The Lark – Glinka/Balakirev

Playing the piano is a curse in disguise. It’s an endless cycle of unspeakable joy and soul-crushing heartache.

I listen to a beautiful piece, fall in love with it, and make it my life goal to learn how to play it inside and out.

So I attack the daunting music sheets with vigor and fervor, knowing the painful drills and hideously slow tempos will one day blossom into a musical masterpiece.

That day comes, I lift my fingers off the last keys, and I realize with thudding despair that it did not sound as magical as it did before I learned it.

I think that maybe it’s just me, perhaps I didn’t play it well, so I go back and listen to it performed by a professional pianist.

But all I can think about are the fingerings, the underlying accompaniment, the rhythm…the familiarity. There’s something about fresh, foreign notes I’ve never heard before that cannot compare to mastering them in my own fingertips.

I still play the pieces, of course. The melodies are still beautiful, though not as enchanting as the first time, so I thirst for a piece that captures my heart…

…and the cycle starts all over again.

But there have been a few exceptions. The Lark (or Жаворонок) by Mikhail Glinka and Mily Balakirev is one of them.

Painting by Sergey Kovalchuk | Top Glinka, Bottom Balakirev

It was originally a song in Glinka’s opera Farewell to St. Petersburg, but was later paraphrased into a solo piano piece by Balakirev, who deeply admired and was directly influenced by Glinka, who was regarded as the fountainhead of Russian classical music.

The genius of these two great composers blends together so perfectly in this piece that I was instantly charmed by the third measure and head over heels in love by the last measure. The freshness, the wistful longing, the thrumming strings of harmony, the trickling notes…they all intertwine into one beautiful orb of musical light that settles gently in my soul, yet remains just out of reach.

The painting that these notes portray in my head is a fresh, clear morning in early autumn. Wings of larks flutter over the rippling blue water of a small lake rimmed with white birch trees, their golden and green leaves rustling in a gentle breeze. The scent of flowers and dew overwhelm me, the soft rays of dawn settle into my skin. I feel like flying, with leaping for joy in this realm of tranquility…

…until the thrums of the last chord dissolve, and I find myself seated on a piano bench in the anticlimactic silence of my house.

This was my experience the first time I heard it, and it remains (perhaps grows even stronger) every time I’ve played it since.

So naturally I brought it to my teacher, and he shook his head. “Definitely not.”

Excuse me?

“This one is too hard for you right now. You need to wait a year or so. Pick something else.”

Something else? How was I supposed to pick something else? But if there was one thing I knew about my teacher, it was that he knew my skills very well. Eerily well. So if he said it was too hard, it was probably too hard, and, though I was disappointed, I picked something else.

A year passed, and when I was asked what piece I wanted to learn next, I produced The Lark‘s music sheets with a flourish. He raised an eyebrow, gave me a strange look (like, an I-hope-you-don’t-die-but-if-you-do-I’ll-be-at-your-funeral look) and nodded.


I looked at the first page. Easy. Just some simple notes and rolled chords. Second page, also pretty easy, the only difficulty being keeping the left hand perfectly silent and having the beautiful melody of the right hand echo over it.

The third page…oh, man, the third page. I know now that the intimidating clump of notes are tricky arpeggios stretching across the entire keyboard – doooown, uuuup, doooown, uuuup – but when I first saw it I felt like I was drowning.

The four measures are the ones where the notes are normal sized again.

My teacher grinned unsympathetically. “You’ll figure it out.”

You bet I did…after listening to it in hyper-slow motion countless times and stumbling through four measures for an hour (those four measure being where the melody picks up again, switching between two hands and specific fingers with a 3:2 ratio.) It took me an hour to even remotely play four measures of that stuff, and for all non-pianist readers…that’s a long time for four measures, and 3:2 is every pianist’s nightmare.

The difficulty continues for three more pages – three more pages! – until the ending, which is a delightful trickle of notes that gently dies away, like the feathers of larks fading into the distance. So delightful that I feel like trembling with tears from my inability to hug sound.

This piece is worth every heart ache, every finger ache, and every rear-end ache from sitting on a hard piano bench for so long.

Hopefully my words have piqued some sort of interest in this piece, my favorite of all favorites, though I fear they pale in comparison to its beauty. Perhaps this recording from my 2018 Spring recital will give you a glimpse into its magical notes, and then you can join me in dancing beside the lake underneath the larks.

Note: Do forgive the curly-haired hobbit in the foreground. That’s my little brother Micah, who shockingly doesn’t love this piece as much as I do (at all, really.) He’s lucky I’m forgiving enough to still love him. 😛 (He has listened to this piece nine thousand eight hundred seventeen times and counting without complaining, for the most part, so I’ll give him that.)

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