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Taneev & Alexandrov. TEACHER AND STUDENT


Text of the booklet "Sergey Taneev, Anatoly Alexandrov. TEACHER AND STUDENT / VICTOR BUNIN"

According to his contemporaries, Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev was a pianist of extraordinary talent. If composing music and teaching the theory of composition had not taken precedence in his life, he might well have become a concert pianist. Nonetheless Taneyev gave occasional performances throughout his creative career (usually playing his own compositions and those of his teacher, Tchaikovsky). Piano compositions were not an essential part of his oeuvre, and this factor distinguished him from most composer pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Just one such piece was deemed worthy of publication by this self-critical composer (Prelude and Fugue, Op.29, 1910). The others were found in archive material and published as late as 1953 (editors Pavel Lamm and Vissarion Shebalin).
Taneyev’s creative activities peaked in the mid-1890s, accompanied by intensive work on the major sonata and symphony cycles (chamber ensembles, the Symphony in C minor) which comprise most of his heritage as composer. His friendship with pianist Alexander Ilyich Siloti (1863–1945) stimulated him to write more modest pieces for piano. The composer wrote at least three preludes for him, which Siloti performed at concerts. Only one has survived – the Prelude in F major (1894?). pupil
In Russian music the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries marked the heyday of the piano miniature. The prelude was always conceived as a concise piece that captured and revealed a striking artistic image in extremely concentrated form. But as we know from Anatoly Alexandrov’s memoirs, Taneyev was rather condescending towards this enthusiasm for small-scale compositions. He wrote his own prelude as an extended composition combining features usually found in larger forms (contrast of the two themes Allegro animato and Vivo, development of initial images) with the characteristics of free prelusion.
The majority of Taneyev’s piano compositions were written during the years he studied at the Moscow Conservatory under Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The most important of these is the Theme and Variations in C minor (1874). This practice piece was intended to display his aptitude in varying and developing a musical theme. Taneyev showed he was more than competent to carry out this task, and at the same time the Variations revealed his leaning towards the serious and substantive composition that would later characterise his work. The young composer turned to the form of characteristic variations that presuppose significant transformations of the opening theme. Its gloomy, solemn tone is retained only in the first Variation and followed by a series of new images. Many of the Variations are reminiscent of Schumann (the 3rd, 6th and 8th); one has folkloric colouring (the 4th). Taneyev also pays tribute to his teacher: in the 2nd Variation he uses a theme from the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Second String Quartet. However much the theme is altered, its intonations and motifs fill the musical fabric of the Variations. Taneyev later became a master of polyphony, and here he experiments with a number of polyphonic devices, including some rare at the time (i.e. imitation of the theme in augmentation, 9th Variation). Appropriately enough, this work ends with a four-voice fugue (since the last bars have been lost, composer Vissarion Shebalin completed the work for the first publication of Taneyev’s Variations).
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Russian musical culture was rapidly developed and revived by close contact between composers of different generations. Thus, Tchaikovsky’s student Taneyev taught many who helped create the vast musical he-ritage of the 20th century – a heritage insufficiently explored by performers and public, to this day.
The piano music of Anatoly Alexandrov is a phenomenon of great aesthetic merit, notable for the rare nobility of style and mastery of artistic finesse. With his own superb command of the instrument, the composer was able to convey through the piano’s musical texture subtle nuances of feeling and reflection. Moreover, Alexandrov had a profound understanding of the traditions of classical romantic music, and the principles of the school of composition that derived from Taneyev, enabling him to freely and convincingly construct large-scale musical forms. It is no coincidence that one of the most important genres of the composer’s work was the piano sonata. He was the author of 14 such works, written from 1914 to 1971. The history of the piano sonata reaches one of its loftiest culminations in the first decades of the 20th century, above all due to Russian composers such as Scriabin, Medtner, Prokofiev and Myaskovsky. In such company the works of Alexandrov held their own and attracted ardent followers, including performers (Heinrich Neuhaus, Grigory Ginsburg and Yakov Zak included his sonatas in their repertoire).
In the Fourth Sonata in C major, Op.19 (1922, new autho-rial redaction of 1954) the composer reaches the height of his creative powers. The fact that the onset of his prime coincided with the troubled post-revolutionary years can be keenly felt in the emotional substance of the sonata. The dominant image of the sonata is expressed in the main theme, which begins and concludes the work as a whole; we hear the triumph of personal creative will (the direction provocatamente accompanies the first appearance of the theme). But this theme and others related to it are constantly surrounded by images of an altogether different nature – usually guarded and morose, occasionally with repressed aggression. In the minor-key finale, the most dramatic movement of the sonata, the main theme is restored only after a tense struggle.
Two works written in 1979 complete Alexandrov’s piano compositions. In the cycle Five Pieces, Op.110, originally entitled “Memories” (we know this from the composer’s own testimony, according to Vladimir Kokushkin) Alexandrov, now at the end of his creative career, turns to images of musicians close to him and subtly reconstructs characteristics of their style and creative technique. “My soul is an Elysium of shades” – this line by Fyodor Tyutchev serves as an epigraph at the beginning of the cycle. Among the ‘shades’ dear to the composer are not only acclaimed masters of Russian piano music – Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner (the latter was especially close to Alexandrov and exerted a decisive influence on his artistic thinking), but also Samuil Feinberg (1890–1962). Although better known as a pianist, Feinberg the composer left behind a sizeable heritage whose merits have not yet been appreciated. Alexan-drov declared that he considered Feinberg a brilliant composer, although many others would not agree, and expressed the wish in his musical dedication to “place him on a pedestal”.
Alexandrov interrupted work on the cycle “Insights”, Op.111 after composing just two pieces (seven were planned). Without knowing the reasons for the composer’s decision, we can say with certainty that the two pieces (played attacca) form a completely accomplished and highly original whole. Various motifs in the first piece (no tempo is specified) draw us onwards to an eddying movement (Allegro) which, in turn, is interrupted by a chorale opposing the rapid march of time. This musical symbol of eternity takes the last word in the cycle.

Daniil Petrov, translation by Patricia Donegan

Anatoly Alexandrov on Sergey Taneyev
Alexandrov first seriously tackled composition when he was 18. A student of philology department of Moscow University, a philosophy major, he had met Sergey Taneyev. Taneyev had left his chair at Moscow Conservatoire in 1905, but he continued giving free private lessons to young musicians, whose gifts he deemed worthy of development and professional tutorship. Alongside Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Alexandrov became one of Taneyev’s students. He had studied with him for a number of years (from 1906 to 1910) and was a frequent visitor at musical gatherings in his home. Alexandrov has painted a rich and detailed portrait of his teacher in his memoirs, describing his studies under this brilliant teacher with a gift for clear and independent thought, a wonderful musician who has immensely and beneficially influenced the formation of my musical views.
On first meeting Taneyev. I was greeted by a portly man with shortsighted eyes attentively focused on the visitor, who was quite serious but turned out to be very amiable.
On Taneyev’s Moscow home (at 2, Maly Vlasyevsky Lane). The ‘official’ entrance usually sported a note claiming “S. I. Taneyev is out”, but I knew about the innocent ruse and proceeded straight to the kitchen, where the kind old lady, nurse Pelageya Vasilievna, greeted me and escorted me to the rooms… From the kitchen, a door led to Sergey Ivanovich’s bedroom, and from there to the small dining room with a sofa and the smiling portrait of the host on the wall. In the dining room, you were first treated to tea with homemade cookies. The nurse crossed the tiny lobby next to the dining-room to the host’s study, and Sergey Ivanovich set aside his work and came out to have tea with me. Or else it was the nurse who did the greeting, and the host, unwilling to lose time, continued to work until I came to his study and found him standing by the high writing desk…
 In Sergey Ivanovich’s study, an arch divided the space in two. The first half, closer to the entrance, had the writing desk, where he stood working. By the walls with photos on them there were cases with books and sheet music, a harmonium, a large rocking-chair (that had belonged to Nikolai Rubinstein, I think). [Rubinstein was Taneyev’s piano teacher.] Behind the arch was a grand piano with a large portrait of Mozart above it, and, by the wall, heavy-built cases with sheet music; one could spot there multivolume editions of Bach and Palestrina.
On lessons. Our lessons were of several different kinds: 1) getting acquainted with musical literature by the piano and discussing the pieces played; 2) talking about books on music I had read or scores I had borrowed from Taneyev’s library; 3) playing my new pieces to Sergey Ivanovich and listening to his remarks.
Every time we played pieces for four hands or Sergey Ivanovich himself played reading the scores of some classical pieces, unknown to me. He pointed out the specifics of harmony, counterpoint construction and form of the pieces. Usually it started with a question – what was the peculiarity of the fragment from this or that point of view; and only if I failed to answer myself he did the explaining, using the specific example to lay out the general principles.
I showed my new pieces to Taneyev and listened to his criticism and advice. Taneyev was very attentive to technical problems (in harmony, part-writing and form)... He also provided examples from musical literature that confirmed his advice and were always well-founded and extremely useful.
As for his general evaluation of the pieces’ artistic merit, Sergey Ivanovich was always very strict to his students, restrained in his praise, and sometimes quite ironic about his student’s artistic failures, probably in an attempt to deflate the ego of beginning composers.
Taneyev at the piano. [In Mozart’s string quartets] he very deftly played all four voices from the score without missing anything substantial. It was never hit-or-miss; his playing was always deep and full of feeling. All subtle details of music were impressive and strong in his rendition. I’ve never since heard such a magnificent execution of the brilliant C major quartet, not even with the original sound of string instruments…
From the purely sound perspective, his playing was somewhat dry, restrained in pedalling, not too varied in the ‘colour’ of sound… and yet, it was also full of sincere feeling, and the way he played a melodic line was actually rather too ‘sentimental’ than too dry. This completely contradicts the hackneyed opinion that Taneyev was a ‘dry’ academic musician…
I had once heard Taneyev’s improvisation on the large harmonium. At first I thought that Sergey Ivanovich was playing an unknown choral prelude by Bach. But it turned out to be a brilliant counterpoint improvisation, masterly in both form and style.
On Taneyev’s musical and aesthetic views. Taneyev belonged to the generation of 19th and early 20th century musicians who thought that balance and interdependence of different elements of music was one of its basic aesthetic foundations; they also championed the equality of emotional and intellectual principles in a piece of music. Inflating any element of music at the expense of others always provoked Taneyev’s displeasure.
Once in my presence an amateur musician was showing his works to Sergey Ivanovich. As always, in a businesslike and frank manner, Sergey Ivanovich pointed out insufficient organization of the music, certain problems with harmony, part-writing and form. The middle-aged author happened to be touchy; he retorted that all those criticisms were ‘from the head’, and he had composed with his ‘heart’. Taneyev, smiling wryly, with a kind of amiable sarcasm immediately said: “Whatever comes from the heart has to pass through the head”. I am sure that if someone showed to Sergey Ivanovich a piece where the intellectual side was dominant and ‘the heart’ lacking, he would have said that “the music coming from the head has to pass through the heart”.
As a teacher, he was incomparable. His deep knowledge and his ability to apply it in art filled his students with absolute trust in his advice, even if the student’s artistic ambition was completely alien to him. I am happy to have been his student, to have spent the years of my musical education under his tutorship.

(From “Memoirs about Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev” written in the early 1960s. Source: A. N. Alexandrov. Memoirs. Articles. Letters. Moscow, 1979.)

Daniil Petrov, translation by Victor Sonkin




Text of the booklet "Sergey Taneev, Anatoly Alexandrov. TEACHER AND STUDENT / VICTOR BUNIN"


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