Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Summermusic: Two Russian Piano Quintets You've Probably Never Heard Before

 Summermusic 2017 concludes its three-concert tour on Wednesday evening - beginning at 7:30 in Market Square Church - with a Russian program of two Romantic piano quintets: one by a well-known composer; the other by one not-so-well-known in this country. Alexander Borodin, one of the Russian Five (or the Mighty Handful), may be more famous for his “Polovetsian Dances” and Sergei Taneyev is... well, probably better remembered as a teacher and for having been a star pupil of Tchaikovsky's than for being a composer, and yet without him, the transition from Borodin and Tchaikovsky to Rachmaninoff and Skryabin might have been quite different. So let's explore the rarified world of the Russian piano quintet!
A Russian Program

When we think of “Piano Quintets,” we tend to think of a mighty handful of masterpieces by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák and Shostakovich (and possibly Franck), usually in that order. Yet the two quintets on this program do not fall into the “masterpiece” category nor are they by composers well-known for their chamber music. (Well, that's not entirely fair, since Taneyev is hardly known as a composer at all any more, though he wrote a good deal of chamber music including six string quartets over a productive career of thirty-five years.)

It's also curious that, when you listen to them, they sound not terribly dissimilar: the Borodin may seem less complicated only because the Taneyev is longer, more virtuosic and overall more complex. But we might think the same when comparing either the Schumann or the Dvořák to the Brahms quintet, even though 22 years separate Schumann's from Brahms' and 23 years separate Dvořák's from the Brahms.

Borodin's quintet was composed in 1862, even before you could say he'd begun his musical career, and Taneyev's was written four years before he died, in 1911, 49 years after the Borodin.

To put it in another perspective, Tchaikovsky wrote his first published composition in 1867 and died in 1893, eighteen years before Taneyev's quintet. On one hand, Borodin, influenced at the time more by Mendelssohn and Schumann (though he didn't appear to know Schumann's quintet) – and Schumann had died only three years before Borodin traveled to Germany to study – wrote his quintet two years before Brahms wrote his; when Taneyev was composing his quintet, younger composers were gearing up for some considerable stylistic changes for the new century: Stravinsky wrote Petrushka in 1911 after putting aside, at least momentarily, The Rite of Spring, and Schoenberg wrote Pierrot Lunaire. Borodin was 28 with his whole career ahead of him; Taneyev was 55 with his career basically behind him.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Borodin: Chemist, Composer
Borodin's quintet is in three movements, starting with what is essentially a moderate tempo for a first movement, followed by a scherzo and then a broadly contrasting finale, at times joyful, melancholy but above all songful (like so much Russian music). To those familiar with Borodin's best pieces, his voice is remarkably identifiable: if it shows any influences from the German composers he enjoyed, it is not in the surface level we hear most easily. If it sounds “very Russian” to you, keep in mind he had no real Russian models – the “famous” Russian music, to put it simply, had not yet surfaced beyond the two most significant composers in the generation before him, Glinka and Dargomizhsky.

But he is not quoting Russian folk-songs to get this “Russian sound” as other composers would do later. When I hear Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, for example, I am surprised how many of those tunes are actually folk songs he's quoting, but when I asked Peter Sirotin about Borodin's tunes, he jokingly replied they “just sound like it. He was good at creating faux-folktunes.”

Here is the complete quintet (in one clip) with pianist Alexander Mndoianiz and the Moscow String Quartet. There was not a lot to choose from but this seemed in general more idiomatic, to give you an impression of the piece.

It is interesting to note, of the “Russian influences” in the piece, he saves the impressions of Orthodox church music for the last movement, bringing it to a benedictory close. At times, this finale seems to be working too hard to act like a finale. However, once you realize he was completely self-taught at this time – as far as music was concerned – one can overlook a great deal.

(For more about Borodin's life and the background of his quintet, see below.)

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Tchaikovsky, perhaps the most famous and most popular Russian composer, once said, “Oh Borodin, a good chemist, but he cannot write a proper measure without Rimsky helping him.”

So let's continue with the piano quintet by Tchaikovsky's star pupil, Sergei Taneyev (or Taneev as you might see it, sometimes). I'll write more about his life and career further on.

Just as “amateur” is a word that can carry double meanings, the word “academic” can imply not only a preference for technical skills over “mere emotionalism,” it can also imply a dryness of interest for listeners unconcerned how well you can write a fugue. Brahms was derided at the time as an “academic” composer – one critic, even in 1900, still complained that his lush String Sextet in B-flat Major was “musical trigonometry” – and even Wagner had a back-handed compliment for his “Handel Variations” which ends with an enormous fugue which Wagner thought was very accomplished: “One sees what still may be done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them.”

Prof. Sergei Taneyev
And Taneyev knew how to use them. While compared to most Russian composers – who did not care for such academic niceties whether they could use them or not (and Tchaikovsky certainly couldn't, despite various attempts to include them in his music) – his work may sound more “rigorous” and “complex,” but by the time you get to the end of the last movement, you're probably more aware of the Romantic passion of the music than its dry academic, theoretical, contrapuntal structure.

He described his own compositional methods as first, assembling his themes; then he wrote on them various contrapuntal exercises – canons, imitations – until he had “exhausted their polyphonic possibilities.” Having done that, then, he set about actually composing the piece.

It was an age-old battle – which came first, the mind or the heart? Beethoven wrote on the score of his Missa solemnis (a work bristling with fugues), “From the heart, may it return to the heart.” Considering Bach who had a similar interest in fugues and canons – the epitome of polyphonic writing – and more modern composers like those who composed “according to Schoenberg's 12-tone methods” (serial music) which we tend to over-analyze, it would seem the mind was more important than the heart, and in many less talented composers, it would seem craft became a substitute for imagination (as Allen Shawn says in his biography, “perhaps Schoenberg's work deserves a more superficial treatment than it has hitherto received”).

On that note, let's just say, “listen to Taneyev's quintet and enjoy it as it comes to you.”

Completed in 1911, there are the four standard movements. Though the first movement is marked “Introduction,” it is actually a long intro followed by an even longer, romantically dramatic, often tempestuous fast section. The scherzo is another of those fleet-footed, light-hearted contrasts to all the traditional gloom-and-doom we associate with Russian art. The slow movement, essentially a passacaglia with variations, an old baroque form, is almost a funeral march, a tragic tone-poem on a symphonic scale before the finale with its mix of drama and playfulness boils up into a dramatic conclusion worthy of Brahms.

I'm posting two clips, both with the same pianist, Mikhail Pletnev. The first, despite its idiotic graphic, is the better recording and more intense performance, but the second has the benefit of the score, for those who'd like to follow along and “see” what they're listening to.

Taneyev's Piano Quintet in G Minor (complete) with Mikhail Pletnev, piano; Vadim Repin and Ilya Gringolts, violins; Nobuko Imai, viola; Lynn Harrell, cello:

(complete w/score) Mikhail Pletnev, piano; Alexei Bruni and Sergei Galaktionov, violins; Sergei Dubov, viola; Alexander Rudin, cello (recorded in 2001):

Earlier in this series, I had quoted Charles Ives, known for his typical Yankee cussedness: “Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful.”

Another favorite composer of mine, the American Roger Sessions, himself often described as an overly intellectual composer, once said, “Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart -- as if the one could function without the other.”

Wherever one begins, the end goal is always the same – the combination of the heart and mind into a complete, if not universally satisfying, whole.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The Russian Five: Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimksy-Korsakov


Alexander Borodin – Dr. Alexander Borodin – is what in this country we would call an “amateur” in the sense he did not make his living by his art (“amateur, from the Latin amo/amas/amat, to love”). Yet anyone familiar with Borodin's music would realize there is nothing “amateurish” about its quality. 

Borodin's day-job was being a chemistry professor. He called himself “a Sunday composer” who, during the winter – teaching season – could compose only when he was home sick. Consequently, his music-friends would greet him not by saying 'I hope you are well' but by saying 'I hope you are ill.'

Borodin was largely “un-trained,” another aspect of consideration when bandying about the word “amateur.” True, when he would've been a student, they didn't have music schools in Russia – Anton Rubinstein opened the first official one in St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital, in 1862 and when his brother Nikolai opened one in Moscow four years later, one of his first students was a former law-student named Tchaikovsky.

Borodin & Mendeleyev (center)
Instead, following his scientific interests, Borodin had entered the Imperial Academy of Medicine and Surgery in St. Petersburg in 1850 – a prestigious institution dating back to the days of Peter the Great: one of its later students named Pavlov might ring a bell – and following graduation, he spent a year as a surgeon in a military hospital, then was appointed as a professor of pathology and therapeutics before receiving his Doctorate in medicine and pursuing some post-doctoral work first in Heidelberg, Germany, in the late-1850s, then in Pisa in 1862, the year he published a paper describing the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride. One of his fellow students in Heidelberg, by the way, was a chemist named Mendeleyev who would publish his first periodic chart of the elements seven years later.

While in Heidelberg, Dr. Borodin met a young Russian woman – Ekaterina Sergeievna Protopopova – who was an amateur pianist with a preference for Chopin and Schumann. A woman of weakened health, she had come to Germany for “the cure,” but returned to St. Petersburg in 1862 – as did Borodin – and not long after that they were married.

Borodin's interest in music was awakened, in a sense, by Ekaterina's playing. So is it any coincidence that, while in Italy, he composed the piano quintet we'll hear on Wednesday night's program?

When he returned to Russia, Borodin was appointed a professor of chemistry at his alma mater and he and his new wife set up house-keeping in a spacious and rent-free apartment in the Academy building where domestic life took on a happy if often chaotic domesticity.

One other thing happened in 1862: though he had met a civil servant named Modest Mussorgsky, another would-be composer, a couple of times, it wasn't until he returned to Russia, his musical interests reactivated, that Borodin met composer and teacher Mily Balakirev and began taking lessons from him in his “spare” time. Though Rubinstein had opened his conservatory that same year, a full-time college professor would hardly have time to take regularly scheduled classes and lessons and so continued the age-old tradition of studying, however haphazardly, with a "master."

By then, Borodin had already completed a small number of chamber works – a couple of piano trios, a cello sonata (inspired by Bach), two string trios, a string quintet and a string sextet – before he began his Piano Quintet in C Minor. Once he started working with Balakirev, he jumped right into composing his first symphony.

So technically, if we examine that “amateur” status again, as far as the Piano Quintet is concerned, yes, Borodin was as yet “un-trained.” He finished it before he turned 29.

As life would unfold for Prof. Borodin – who added to his workload by championing education for women and later founded the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg – he found little time to work on his compositions. Living at the academy itself made him accessible, day and night, to students and colleagues. Relatives of his wife's would show up if they needed a place to stay and at any one time someone might be sleeping on a couch or in a spare bed or, as happened one time, on the grand piano, forcing him to abandon plans to get any composing done for the moment.

Plus, in addition to relatives, they seemed to collect stray cats. As his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov noted in his autobiography,

= = = = = = =
“Many cats that the Borodins lodged marched back and forth on the table, thrusting their noses into the plates or leaping on the backs of the guests. These felines enjoyed the protection of Catherine Sergueïevna. They all had biographies. One was called Fisher because he was successful in catching fish through the holes in the frozen river. Another, known as Lelong, had the habit of bringing home kittens in his teeth which were added to the household. More than once, dining there, I have observed a cat walking along the table. When he reached my plate I drove him away; then Catherine Sergeyevna would defend him and recount his biography. Another installed himself on Borodin’s shoulders and heated him mercilessly. ‘Look here, sir, this is too much!’ cried Borodin, but the cat never moved.”
= = = = = = =

In the 1860s, Borodin was a member of a circle of composers orbiting around Mily Balakirev, along with Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky and a fellow named Cesar Cui whose day-job was being a military engineer and later a music critic. Advocating a "national Russian voice" in their music, they became such a powerful presence in Russian music they were known as “The Mighty Handful,” though the exact words the critic Stasov used to describe them was “Mighty Bunch.” (I have often argued that Cesar Cui, the last to be mentioned and the most easily forgotten, might well be the “Little Finger of the Mighty Handful,” but that's another story.) More often they are referred to as “The Five” but this is something they never used among themselves and something which seemed rarely used in Russia at all (it was mostly a French thing). Rimsky, in his autobiography, always referred to themselves as “Balakirev's Circle.”

This aesthetic viewpoint is important for the development of Russian music (and culture in general). In Russian culture, at this time, there were those who favored the old Russian traditional identity, called “Slavophiles,” and those who preferred the idea of being cosmopolitans, becoming part of Europe both culturally and socially. Yes, technically this division goes back before the days of Peter the Great – Peter I to Russians who, historically, do not always consider him all that great – in the early-1700s when he brought the old Asiatic empire kicking and mostly screaming into the sphere of Western Europe. (I could point you in the direction of several fat books that delve into this topic, if you're interested: Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance and Bruce Lincoln's Between Heaven and Hell; there's also Richard Taruskin's On Russian Music).

The idea was – following developments that had already started happening in Western Europe following the 1848 revolutions – to incorporate the folk-songs and dance rhythms of the people into the music rather than rely on the “imported traditions” of especially German music. They essentially rejected such things as symphonies and concertos and especially the abstract world of chamber music.

Yet this incorporation of the music of the Russian people either as outright quotations or creating melodies in the style of folksong, rather than imitations of German or Italian styles and techniques as had been the norm in Russian history since 1700, goes back to Mikhail Glinka - speaking of amateurs with little if any real training - whose Fantasy on Two Wedding Songs, Kamarinskaya, written in 1848, is (as Stravinsky later put it) “the acorn from which all Russian music grew.”

(Balakirev, himself a brilliant pianist at the start of his career, even made a Lisztian transcription of the piece which I've always had a fondness for.)

As you can hear, the faster tune itself is never "developed" in the German sense, but repeated over and over with ever-changing textures, orchestration and harmonies - a bit like Ravel's Bolero, perhaps, which, when it was first heard in 1928, was considered so radical! This, then, is the dilemma of the folk-inspired composer: how to create a long-form piece out of a few bars of music that defy expansion?

But remember, Borodin's initial endeavors in music were rooted in these early chamber music pieces of his like the Piano Quintet which were so heavily influenced by the style of Mendelssohn (remember, he was in Germany when he wrote most of those pieces). He had no innate Russian tradition to build on. Even later, he would compose two symphonies and two string quartets which his colleagues argued against as being “Un-Russian,” wishing he would spend what limited time he had for composing on more appropriate genres like operas (like his Prince Igor which he started working on in 1868 and still left unfinished at his death twenty years later) and symphonic poems (like his In the Steppes of Central Asia).

And yet this Piano Quintet sounds so inherently Russian with its folk-like themes, it might come as a surprise it is not only such an early work of his (despite its simplicity which one can excuse more as “charming” rather than “amateurish”) but that it was written before he came under the nationalist influence of Balakirev and his circle!

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

In between Tchaikovsky and the Russian Five and composers like Rachmaninoff, Skryabin (or Scriabin, if you prefer), and Prokofiev is a whole generation of composers usually lumped under the heading “The Second Generation,” none of whom – except Alexander Glazunov – ever caught the imagination of their audiences to the same degree as their teachers or, ironically, as their own students did. We could mention Lyadov, Lyapunov, Arensky, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Glazunov, Gretchaninov and – before this starts sounding like a song by Danny Kaye – Taneyev.

Young Taneyev
Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev was a child prodigy and had the advantage – unlike any of the Five or of Tchaikovsky – of attending formalized studies from the beginning, entering the Moscow Conservatory at the age of 10 or 11, eventually to study piano, starting at 15, with Nikolai Rubinstein (Tchaikovsky's chief mentor if at times his most savage detractor, if you recall the famous story of his initial reaction to Tchaikovsky's seemingly naïve first piano concerto). At 13, Taneyev began taking theory and eventually composition classes with Tchaikovsky himself. At 19 he played Brahms' D Minor Piano Concerto and was the first student to graduate with first prizes in both performance and composition.

But he was also something of a theorist/musicologist, one might say, specializing in “theoretical counterpoint” in the music of Bach but also Palestrina, Josquin and Lassus, composers “so old,” many of his fellow students wondered why bother (keep in mind, Rimsky-Korsakov complained of a program Balakirev conducted with symphonies by Haydn on it, wondering why they were playing “such ancient music”).

Considering the Romantic ethos of his teachers, it is telling that Taneyev quoted Leonardo da Vinci on the title page of his magnum opus, twenty years in the making, Imitative Counterpoint in Strict Style: “No branch of study can claim to be considered a true science unless it is capable of being demonstrated mathematically.”

When not teaching, composing, performing or writing, he liked to relax with books about natural and social science, history, mathematics and with the philosophy of Plato and Spinoza.

Taneyev, looking very much the Russian Brahms
Because everybody not well known has to be described in more familiar terms, Taneyev is usually called “The Russian Brahms” and if his piano quintet has any roots in those “famous quintets” I mentioned, it would be closer to the Brahms than anything else. It is interesting, though, that the Shostakovich, which would be written almost 30 years after Taneyev's, would include a fugal movement after a long-lined, meditative introduction (just like a Bach Prelude & Fugue, come to think of it), and other somewhat “learnéd traits” for a Soviet composer already in trouble with Stalin's regime for writing “formalist” (that is, “Westernized,” specifically “Germanic”) music.

Taneyev became a close friend and confidant to his teacher Tchaikovsky. At the age of 19, he also gave the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto, much to the composer's delight so that Tchaikovsky decided to write a second concerto specifically for Taneyev to premiere. At 22, Taneyev took over Tchaikovsky's teaching position when (courtesy of Madame von Meck's stipend) Tchaikovsky could retire to concentrate solely on composition. After Tchaikovsky's death, Taneyev completed his sketches for another piano concerto he'd decided instead to turn into his still unfinished 7th Symphony, thus realizing a 3rd Piano Concerto.

Tchaikovsky, notoriously lacking in self-confidence, felt comfortable taking advice from his former pupil whom he admired for his honesty even if, at times, it was occasionally negative, even brutal. Yet the younger man had his humorous side and wrote a little ballet for Tchaikovsky's birthday, once, something with an absurd scenario and music that was “a contrapuntal pot-pourri” of themes from Tchaikovsky's works. There were also several parodies (like “Quartets of Government Officials”), comic fugues and variations as well as “toy symphonies”!

While Borodin lived two entirely separate lives – chemist and composer – Taneyev's world was similarly divided between creativity and scholarship (which, as one biographer noted, “would have awed a medieval monastic”), not to mention his outside interests in mathematics and science. While it could be mentioned that Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rubinstein, and Glazunov were “Homeric drinkers,” surpassed only by the unfortunate Mussorgsky, Taneyev was uncharacteristically a teetotaler. Not surprising.

- Dick Strawser

No comments:

Post a Comment