At the age of 16, Alexander Glazunov presented his first symphony to the public, demonstrating the early and surprisingly harmonious development of his extraordinary talent. A student of Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, the musical heir of the Mighty Five, he also studied with great attention the work of Tchaikovsky (who in turn also highly appreciated the skills of his young colleague). Glazunov’s style combines the best traditions of Russian music – epic power and vivid emotional expression, brilliant orchestration and depth of symphonic development. And his ballet music continues the tradition of Tchaikovsky’s “symphonic ballets”.
The ballet in one act The Seasons was composed in 1899 and completed in 1900 on commission from the director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky. A well-known connoisseur of antiquity, Vsevolozhsky conceived the idea of creating an allegorical ballet to recall the performances in the courts of Italian princes and French kings. The ballet had to be performed at the newly opened Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg. The Imperial Theatres Directorate itself had an interest in continuing to work with Glazunov after the undoubted success of his ballet Raymonda, and although Vsevolozhsky left the directorship in 1899, the project remained. The idea, however, underwent a development.
The scriptwriter and balletmaster of The Seasons was Marius Petipa. The music for the production was originally to be written by Riccardo Drigo, a colleague and close friend of Glazunov, who from 1896 held the post of music director and chief conductor of the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg. His ballet Harlequin’s Millions (also known as Harlequinade) was at that time, like The Seasons, in the preliminary stage, and the music was to be written by Glazunov. But as both composers had an affinity for the work intended for the other, they eventually agreed that Glazunov should write the music for The Seasons and Drigo for Harlequin’s Millions.
This was not the first time that Glazunov and Petipa had worked together. But unlike their previous collaborative project – the ballet “Les Ruses d’Amour ” or The Trial of Damis – here Petipa draws up a rather detailed plan with instructions for Glazunov. For example: ’24th bar – variation on Leda; 32nd bar – in 2/4 – very sharp – variations on The City’ . Or: ‘Grandiose andante, undulating movements, 32nd bar. Then a variation for the first dancer’. Such details could turn the composer’s work into a craft routine, but Glazunov, like Tchaikovsky before him, managed to find the advantages even in this. “Indeed, the need to conform to the conditions of the choreography bound me, but at the same time it hardened me against possible symphonic difficulties,” says the composer. – I had to satisfy the wishes of the choreographer and never go beyond the limits of 16 or 32 bars, but then, weren’t those very iron chains the best school for developing and nurturing a sense of form? Should we not learn freedom in chains?”
The Seasons premiered on February 7 (20), 1900 at the Imperial Hermitage Theatre, St. Petersburg, three days after the premiere of Drigo’s Harlequin Millions. Both performances were attended by the entire Imperial Court. Extremely grateful to Petipa, Glazunov dedicated his work to him. Another act of respect and gratitude by the composer to his fellow choreographer is also known. In 1907 the Mariinsky Theatre celebrated the 25th anniversary of Glazunov’s career with two ballets in one act and a third act of Raymonda. In his opening speech, the famous composer warmly thanked Petipa, the stager of all his ballets. The 85-year-old choreographer, who has long since retired from the home stage but was present on the floor as a spectator, was rewarded with standing ovation from the audience.
The Seasons embodies one of the eternal myths of the rebirth of nature after the winter sleep, of the wonderful summer full of sunny days and the coming of autumn that bears abundant fruit. The optimism so inherent in all of Glazunov’s work comes through vividly in this ballet, which, oddly enough, was the composer’s last. The musical images here are rich in colour and far from any mannerism. Conceived as an allegory of Nature with its eternal cycle of youth, growth and ageing, the ballet did not find adequate stage embodiment during the composer’s lifetime, but his music quickly gained popularity. It is not for nothing that Glazunov himself described it as one of his favourite compositions.