Who was Anatoly Lyadov?

Anatoly Lyadov is widely known as the indolent Russian composer who unwittingly gave the young Igor Stravinsky (who became one of the greatest ballet composers ever) his big break by failing to write The Firebird. His low compositional output, partly owing to the amount of time he took to complete each work, has only reinforced this reputation. Then there is the oft-repeated charge, originating from his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, that Lyadov was ‘incredibly lazy’.

Yet contemporary accounts and memoirs by Lyadov’s colleagues and pupils, including Stravinsky himself, reveal a composer not only held in the highest esteem but also widely loved. Indeed, Lyadov excited the enthusiasm of some of Russia’s greatest creative minds, including all five members of the ‘Mighty Handful’ group of composers while he was still a teenager. So how come he appeared to achieve so little despite his widely recognised talent?

Rimsky-Korsakov laid much of Lyadov’s supposed failings at the door of his ‘loose living’ father, the conductor Konstantin Lyadov. Born in 1820, Konstantin was son of a soldier-turned-musician, Nikolai Lyadov, who had risen to second conductor of the Russian Opera Company.

When was Anatoly Lyadov born?

Anatoly Lyadov was born in St Petersburg in 1855, the second child of the chief conductor of the Russian Opera, Konstantin Lyadov. Showing talent from an early age, he received piano lessons from his aunt.

Who was Konstantin Lyadov?

In 1850, Konstantin became the company’s chief conductor, and ultimately raised it from a second-rank organisation overshadowed by the Italian Opera Company – long preferred by the royal family and so by St Petersburg high society – to Russia’s foremost opera company.

After a catastrophic fire destroyed its former St Petersburg base, the Russian Company moved into the magnificent, purpose-built Mariinsky Theatre in 1860. There, Konstantin conducted several major premieres – in particular, Alexander Serov’s operas Judith (1863) and Rogneda (1865) set new standards in Russian opera, inspiring more enduring masterpieces by Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and even Stravinsky. Konstantin was also responsible for the first staging in Russia of a Wagner opera, despite considerable obstruction from tsarist censors who regarded the composer a political revolutionary. After two years’ delay, Lohengrin finally opened in 1868 – but the stress of this episode was too much for Konstantin’s health. Suffering a debilitating stomach ailment, he petitioned for early retirement, but was almost denied a pension commensurate with his work for the company because of his ‘humble’ origin (as son of a former soldier) and his rash self-description in the petition as a ‘kapellmeister’ rather than merely a conductor: finally, he was permitted to be the first Russian conductor to be honoured with such a title. Konstantin died aged 51.

What was Anatoly Lyadov's childhood like?

Through all this, Anatoly Lyadov and his older sister Valentina saw little of their father. Their mother died when Anatoly was a month short of his seventh birthday, and Konstantin regularly came home late from the Mariinsky. Occasionally he took them to the theatre to watch and sometimes get involved in productions, either as ‘extras’ or even – both children being good singers – in the chorus. Otherwise, Anatoly and Valentina were left in the care of domestic servants, from whom they sometimes had to ask for ready cash. Possibly this explains Anatoly’s peculiar sensitivity about money matters; as an adult, he loathed negotiating fees, and even refused the publisher Belyayev’s generous offer of an income to enable him to devote himself to composition. Furthermore, growing awareness of his father’s struggles with officialdom and their detrimental effect on his health and family life made Anatoly wary of professional toil, and indeed of the world beyond the confines of his home.

His wariness was reinforced when in 1867, aged 11, he was sent away to study violin at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. But after their father’s death in 1871, Valentina set up a home of her own and Anatoly – by then studying under Rimsky-Korsakov – began spending more time with her than at the Conservatoire. At Valentina’s he could take leisure reading Pushkin (above all, though, as Stravinsky recalled, Lyadov ‘liked tender, fantastical things’, and also relished ETA Hoffmann, Hans Christian Andersen and, later, Oscar Wilde and Maeterlinck), writing poetry and enjoying discussions with relatives and friends from the Mariinsky.

One regular visitor was Lyadov’s closest friend, Georgy Dyutsh, son of a late colleague of Konstantin’s and now a fellow Conservatoire student; through their time together, they missed so many of Rimsky-Korsakov’s classes that in January 1876 they were expelled for absenteeism. Anatoly and Georgy both came to their teacher’s home and promised to work; Rimsky refused to relent, an act he ruefully described years later as a ‘bureaucratic fit’, admitting that Lyadov, ‘talented past telling’, and Dyutsch should have been readmitted ‘like the prodigal sons they were’.

What did Lyadov compose?

Yet in the very year of his expulsion, Lyadov composed a set of short piano pieces, Biryulki (in English, ‘Spillikins’). Apart from its effervescent Borodin-like opening piece – which finally returns to round off the suite – Biryulki is generally Schumannesque in style, and presents a series of contrasting vignettes. Some are concise and simple, while others are pregnant with the potential of something far more extensive: the charming waltz of No. 3, for instance, might have been elaborated by another composer into a full-length and hauntingly memorable dance. In this respect, Biryulki is typical of Lyadov: he writes no more or less than what he has to say, leaving inspired shards of music to resonate well beyond their brief existence in the listener’s mind.

With Six Pieces for piano, Op. 3 (1876-77), including charming examples of his fondness of fugue, and the harmonically spicy Four Arabesques, Op. 4 (1878), Lyadov effectively set out his compositional stall. He also spent time with the Mighty Handful’s founder, Balakirev, who invited him, alongside Rimsky-Korsakov, to help edit Glinka’s music for publication. Reconciled with his teacher, who was impressed by his meticulous eye for detail, Lyadov resumed his Conservatoire studies, and graduated with distinction.

Perhaps feeling obliged to make amends, Lyadov then accepted the unglamorous job of teaching elementary theory to Conservatoire students, a task he carried out with unorthodox yet undoubted ability into the following century. In 1901, his remarkable gift for canon and fugue finally recognised, he was promoted to teaching advanced counterpoint. In the meantime his textbook, Canons, became a mandatary supplement to Rimsky-Korsakov’s own Practical Course in Harmony. It was also, significantly, the first textbook the young Stravinsky read to start teaching himself composition before he began his formal lessons in music theory.

From 1884 Lyadov also taught theory at the Imperial Court Chapel, invited by its then director Balakirev. So began his involvement with the Orthodox liturgy, eventually resulting in his Ten Settings from the Obikhod, Op. 61. Balakirev also sparked Lyadov’s interest in Russian folksong, as the elder composer’s artfully simple arrangements of several melodies for voice and piano inspired Lyadov’s Children’s Songs. (Stravinsky, in turn, used Lyadov’s songs as a model for his own Tri pesenki composed under Rimsky-Korakov’s supervision.) Then followed Lyadov’s many choral arrangements which deserve to be far better known, such as the haunting ‘Bayu-Bayu’. Meanwhile, his piano compositions continued to evolve under the influence of Scriabin – a composer he did much to promote both through his conducting and as an advisor to the Belyayev publishing firm.

Though Lyadov wrote relatively little for orchestra, all he published has an attractive, gem-like finish, the best being instantly effective with a peerless sense of atmosphere. His Polonaise, Op. 49, written in 1899 for the centenary of Pushkin’s birth, is a fine example – appropriately ceremonial yet also conjuring the warmth and excitement of a festive occasion. An even more spectacular demonstration of his orchestral skill is Baba Yaga: composed over 13 years before being unveiled in 1904, this lasts scarcely three-and-a-half minutes, yet its impact is quite disproportionate, depicting the witch’s ride – Valkyrie-like on horseback rather than the traditional mortar and pestle – in a manner which surely startled those who thought Lyadov a mere salon composer.

What his colleagues most hoped for, though, was his long-awaited fairy-tale opera, Zoryushka, contemplated since 1879. Two orchestral extracts appeared in 1909, the first of which, The Enchanted Lake, he conducted in February at the Conservatoire’s Great Hall. Its limpid, haunting quality, and the prospect of the second extract, Kikimora, being performed in December at the Siloti Concerts, persuaded impresario Serge Diaghilev that Lyadov was the man to write his ‘first truly Russian ballet’: The Firebird.

When did Anatoly Lyado die and what is his legacy?

Alas, for whatever reason – we do not know why – Lyadov did not deliver. Nor did he make further progress on Zoryushka before his death in 1914. It was a loss keenly felt by his colleagues and students: Myaskovsky confessed he would have preferred Tcherepnin, Steinberg ‘or even Stravinsky’ to have died instead. We may, perhaps, forgive Myaskovsky for not knowing Lyadov had effectively passed the torch to Stravinsky – and not simply with The Firebird. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, particularly the second movement’s beautiful double fugue, is just one eloquent instance of Lyadov’s legacy continuing through even the mature masterpieces of that great composer.

Top illustration by Matt Herring