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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 Tatars. (Letter to Eduard Reiss (1851–1911), 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. Balakirev revised the work in 1902. It is divided into three distinct parts, an opening (Allegro agitato), which introduces the main theme, a middle (Tranquillo – Andantino espressivo) that introduces an entirely new theme (both described in the above quote), and a third (Allegro vivo – Presto furioso), which returns to the main theme.
The many existing editions have numerous alternative passages (ossias) – most are easier, some are more difficult. This technical difficulty made it a favourite with virtuosi such as Nikolai Rubinstein (who premiered the piece), Franz Liszt, and in modern times, pianists such as Moura Lympany, Martha Argerich and Vladimir Horowitz. Balakirev, considered a virtuoso pianist in his time, once admitted that there were passages in the piece that he "couldn't manage." Also, Alexander Scriabin seriously damaged his right hand fanatically practicing the piece along with Liszt's Réminiscences de Don Juan, though the injury eventually healed.
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 has been twice arranged for orchestra, by Alfredo Casella shortly before Balakirev's death, and by Sergei Lyapunov. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the orchestral version in stereo on February 26, 1961, for Columbia Records.
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 Lezginka from Kabardino-Balkaria, 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 Tatar love song. Balakirev himself indicated in the score that the coda should be played similarly to the Russian Tropak, again a traditional Russian tune.
- "Balakirev, Mily Alekseyevich" by Stuart Cambell, Grove Music Online (subscription required)
- Scholes, Percy (1969) . Crotchets: A Few Short Musical Notes. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-7222-5836-1. OCLC 855415. ISBN is for January 2001 edition.
- Preface: Islamei: Orientalische Fantasie. C. F. Peters