Glazunov was significant in that he successfully reconciled nationalism and cosmopolitanism in Russian music. While he was the direct successor to Balakirev's nationalism, he tended more towards Borodin's epic grandeur while absorbing a number of other influences. These included Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral virtuosity, Tchaikovsky's lyricism and Taneyev's contrapuntal skill. His weaknesses were a streak of academicism which sometimes overpowered his inspiration and an eclecticism which could sap the ultimate stamp of originality from his music. Younger composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich eventually considered his music old-fashioned while also admitting he remained a composer with an imposing reputation and a stabilizing influence in a time of transition and turmoil.
Rimsky-Korsakov taught Glazunov as a private student. "His musical development progressed not by the day, but literally by the hour," Rimsky-Korsakov wrote. The nature of their relationship also changed. By the spring of 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov considered Glazunov more of a junior colleague than a student. While part of this development may have been from Rimsky-Korsakov's need to find a spiritual replacement for Modest Mussorgsky, who had died that March, it may have also been from observing his progress on the first of Glazunov's eight symphonies. Rimsky-Korsakov premiered this work in 1882, when Glazunov was 16. Borodin and Stasov, among others, lavishly praised both the work and its composer.
Also in 1884, Belayev rented out a hall and hired an orchestra to play Glazunov's First Symphony plus an orchestral suite Glazunov had just composed. Buoyed by the success of the rehearsal, Belayev decided the following season to give a public concert of works by Glazunov and other composers. This project grew into the Russian Symphony Concerts, which were inaugurated during the 1886-1887 season.
In 1885 Belyayev started his own publishing house in Leipzig, Germany, initially publishing music by Glazunov, Anatoly Lyadov Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin at his own expense. Young composers started appealing for his help. To help select from their offerings, Belayev asked Glazunov to serve with Rimsky-Korsakov and Lyadov on an advisory council.The group of composers that formed eventually became known at the Belayev Circle.
Drunk or not, Glazunov had insufficient rehearsal time with the symphony and, while he loved the art of conducting, he never fully mastered it. From time to time he conducted his own compositions, especially the ballet Raymonda, even though he may have known he had no talent for it. He would sometimes joke, "You can criticize my compositions, but you can't deny that I am a good conductor and a remarkable conservatory Director.
Despite the hardships he suffered during World War I and the ensuing civil war, Glazunov remained active as a conductor. He conducted concerts in factories, clubs and Red Army posts. He played a prominent part in the Russian observation in 1927 of the centenary of Beethoven's death, as both speaker and conductor. After he left Russia, he conducted an evening of his works in Paris in 1928. This was followed by engaements in Portugal, Spain, France, England, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Netherlands, and the United States.
Glazunov showed paternal concern for the welfare of needy students, such as Shostakovitch. He also personally examined hundreds of students at the end of each academic year, writing brief comments on each. Unfortunately, according to Shostakovich's comments in Testimony, Glazunov's alcoholism may have progressed to the point that he could not give a lesson while sober. Glazunov taught only chamber music by the time Shostakovich was a student. Glazunov sat at his desk, not interrupting the music being played during class. He spoke quietly and briefly, his comments becoming less distinct and briefer toward the end of the lesson.
While Glazunov's sobriety could be questioned, his prestige was not. Because of his reputation, the Conservatory received special status among institutions of higher learning in the aftermath of the October Revolution. Glazunov established a sound working relationship with the Bolshevik regime, especially with Lunacharsky, the minister of education. Nevertheless, Glazunov's conservatism was attacked within the Conservatory. Professors demanded more progressive methods. Students wanted greater rights. Glazunov saw these demands as both destructive and unjust. Tired of the Conservatory, he took advantage of the opportunity to go abroad in 1928 for the Schubert centenary celebrations in Vienna. He did not return. Maximilian Steinberg ran the Conservatory in his absence until Glazunov finally resigned in 1930.
Shostakovich mentioned in Testimony that there were many similar stories about Glazunov's memory. One of the more famous ones, he recalled, was when Sergei Taneyev came to Saint Petersburg with a new symphony. The person whom Taneyev was visiting hid the teenage Glazunov in the next room. Taneyev played his symphony on the piano for the host. The other guests praised and congratulated him. The host then told Taneyev, "I'd like you to meet a talented young man. He's also written a symphony." He brought Glazunov in from the next room. The host said, "Sasha, show your symphony to our dear guest." Glazunov sat down at the piano and played Taneyev's symphony from beginning to end, after hearing it only once and through a closed door.
Age did not weaken Glazunov's memory. Another story Shostakovich relayed was of an "eternal student" applying to enter the composition department at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. The applicant played a piano sonata he had written. Glazunov listened. When the applicant had finished, Glazunov said, "If I'm not mistaken, you applied a few years ago. Then, in another sonata, you had quite a good secondary theme." Glazunov sat down at the keyboard and played a large segment of the old sonata. "The secondary theme was rubbish, of course," Shostakovich said, "but the effect was enormous.
Glazunov's musical development was paradoxical. He was adopted as an idol by nationalist composers who had been largely self-taught and, apart from Rimsky-Korsakov, deeply distrustful of academic technique. Glazunov's first two symphonies could be seen as an anthology of nationalist techniques as practiced by Balakirev and Borodin. By his early 20's he realized the polemic battles between academicism and nationalism were no longer valid. Although he based his compositions on Russian popular music, Glazunov's technical mastery allowed him to write in a sophisticated, coltured idiom. With his Third Symphony, he consciously attempted to internationalize his music in a manner similar to Tchaikovsky, to whom the piece is dedicated.
The Third Symphony was a transitional work. Glazunov admitted its composition caused him a great deal of trouble. With the Fourth Symphony, he came into his mature style. Dedicated to Anton Rubinstein, the Fourth was written as a deliberately cosmopolitan work by a Russian looking outward to the West, yet it remained unmistakably Russian in tone. He continued to synthesize nationalist traditiona and Western technique in the Fifth Symphony. By the time Glazunov wrote his Seventh Symphony, his duties at the Conservatory had slowed his rate of composition. After his Eighth Symphony, his heavy drinking may have started taking a toll on his creativity, as well. He sketched one movement of a Ninth Symphony but left the work unfinished.
Glazunov wrote three ballets; eight symphonies and many other orchestral works; five concertos (2 for piano; 1 for violin; 1 for cello; 1 for saxophone); seven string quartets; two piano sonatas and other piano pieces; miscellaneous instrumental pieces; and some songs. He worked together with the choreographer Michel Fokine to create the ballet Les Sylphides. It was a collection of piano works by Frédéric Chopin, orchestrated by Glazunov. He was also given the oppportunity by Serge Diaghilev to write music to The Firebird after Lyadov had failed to do so. Glazunov refused. Eventually, Diaghilev sought out the then-unknown Igor Stravinsky, who wrote the music.
Ironically, both Glazunov and Rachmaninoff, whose first symphony Glazunov had conducted so poorly at its premiere, were considered "old-fashioned" in their later years. In addition, Glazunov suffered from both a streak of academicism which tended to overpower his inspiration and an eclecticism that robbed his music of an untimate stamp of originality. In recent years, Glazunov's musical gifts have been more fully appreciated, thanks to extensive recordings of his complete orchestral works.
This attitude changed over time. In his Memoirs Stravinsky called Glazunov one of the most disagreeable men he had ever met, adding that the only bad omen he had experienced about the initial (private) performance of his symphony was Glazunov having come to him afterwards saying, "Very nice, very nice." Later, Stravinsky amended his recollection of this incident, adding that when Glazunov passed him in the aisle after the performance, he told Stravinsky, "Rather heavy instrumentation for such music.
For his part, Glazunov was not supportive of the modern direction Stravinsky's music took. He was not alone in this prejudice—their mutual teacher Rimsky-Korsakov was as profoundly conservative by the end of his life, wedded to the academic process he helped instill at the Conservatory. Unlike Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov was not anxious about the potential dead-end Russian music might take by following academia strictly, nor did he share Rimsky-Korsakov's grudging respect for new ideas and techniques.
Chances are that Glazunov treated Stravinsky with reserve, certainly not with open rudeness. His opinion of Stravinsky's music in the presence of others was another matter. At the performance of Feu d'artifice (Fireworks), he reportedly made the comment, "Kein talent, nur Dissonanz." (Also in the audience was Serge Diaghilev, who on the strength of this music sounght out the young composer for the Ballets Russes.) Glazunov eventually considered Stravinsky merely an expert orchestrator. In 1912 he told Vladimir Telyakovsky, "Petrushka is not music, but is excellently and skillfully orchestrated.
To Glazunov's credit, however, even after he had consigned a piece of music to be "cacophonic," he did not stop listening to it. Instead, he would continue listening in an effort to comprehend it. He "penetrated" Wagner's music in this way; he understood nothing about Die Walkure the first time he heard it—or the second, third, or fourth. On the tenth hearing, he finally understood the opera and liked it very much. When Shostakovich was one of his students, Glazunov was attempting to do the same with Richard Strauss's Salome—"getting used to it, penetrating it, studying it," Shostakovich said.
Because of Glazunov's bouts of heavy drinking, he found the ban on the official sale of wine and vodka by the Bolskeviks a particular hardship. However, he learned Shostakovich's father had access to spirit alcohol, which was strictly rationed. One of Shostakovich's more onerous tasks became relaying requests between Glazunov and his father. He found this troubling for two reasons. First, the requests could place his father in mortal danger, particularly since it was impossible to tell whom the Bolsheviks would decide to shoot as an example to others. Second, he did not wish anyone to attribute his success at the Conservatory to bribery.
He gave away a tremendous amount of his salary to needy students out of compassion for them. He wrote countless letters of recommendation, writing what he really thought about the person and giving praise with justification. Sometimes he went to government officials to plead their case. Jewish musicians knew he would see the authorities to get them permission to live in Petrograd. Thanks to him, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein and Mischa Elman, among others, were able to come and study. Shostakovich claimed Glazunov never asked these musicians to play for him; he felt everyone had a right to live where they pleased and art would not suffer as a result. Most importantly to Shostakovich, Glazunov did not call attention to his efforts in this regard. "He didn't demonstrate his high principles when it came to small and pathetic people. He saved this for more important people and more important incidents.