Alexander Glazunov: Oriental Rhapsody


Composed in 1889, Alexander Glazunov’s Oriental Rhapsody was one of many orchestral works by Russian composers that took great inspiration from East Asia. This vein of Russian exoticism is also seen in works by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin and Igor Stravinsky. The five-movement work is dedicated to painter, Ilya Repin. Throughout the years, Glazunov has been known as a composer with little originality, however, when he composed the Oriental Rhapsody, it was when this sub-genre was in its infancy, and therefore was regarded as more groundbreaking. Glazunov’s rich orchestral writing and programmatic storytelling really brings this rhapsody to life.


The Music
Movement I – Evening. The Town Sleeps. The Watchmen’s Call. Song of a Young Improvisor. 

The suggestive opening movement sets the scene in a sleeping town. The french horns signify the call of the watchmen. This is echoed by the woodwind, as the strings keep the peace in the town. The effective and expansive opening leads into a mid-range string theme which is rich in texture and full of Oriental-inspired harmonies. This exoctic theme is broad and slowly becomes larger as the movement goes along. A reprise of the opening watchmen’s call closes the first movement. 


Movement II – Dance of the Young Men and Girls

The oboe starts off the theme in Dance of the Young Men and Girls. Accompanied by pizzicato strings, this racing theme is then passed down the woodwind line. The energetic trumpet interludes paired with the excitable tambourine makes this movement high energy and vivacious in character. Certainly based on traditional East Asian dancing, Glazunov uses cross-rhythms to bolster the excitement and intricacy of the movement. The dance is unrelenting, and as the music pushes on the movement comes to a rapturous end.


Movement III – An Old Man’s Ballad

Bold lower strings and the harp introduce the main theme to An Old Man’s Ballad. The woodwind too join in here at the start, with the melody pushing over to the upper violins for development. The orchestral waves made by Glazunov’s skillful orchestrations create rich textures and timbres that sing through each individual part. A fanfare procession begins right at the end of this movement, which leads into the march-style fourth movement.


Movement IV – Fanfares. Return of the Victorious Troops. General Triumph

Leading straight in from the previous movement, the rapturous fourth movement celebrates the return of the troops. The marching snare drum and bold brass are at the forefront of this movement, with whirling woodwind and strings accompanying. The troops celebrate their victory, with the movement keeping the energy high through Glazunov’s use of dynamics and tempi changes. 

Movement V – Celebration of the Warriors. The Young Improvisor Appears in the Middle of the Dance. Unbridled Orgy.

The driving force heard from the very start of the finale movement follows the story of the warriors still celebrating their victory at war. Bold brass and unison string motifs add to the strength and power of this movement. Each section fizzes with excitement as fragments of themes gone by rear their heads once more. The young singer appears in the middle of the dance, which represents the opening movement. Concluding with a wild and bombastic explosion, Oriental Rhapsody finishes with all themes intact until the final flourish completes this Oriental adventure.


Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020

Happy Reading!

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