Auturo Toscanini performed Kalinnikov’s first symphony in a live broadcast with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1943!

Listen to the historic recording of the fourth movement performed by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1943:

Even today, you can see comments on blogs by people who are familiar with his first symphony saying: “This is the greatest unknown symphony out there”; “…full of great melodies and the slow movement is a little gem;” “Wow. That ending. It gets me every time. Amazing;” “…drop dead gorgeous 2nd movement…;” and “A neglected masterpiece.” Regardless of the punctuation errors, these are sincere and amazingly positive reviews of this rarely heard symphony.

“Why will I like Kalinnikov’s first symphony?”

There really isn’t any reason not to like this symphony (unless, of course, you just don’t like romantic orchestral music). The first movement opens with an expansive and lush melody that evokes Russian folk music, much like the music of Tchaikovsky and Borodin. The Second Movement is beautifully orchestrated and features a hymn-like tune that is surrounded by ethereal atmospheric accompaniments. The Scherzo is not unlike those found in the works of Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak; with surprising syncopation and a trio section that again evokes Russian folk music. The Finale is a rousing tour de force that rivals any other late-romantic symphony. It is cyclic in that it begins with the same melodic idea that begins the first movement, and builds to a fiery climax that has probably brought many audiences to their feet.

Musicians also love playing this symphony. For a little fun, listen to just the low brass (trombones and tuba) parts from the end of the Finale. One great thing about late-romantic music is the infrequent chance for the low brass to help the orchestra fill the concert hall with glorious sounds. Here is a little taste played by four Yale students.

Music fans like it, Toscanini performed it, instrumentalists enjoy playing it, the music is great, so why isn’t it performed too much today? It is likely the factors of his early death and consequently small number of completed works have prevented his music from becoming more popular. Unfortunately, the most performed symphonies by composers are usually their later, more mature works—particularly with Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, etc. This blog quote seems to say it all: “Who knows what he would have created had he lived to the ripe old age of 50 or 60!” But why leave such an important hypothesis to blogs when you can also cite the respected and scholarly “New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians” that states, “…had he lived out a normal life span, he might have been numbered in the first rank of Russian composers.”

Whether he didn’t live long enough to get famous, he didn’t write enough works, or even if today’s conductors are simply afraid to program the music of lesser-known composers, Kalinnikov’s works are not frequently performed. It is quite unfortunate, but it is the current reality. Hopefully more orchestras will follow the lead of the La Mirada Symphony’s conductor Alan Mautner by programming this rare gem.

Lastly, one more blog quote on Kalinnikov’s first symphony: “This is awesome!!!! I want to hear this in a live performance!” The great news is that on May 19th, 2019, you’ll be able to do that with the La Mirada Symphony conducted by Alan Mautner!

  1. C. Harnsberger is a Los Angeles based composer, author, orchestrator, and horn player who composed the opera “Golondrina.” His books include “The Essential Dictionary of Music” and “Teach Yourself Music History.” He currently is on the board of the La Mirada Symphony, and plays in their horn section. You can learn more about him at his website LCHmusic.com, and discover his opera at GolondrinaOpera.com. His publications are available on Amazon.com.

This article is copyright © MMIXX by LCH Music. Any re-use must be approved by the author.

The La Mirada Symphony and L. C. Harnsberger do not claim ownership of any of the video or audio linked to in this article; they are presented only for educational purposes.