Ippolitov-Ivanov: A Classical One Hit Wonder

Mikhail Ippolitov-IvanovIf you haven’t heard of the composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, there’s a very good reason. Despite writing numerous operas, orchestral works, pieces for ensembles, and songs, most of his music is rarely heard today. The exception? His Caucasian Sketches.

Caucasian Sketches is a pair of orchestral suites with a rich and colorful sound written in 1894 and 1896. After spending years as a conductor and director of a music school in what is now Tbilisi, Georgia, Ippolitov-Ivanov developed an interest in the Caucasus area’s folk music and was inspired to write a work celebrating the sounds of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Georgia. The basic style of the piece draws heavily on the music of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, but Ippolitov-Ivanov builds upon that with skillful scene painting that transports the listener straight to the mountainous region (particularly the first suite “In a Mountain Pass”).

The most famous section of the suites is the end of the first suite – “Procession of the Sardar”. It is most often performed as a standalone piece in pops concerts. With a noble yet march-like feel, it’s not difficult to imagine the Sardar (a Persian military dignitary) marching in all his regalia with numerous followers. Hear it for yourself on May 3 at our final concert of the season.

So if Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches is so admired, why are his other works forgotten? Part of the reason may be that his music has been unfairly labeled as Soviet-approved, meeting all the criteria of the Communist authorities. But with one look at the dates of most of his works, it’s obvious that he developed his style long before the Bolsheviks. It is also said that politically he remained fairly independent, not engaging in quarrels with musicians who sought to develop new music or foster proletarian art.

Another reason the composer’s other pieces like his Armenian Rhapsody were seldom performed after the mid-20th century could be that they are not particularly remarkable according to some critics who note that Ippolitov-Ivanov’s style is too similar to Rimsky-Korsakov’s. However, Tchaikovsky saw something in the composer, helping promote his music in Moscow and Saint Petersburg until his death. Or perhaps it’s because some of his works require daunting instrumentation like his Turkish Fragments which is exotically scored for a large orchestra.

Still, unlike some composers whose works are completely lost to history, at least Ippolitov-Ivanov is remembered for one beautifully evocative piece that can be heard in movies like “The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb” (1964) and Kurosawa’s 1990 film “Dreams”.