The Overture on Czech Themes was first performed at a Free School concert in St. Petersburg in May, 1867. The three themes are contrasted, the first announced on the oboe, completed by the answering strings, and the second an energetic dance-song from the strings. This is followed by the third theme, presented in varying circumstances, but forming something of a climax before it is developed, the music leading to a brilliant and triumphant conclusion.
The Overture opens with a piccolo Oriental theme, representing the Moors, a melody taken up by the rest of the orchestra with dramatic force. The Spanish march theme follows, after the brief appearance of another theme that assumes a later role characterising the chant of monks. In accordance with the dramatic requirements of the explanatory title, the Spanish theme finally puts to flight the Moorish theme, neither Moors nor monks having much to say to this triumphant melody.
The arrangement for orchestra of four Chopin pieces was made in 1910, the last year of Balakirev’s life, in connection with celebrations of the centenary of Chopin’s birth. He had already arranged for strings a Chopin Mazurka and transcribed for solo piano the Romance from the E Minor Piano Concerto, a work for which he had always had considerable affection, since he first heard it with his teacher Karl Eisrich at Ulibishev’s.
In the Suite he creates something movingly original from the D Minor Etude, followed by the B Flat Mazurka, a light-hearted contrast. The G Minor Nocturne leads to the D Minor Scherzo in conclusion, bringing to an end a remarkably cogent tribute to Chopin, whose influence on Balakirev had been incalculable, particularly, perhaps, on the piano music of his last twelve years.