Thursday, August 6, 2020

Music for a Time of Transition: Meet Sergei Taneyev, a Bridge Between the Old and the New

"This week’s dose of great music features a delightfully inventive set of variations from a String Quintet by Sergei Taneyev, Tchaikovsky’s protégé and a mentor to such giants of Russian music as Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner and Prokofiev. Taneyev’s richly polyphonic style offers an uncommon range of sonorities culminating in a final fugue based on three different themes. Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts
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Sergei Taneyev

Almost every day, you hear contradictory things in the news, how on the one hand people are yearning for the quick return to normalcy and, on the other, wondering what the "New Normal" will be like – and when! How much of what we're used to will still be a part of what we'll be living with in a "Post-Pandemic World"? How much of what we'll have to adapt to in the future can we catch a glimpse of now?

When they call Taneyev a bridge between the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th, don't expect to hear the seeds of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in this piece (or, rather, this one movement from this piece). With the close of Romanticism, the dawn of what would become Modernism was still some years away, and Taneyev was hardly the "last gasp of Romanticism" in Russian music if you follow the career of Sergei Rachmaninov. This places him in an intriguing position and, after all, one composition is only a fragment of the mosaic that makes up the onward flow of music history.

The original program from Summermusic 2018 paired Taneyev's quintet with his more-famous teacher's more-frequently-performed String Sextet, the "Souvenir of Florence," which Tchaikovsky completed in 1890, after he'd returned to Russia from a visit to Italy. However, that's another story entirely and perhaps we'll save it for a future dose.

Meanwhile, here are violinists Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violist Blanka Bednarz, and cellists Fiona Thompson and Cheung Chau in the "Theme & Variations" which conclude the String Quintet in G Major, Op.14, by Sergei Taneyev.
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(recorded at Market Square Church on July 25th, 2018, by Newman Stare.)
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Once Tchaikovsky's “star pupil” and a close friend till his mentor's death in 1893, Sergei Taneyev divided his career between being a piano soloist, a teacher, a theorist and scholar (famous for his treatises on counterpoint and fugue), and also, not coincidentally, a composer.

Composition came slowly to him: he described how he would take his ideas, explore their various potentials with all manner of possibilities, and only then, choosing the most interesting, begin putting them into a piece.

Teneyev chose the less frequent “two-cello” option compared to Mozart's and Brahms' preference for the “two-viola” set-up (even though, perhaps, the most famous or at least most frequently performed string quintet in the repertoire is Schubert's C Major with two cellos). He began his first string quintet, a work in three movements, in 1900 and completed it the following year, published it as his Op. 14. 

Each one of Taneyev's variations is self-contained like a little complete-in-itself character piece gathered into a series of contrasting moods or natures. At times, it feels more like a collection of individual movements, not just a "third movement" but a "third and fourth movement."

Given Taneyev's skills in counterpoint – that most German of techniques – it's not surprising one of them becomes a fugue (at 16:01) after what you'd be convinced was a break between a slow movement and the finale.

Like his teacher – and Tchaikovsky loved to write variations (check out the vast scale of those finales in his 3rd Orchestral Suite or the Piano Trio and of course, in relation to Taneyev's choice of theme here, his “Rococo Variations”) – Taneyev enjoyed exploring the possibilities, like the rather stern one beginning at 9:03, dominated initially by the lower strings. A sizable 20-minute movement (well, part light-hearted intermezzo, part slow movement, part finale), it could, conceivably, have gone on a lot longer, the way he keeps spinning them out. Yet it's all of the same fabric we've heard in the first two movements and a testament to what he is best remembered for: his craftsmanship.

By the way, his second string quintet, Op. 16, might make you think he then went on immediately to compose a companion piece, but it actually dates from three years later. Like I said, composition came slowly for him and, like any teacher and scholar, there were other things frequently getting in the way of his creative time.

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Taneyev, like Glazunov, is one of those “between-the-generations” composers, taught by their famous teachers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, and famous for their pupils, like Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and later the two giants of the Soviet Era, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but otherwise, by themselves, often overlooked (at least in the wider world). This whole generation is overshadowed by the past and the future, ironically, but lets examine one aspect of this connection with the past.

Taneyev playing Tolstoy's piano (c.1895)

Once Taneyev rescued Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto from a potentially disastrous Moscow premiere by replacing the original soloist, Tchaikovsky was so impressed, he dedicated his tone poem, Francesca da Rimini, inspired by Dante, to Taneyev in 1876. When the intended soloist of his 2nd Piano Concerto died before the premiere, Taneyev again gave the work its Moscow premiere in 1882. Then, when Tchaikovsky himself died before realizing what to do with his one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto – it had started out as his 7th Symphony – Taneyev edited two other works to create a full three-movement 3rd Concerto which is even less often heard than the 2nd.

During this friendship, Taneyev was one of the few people Tchaikovsky could turn to for musical advice and, being notoriously thin-skinned when it came to criticism, often regretted it but realized it was intended honestly and often true to the mark. Taneyev could get away with making comments that none of Tchaikovsky's other friends would dare consider, leading to a kind of “fear” the older composer had when he did ask for it (and which often resulted in the response, “well, he asked for it...”).

One of Taneyev's later students wrote about this aspect of his relationship with Tchaikovsky: “I think [Tchaikovsky] was unnerved by the overt frankness with which Taneyev reacted to [his] works: Taneyev believed that one must indicate precisely what one finds to be 'faults,' while strong points would make themselves evident. He was hardly fully justified in his conviction: composers are a nervous lot and they are often particularly dissatisfied with themselves. Tchaikovsky was just such a person: he worried himself almost sick over each work and often tried even to destroy them...”

Yet the younger man had his humorous side and wrote a little ballet for Tchaikovsky's birthday one year, 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 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.

If anything, however, today we might wonder if perhaps that isn't what's missing from his music...

- Dick Strawser

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