The Enchanted Lake
Anatoly Konstantinovich Liadov may today be best known outside his native Russia for the music he did not compose, Liadov being the first composer to whom Sergei Diaghilev, the legendary impresario and mastermind of the Ballets Russes, offered the commission of creating a ballet based on the Russian legend of the Firebird. But while Diaghilev may have known some of Liadov’s music, he didn’t know his habits well. Liadov had already worked for Diaghilev, scoring sections of the Chopin-based Les Sylphides, but larger projects had not previously been discussed.
The composer in effect begged off by telling Diaghilev that the task would take him at least a year, making its completion too late for the work’s inclusion in Diaghilev’s projected killer 1910 Paris season. The commission thus went to Igor Stravinsky, whose name and career were made by his Firebird.
Liadov was acting according to his genetic makeup, coming as he did from a family of gifted, if dilatory musicians. His father was chief conductor at the Maryinsky Theater and among his uncles were another prominent conductor and several professional string players – all connected in one way or another with the theater. “Loose-living was their curse,” according to Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatoly’s mentor and colleague, recalling the all-night binges to which the youngest member of the family had been witness from an early age and in which he later participated. To which should be added, “Laziness was Anatoly Konstantinovich’s most remarkable feature”: from the memoirs of Sergei Prokofiev, his most famous pupil at St. Petersburg Conservatory.
Yet, in his prime – as a member of the hugely influential circle of composers that also included Rimsky, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Mily Balakirev and Modest Mussorgsky – Liadov was admired as a pianist, editor (he and Rimsky brought Glinka’s works to publication), conductor (he led the premieres of Scriabin’s First and Second Symphonies), and composer of, above all, elegant piano miniatures.
In his early teens, Liadov was a promising composition student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but he was booted out for missing classes – “The wretched surroundings of his childhood and lack of proper rearing made him irresponsible… he simply could not be bothered” (Rimsky-Korsakov). Such were his gifts, however, that he was reinstated, graduating in 1877 with highest honors in composition. He would later join the faculty of his alma mater, sharing the composition classes with Rimsky.
Never a dynamo as a composer, Liadov’s output fell further after his marriage in 1884 to a woman of property. But in his later years he did produce the three impeccably crafted jewels on which his reputation rests: the tone poems Baba Yaga (after the fearsome witch of Russian folklore, see also Pictures at an Exhibition), The Enchanted Lake, and Kikimora.
The composer referred to The Enchanted Lake (1908) as a “fable-tableau,” and it was his favorite among his compositions: “How picturesque it is,” he wrote to a friend, “how clear, the multitude of stars hovering over the mysteries of the deep. But above all no entreaties and no complaints [which he associates with the sounds of trumpets and trombones, which are banished]; only nature – cold, malevolent, and fantastic as a fairy tale. One has to feel the change of the colors, the chiaroscuro, the incessantly changeable stillness and seeming immobility.”
The piece is indeed a marvel of mystical serenity, the waters gently stirring under starry skies, in suggestively shifting major and minor thirds and ninth chords supported by deep pedal points, with the “enchanted” sounds of harp and celesta, and delicate flute traceries (all in the Rimsky manner).
The first performance of The Enchanted Lake was given in February of 1909, in St. Petersburg. The conductor was another distinguished younger composer-crony of Rimsky and Liadov at the Conservatory, Nikolai Tcherepnin.
— Herbert Glass