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Taneyev, Sergei (1856-1915)

Sergei Taneyev

born: 25 November 1856
died: 19 June 1915
country: Russia

Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) does not fit any of the customary stereotypes of Russian composers of his time: unlike the Five and their successors, he had only limited interest in using folk music as a basis for his composition. His tastes were more conservative and more austere than those of his teacher Tchaikovsky: his enthusiasms tended towards Renaissance polyphony and Bachian counterpoint. His approach to composition was meticulous, painstaking, and notable for its elegant command of technique. His outlook was cosmopolitan, and there is little overt ‘nationalism’ is his works. In short, Taneyev represents something of an anomaly among the Russian composers of his time, and this—along with the punctilious restraint that often characterizes his music—may go some way to explaining why his works are not better known. Despite their aesthetic differences, Taneyev maintained friendly relationships with the Five and their pupils. He even followed the example of Balakirev and others and collected some Kabardinian folk songs from the Caucasus in 1885, publishing twenty of them in an article entitled On the music of the mountain Tartars the following year—a publication that was to inspire Prokofiev in 1941 when he composed his second string quartet. But the deeper roots of Taneyev’s style were to be found in the Renaissance and Baroque music he so admired, and in Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms.

Taneyev was prodigiously talented as a child, starting piano lessons at the age of five and becoming a student at the Moscow Conservatory before his tenth birthday. In 1871 he began to study composition with Tchaikovsky, and the two went on to become lifelong friends. Taneyev graduated in 1875, and the following year Tchaikovsky dedicated Francesca da Rimini to his brilliant young student. Taneyev was also an outstanding pianist, and the manuscript full score of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto (1874–5) has a dedication to Taneyev (who was still a student), which was subsequently changed to Hans von Bülow. Taneyev was the soloist in the first Moscow performance of the concerto (on 21 November / 3 December 1875), conducted by his piano teacher, Nikolai Rubinstein.

Taneyev’s correspondence with Tchaikovsky spans two decades. Taneyev was never afraid to criticize his teacher. When he first played through Eugene Onegin in 1877 he told Tchaikovsky that ‘there’s too little action’. Tchaikovsky replied that: ‘I was melting and quivering with indescribable delight when I wrote it. And if even just the slightest portion of what I felt when composing this opera finds a response in the listeners, then I will be very satisfied … Let Onegin be a very boring spectacle with warmly written music—that is all I desire.’ Serious-minded to a fault, Taneyev also expressed misgivings about Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony—a work he went on to arrange, with great skill, for piano four-hands: ‘One shortcoming in this symphony to which I shall never be able to reconcile myself is the fact that in each movement there is something which reminds one of ballet music.’ Tchaikovsky’s response was one of friendly bafflement: ‘I really do not understand what you mean by ballet music and why you cannot reconcile yourself to it. By ballet music do you mean every cheerful melody with a dance rhythm? But in that case you shouldn’t be able to reconcile yourself to the majority of Beethoven’s symphonies, in which one continually comes across such melodies.’ In 1893 Taneyev assisted Tchaikovsky with the piano four-hand arrangement of the ‘Pathétique’ symphony, mentioned in a touching note from Tchaikovsky a few weeks before his death: ‘Golubchik [literally ‘Little Pigeon’], let us play through the symphony just one more time.’

Taneyev was on friendly terms with Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sonya (Sophia). In the mid-1890s Taneyev spent several summers with the Tolstoys, and was particularly close to Sonya. Tolstoy persuaded Taneyev to take up cycling, something he did with great enthusiasm, claiming that ‘even the experiences of newly-weds on their wedding night cannot compare with the sensations experienced by the bicyclist’. Tolstoy and Taneyev played chess together, and they shared an interest in Esperanto. Taneyev was one of the first Russian speakers of the language and in the mid-1890s he composed songs on Esperanto texts, as well as writing some of his diary entries in Esperanto. Tolstoy eventually became jealous of Sonya’s closeness to Taneyev, though any notion of impropriety was a product of Tolstoy’s imagination: Taneyev never married and throughout his adult life he was looked after by his elderly nanny.

from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2017


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