Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov

Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, best known for his Caucasian Sketches suites, was a Russian composer whose orchestral writing incorporated large swaths of regional folk music. Born near St. Petersburg in 1859, Mikhail Ivanov was the son of a palace mechanic. He would later add his mother’s maiden name, “Ippolitov”, to avoid confusion with a namesake music critic.

While his early musical training occurred at home, he furthered his vocation as a choirboy at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, later enrolling at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Ippolitov-Ivanov studied under the tutelage of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsokov, whose influence upon him cannot be understated. Indeed, much of Ippolitov-Ivanov’s style owes considerable debt to the collective of composers known as The Russian Five (Rimsky-Korsokov, Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Alexander Borodin). Following The Five’s lead, his music was adorned with a decidedly Russian flavor, deliberately avoiding themes and standards of the old European masters.

Upon graduation, Ippolitv-Ivanov was appointed conductor of the symphony orchestra and director of the music academy in the Georgian city of Tiflis (now Tbilisi). He absorbed the local folk music of this mountainous region into his compositions; a technique encouraged by the state in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Though Ippolitov-Ivanov himself shied away from politics, his compositional style reflected the nationalistic pride found in the music of his mentors.

The ethnic folk music of Georgia was a key ingredient in Ippolitov-Ivanov’s crowning achievement, Caucasian Sketches. Comprised of two suites, completed in 1894 and 1896 respectively, Suite No. 1 would become the work he would forever be remembered for. Incorporating the region’s indigenous music in an orchestral setting, the piece also borrows from Rimsky-Korsokov’s use of chimes and rhythmic qualities. Brilliant melodies weave through the opening section, In a Mountain Pass, accompanied by an unrelenting beat to create the sensation of one’s ascension toward a majestic summit. The following section, In a Village, builds on those melodic passages with increasing intensity, leading to In a Mosque, which recalls the Turkish roots of Georgian culture. The suite’s final section, the famous march Procession of the Sardar, is still frequently performed at pops concerts around the world.

Professionally, Ippolitov-Ivanov continued teaching, as well as taking on several conducting duties. In 1905, twelve years after becoming an instructor at the Moscow Conservatory, he was promoted to director; a position he would maintain for 19 years. He also served as conductor for the Mamontov, the Russian Choral Society, and the Zimin Opera. After retiring as an educator, Ippolitov-Ivanov spent two years reorganizing the the Georgia State Conservatory, followed by a stint as principal conductor of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Though Ippolitov-Ivanov wrote a number of operas and orchestral works, including Armenian Rhapdosy and Mtsyri, they were seldom performed after his death in 1935.

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