Lazy Lyadov – Mighty Musician

Anatoly Lyadov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on May 10, 1855 (some biographers note the actual day of birth as May 11 and transcribe his family name as Liadov) into a family of eminent Russian musicians. He was taught informally by his conductor step-father Konstantin Lyadov from 1860 to 1868, and then in 1870 entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study piano and violin:


[May 10, 1855 – August 18, 1914]

He soon gave up instrumental study to concentrate on counterpoint and fugue, although he remained a fine pianist. His natural musical talent was highly thought of by, among others, Modest Mussorgsky, and during the 1870’s he became associated with the group of Russian composers known as The Mighty Handful or more simply The Five: Mussorgsky himself, along with Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin all of whom lived in Saint Petersburg, and collaborated with each other from 1856 to 1870.

Lyadov entered the composition classes of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, but was expelled in 1876 for failure to attend classes. In 1878 he was reinstated and graduated with high honors in composition. He was then appointed teacher of theory at the Conservatory , subsequently attaining the position of professor, which he held until the end of his life.

He was active throughout as composer, conductor, and as a scholar doing research in folk music. He was at his best in small and intimated forms such as songs, piano pieces, and adaptations of Russian folk tunes. But he also wrote a few effective orchestral fairy tales — the most famous being Baba Yaga, The Enchanted Lake and Kikimora — which are beautifully orchestrated and crafted with consummate skill. I’m particularly partial to The Enchanted Lake, which you may hear right on a YouTube version performed by the USSR Symphony Orchestra with Evgeny Svetlanov conducting.

Other orchestral works include the popular Eight Russian Folksongs, the tone poem Fragments from the Apocalypse, and an orchestral dirge Ninie. His many compositions for the piano include etudes, mazurkas, preludes, ballades, barcarolles, variations, canons and so forth. Here’s an example: his Mazurka in F# minor, Op. 11 No. 3 (on YouTube) with Olga Solovieva at the piano: It happened to be the composition that first introduced me as a teenager to Lyadov’s music, and you may follow the score as she performs. Another favorite is his Musical Snuffbox: it’s played with utmost delicacy by pianist Denis Matsuev as a surprising encore after an orchestral concerto performance by him.

Lyadov’s Immediate Family 

  • His paternal grandfather, Nicholas G. Lyadov, was a conductor of the Petersburg Philharmonic Society
  • His step-father, Konstantin Lyadov, was principal conductor of the Imperial Opera Company
  • His mother, V. Antipova, was a pianist
  • His sister Valentine K. Lyadova was a dramatic actress

He taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1878, his pupils including Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Myaskovsky and Mikhail Gnesin. Consistent with his character, he was a lazy but at times brilliant instructor. Conductor Nikolai Malko, who studied harmony with him at the conservatory, wrote, “Lyadov’s critical comments were always precise, clear, understandable, constructive, and brief…. And it was done indolently, without haste, sometimes seemingly disdainfully. He could suddenly stop in mid-sentence, take out a small pair of scissors from his pocket and start doing something with his fingernails, while we all waited.”

Igor Stravinsky remarked that Lyadov was as strict with himself as he was with his pupils, writing with great precision and demanding fine attention to detail. Prokofiev recalled that even the most innocent musical innovations drove the conservative Lyadov crazy. “Shoving his hands in his pockets and rocking in his soft woolen shoes without heels, he would say, ‘I don’t understand why you are studying with me. Go to Richard Strauss. Go to Debussy.’ This was said in a tone that meant ‘Go to the devil!'” Still, Lyadov told his acquaintances about Prokofiev. “I am obliged to teach him. He must form his technique, his style—first in piano music.” In 1905 he resigned briefly over the dismissal of Rimsky-Korsakov, only to return when Rimsky-Korsakov was reinstated.

In November 1887, Lyadov met Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Nearly seven years earlier Tchaikovsky had given a negative opinion to the publisher Besel about a piano arabesque Lyadov had written. Even before this visit, though, Tchaikovsky’s opinion of Lyadov may have been changing. He had honored Lyadov with a copy of the score of his Manfred Symphony. Now that he had actually met the man face-to-face, the younger composer became “dear Lyadov.” 

In the end, one must admit that Lyadov’s published compositions are relatively few through his natural indolence and a certain self-critical lack of confidence.

Later years
He married in 1884, acquiring through his marriage a country property in Polynovka estate, where he spent his summers composing unhurriedly, and where he died ion August  28, 1914 at the comparatively young age of 59.

Wikipedia; Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen.

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