Life and career
Mravinsky was born in Saint Petersburg. The soprano Yevgeniya Mravina was his aunt. His father Alexandr Konstantinovich Mravinsky died in 1918, and in that same year, he began to work backstage at the Mariinsky Theatre serving as a ballet repetiteur from 1923 to 1931. After initially studying biology at the university in Leningrad, in 1924 he succeeded in entering the Leningrad Conservatory as a non–fee–paying student thanks to his half aunt Alexandra Kollontai, who recommended him to the rector Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov and the commissar for enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky. His first public conducting appearance was in 1929. Through the 1930s he conducted at the Kirov Ballet and Bolshoi Opera. In September 1938, he won the All-Union Conductors Competition in Moscow.
In October 1938, Mravinsky took up the post that he was to hold until 1988: principal conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), where he had made his debut as a conductor in 1931. Under Mravinsky, the Leningrad Philharmonic gained a legendary reputation, particularly in Russian music such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. During World War II, Mravinsky and the orchestra were evacuated to Siberia. But members of the Leningrad Philharmonic's reserve orchestra and the Leningrad Radio Orchestra were left behind in the siege of Leningrad, so it fell to Karl Eliasberg to conduct the surviving musicians in the Leningrad premiere of the Symphony No.7 "Leningrad" by Shostakovich.
Legend has it that at the first performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, during the applause immediately after the performance, Mravinsky took the score in his hand and waved it above his head. Mravinsky gave world premieres of six symphonies by Shostakovich: numbers 5, 6, 8 (which Shostakovich dedicated to Mravinsky), 9, 10 and finally 12 in 1961. His refusal to conduct the premiere of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony in 1962 caused a permanent rupture in their friendship. Of the remaining Shostakovich symphonies which he did not premiere, Mravinsky only performed (and recorded) the Seventh and the Eleventh. Ηe performered though the 15th symphony after the death of Shostakovich as a tribute to his friend. The performance has been recorded.
Mravinsky made commercial studio recordings from 1938 to 1961. His recording (for Deutsche Grammophon) made in London in 1960, of the Tchaikovsky symphonies (4-6) with the LPO is not only widely regarded as one of the greatest made but is an astonishing demonstration of just how good relatively early analogue stereo recordings could be. (His issued recordings from after 1961 were taken from live concerts.) His final recording was from an April 1984 live performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12.
Mravinsky first went on tour abroad in 1946, including performances in Finland and in Czechoslovakia (at the Prague Spring Festival). Later tours with orchestra included a June 1956 itinerary to West Germany, East Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Their only tour to Great Britain was in September 1960 to the Edinburgh Festival and the Royal Festival Hall, London. Their first tour to Japan was in May 1973. Their last foreign tour was in 1984, to West Germany.
Recordings reveal Mravinsky to have an extraordinary technical control over the orchestra, especially over dynamics. He was also a very exciting conductor, frequently changing tempo in order to heighten the musical effect for which he was striving, often making prominent use of brass instrumentation. Surviving videos show that Mravinsky had a sober appearance at the podium, making simple but very clear gestures, often without a baton. The critic David Fanning has memorably described some of Mravinsky's Tchaikovsky performances:
The Leningrad Philharmonic play like a wild stallion, only just held in check by the willpower of its master. Every smallest movement is placed with fierce pride; at any moment it may break into such a frenzied gallop that you hardly know whether to feel exhilarated or terrified.
In a 1970s interview on Leningrad Television, when asked how he chose a particular interpretation of the music he conducted, Mravinsky explained that he tried to understand what the composer's intention was by immersing himself in the "atmosphere" of the music (he used the term "atmospherization").
- Kollontai was the maternal half-sister of Yevgeniya Mravina and Alexandr Konstantinovich Mravinsky.
- Tassie (2005), p. 27.
- This fifty-year-long association between a conductor and a major orchestra has been matched or approached only by Robert Kajanus with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Willem Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Ernest Ansermet with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Takashi Asahina with the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
- Hulme, D.C. (1982) Shostakovich Catalogue. Muir of Ord: Kyle & Glen Music.
- Obituary for Yevgeny Mravinsky, The Musical Times, 129(1741), p. 151 (1988).
- http://www.mravinsky.org/ (Russian)
- Biography at allmusic.com
- Legacy of Yevgeni Mravinsky
- A History of Portrait of Yevgeny Mravinsky, by Lev A. Russov. (Russian)
- František Sláma (musician) Archive. More on the history of the Czech Philharmonic between the 1940s and the 1980s: Conductors
| Principal Conductor, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra