Islamey: an Oriental Fantasy by Mily A. Balakirev

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev - Милий Алексеевич Балакирев (January 2, 1837 – May 29, 1910)

Islamey: an Oriental Fantasy is a fantasy for piano by Russian composer Mily Balakirev, written in September 1869.

Balakirev, a committed nationalist whose music was influenced by Russian traditions, was inspired to write the piece after a trip to the Caucasus, as he relates in a letter:

"...the majestic beauty of luxuriant nature there and the beauty of the inhabitants that harmonises with it – all these things together made a deep impression on me... Since I interested myself in the vocal music there, I made the acquaintance of a Circassian prince, who frequently came to me and played folk tunes on his instrument, that was something like a violin. One of them, called Islamey, a dance-tune, pleased me extraordinarily and with a view to the work I had in mind on Tamara I began to arrange it for the piano. The second theme was communicated to me in Moscow by an Armenian actor, who came from the Crimea and is, as he assured me, well known among the Crimean Tartars" (Letter to Reis, 1892).

The piece was composed in the course of one month, in stark contrast to Balakirev's usual habit of taking sometimes years to complete a work. It is divided into three distinct parts, an opening which introduces the main theme, a middle that introduces an entirely new theme (both described in the above quote), and a third which returns to the main theme.

The many existing editions have numerous ossias (easier alternatives) to passages, because of its immense difficulty. Its technical difficulty made it a favourite with virtuosi such as Nikolai Rubinstein (who premiered the piece) and Franz Liszt. Balakirev, considered a virtuoso pianist in his time, once admitted that there were passages in the piece that he "couldn't manage."

Despite some dismissal that the work is merely a showpiece, Islamey has had a lasting impact on piano solo music; Ravel once remarked to a friend that his goal in writing Gaspard de la nuit was to compose a piece that was "more difficult than Balakirev's Islamey." Alexander Borodin included quotations from the piece in his opera Prince Igor, while Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov did the same in Scheherazade. The piece was also arranged for orchestra by Alfredo Casella shortly before Balakirev's death.

Recent musicological work has shown that the melodies that Balakirev preserved in this work are still present in folk music in the former USSR. For instance, the first theme has been found to be a variety of the Lesginska from the Kabardian-Balkarian ASSR, which differs notably from Balakirev's work in its time signature. The second theme has been demonstrated to have the origins as related to Balakirev, namely that of a Tartar love song. Balakirev himself indicated in the score that the coda should be played similarly to the Russian Trepak, again a traditional Russian tune. 

The Oriental Fantasy "Islamey" by Mili Balakirev has assumed an infamous and yet irresistible reputation in the piano repertoire. For a time, Islamey was touted widely as the most technically difficult work in the literature, and the extent of this was shown in Maurice Ravel's desire to make his suite of pieces, Gaspard de la Nuit, "more difficult than Balakirev's Islamey".

Influenced by the Oriental music of the East, Balakirev's Islamey is a work in three parts. The opening motif introduces the main thematic material of the fantasy, which is embellished upon through use of double thirds, octave figurations, and other pianistic devices throughout the work. The first part of the work is derived largely from the opening motif. The second part of the work is perhaps the most distinctively oriental of the three. The slow, dreamy and exotic writing here is in stark contrast to the bombastic and fiery outer parts; the beauty of this middle section is often curiously overlooked by those who dismiss Islamey as a showpiece with little to no musical substance at all. In due time, the work enters its third section, returning to the thematic material of the opening, eventually arriving at a breathtaking coda as thrilling to the pianist as it is to the audience.

Islamey was premiered by the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, and championed by pianists such as the great Franz Liszt. It has retained its reputation as a technical warhorse for the pianist; the writing is pianistic and natural for the most part, full of octaves, scales, and double notes. Live performance of this work is risky for even the most hardened concert pianist, but the electrifying nature of the work renders every risk worthwhile.

Balakirev in Circassian dress, 1863