Baba-Yaga, Enchanted Lake, Kikimora
Anatoli Liadov studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Rimsky-Korsakov, but was known as a lazy student, never getting his work done on time, and generally irresponsible. Eventually, Rimsky- Korsakov kicked him out of his class.
Ultimately Liadov did manage to become a professor at the Conservatory and remained there most of his life. Prokofiev, one of his students, noted, “Laziness was his most remarkable feature.” This procrastination cost him the chance to write The Firebird for Diaghilev, a commission grabbed by Stravinsky who was launched onto the world stage with his version of the ballet.
When Liadov could harness himself to compose, his works were brilliant and often fantasy-like. Three of his most famous programmatic tone poems are Baba-Yaga, Kikimora, and The Enchanted Lake.
Baba-Yaga and her two older sisters permeated Eastern European folklore, especially Russia folklore from 1755 when she first appeared in Mikhail Lomonosov’s Russian Grammar. She is terrifying—an old lady with a huge appetite and iron teeth, but she somehow remains very thin, almost like a skeleton. She lives deep in the forest, in a frightening hut, which spins on chicken legs, and has a fence made of human bones with skulls on top. In the Russian version, she travels in a mortar with the pestle used as a rudder, or a birch broom, and wherever she goes she is “announced” by a wild wind disturbing the trees, which groan at her evil presence. Floating disembodied hands circle around her to do her bidding. Occasionally she does good things, but mainly she is a terror: her favorite dinner is little children.
Baba-Yaga treats the story in a terrifying setting as she travels through the forest. Mussorgsky’s version of Baba-Yaga preceded Liadov’s, which was produced in 1905 as Opus 56. The music opens with several shrieks and then sinks into a jagged setting of the old woman flying rapidly through the woods. Notice the depiction of violent winds, which are beautifully orchestrated. Thrusting rhythms mark her passage in deep parts of the orchestra. At the close she vanishes as quickly as she arrived.
The Enchanted Lake
Opus 62, composed in 1908-09, is titled The Enchanted Lake (A fable-tableau per Liadov). Herein, the composer produces one of the most beautiful atmospheric depictions of a lake (supposedly inhabited by fairies and wood sprites) in the moonlight. His inspiration was Lake Llmen, south of St. Petersburg, of which Liadov wrote, “How purely picturesque it is—with bountiful stars over the mysteries in the depths. But most important—it is uninhabited, without entreaties and complaints: only nature-cold, malevolent, but fantastic as a fairy tale. One must feel the change of colors, the chiaroscuro, the incessantly changeable stillness and seeming immobility.” The mood is consistently gentle. Midway, a delicate tune from the winds provides a lyrical segment, but at all times absolute serenity reigns in the lush, impressionist harmonies and slow pace. Occasional birdcalls add to the tranquility and beauty of the scene. The composer conducted the first performance on February 21, 1909 in St. Petersburg.
Opus 63, Kikimora was produced in the same year as The Enchanted Lake, 1909. Her kinship to Baba-Yaga is close. A malevolent (although sometimes nice) old household witch who torments children at night (by tickling them), makes squeaky mouse-like sounds, lives behind a stove or in the cellar, and spends her nights breaking dishes and spinning. Should you see her at this task, however, you will die. She traverses the household by slipping through keyholes in the doors. Once she is established, it is almost impossible to get her out of the house. Some tales mention her as “the goddess of the house” who rewards good housekeepers and terrorizes those who do not keep a clean house.
Liadov wrote, “She grew up in the mountains with a magician. From dawn to sunset, the magician’s cat regales Kikimora with fantastic tales of ancient times and faraway places as Kikimora rocks in a cradle made of crystal. It takes her seven years to reach maturity, by which time her head is no larger than a thimble and her body no wider than a strand of straw. Kikimora spins flax from dusk to dawn with evil intentions for the world.”
The music begins softly with a dense, heavy atmosphere from which the English horn surfaces with a melancholy, somber melody. Like Baba-Yaga, Kikimora (at midpoint) gains acceleration, and she is off on her malevolent, spiteful plans. The tone poem takes us on a frightening course as Kikimora seeks vengeance on the world and its inhabitants. Small wicked snippets sound from the winds over shuddering strings: excitement is enhanced by rapidly repeating notes, coaxing the music into nervous advance. An aggressive segment dominates the final section: there is a sudden pause, and Kikimora disappears with a peep from the piccolo.
© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015