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Taneyev, Sergei (1856-1915)

Sergei Taneyev

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

‘He is the greatest master of counterpoint in Russia; I am not even sure there is his equal in the West’, was Tchaikovsky’s verdict on his protégé, champion and friend Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev. The son of a cultured government official, Taneyev was born on 25 November 1856 at Vladimir-na-Klyaz’me; he manifested musical ability as a child and entered the Moscow Conservatory before he was ten. From 1869 he was a student in Tchaikovsky’s composition class and studied the piano with Nikolai Rubinstein. In 1875 (the year he graduated) he became the first student to win the Conservatory’s gold medal in both performance and composition. As is well known, Tchaikovsky wrote his Piano Concerto No 1 for Nikolai Rubinstein, who then refused to play it; instead it was Taneyev who gave the Moscow premiere and thereafter was the soloist in the first performances of all Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra. He also edited Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 3 and Andante and Finale for piano and orchestra for their publication after Tchaikovsky’s death.

In 1878 Taneyev took over Tchaikovsky’s harmony and orchestration classes at the Conservatory; then Rubinstein’s piano class; then the composition class; and finally in 1885 he was appointed Director. He held the post for four years and reformed the entire curriculum. Though he then resigned the Directorship because of the effects of overwork and in order to concentrate on composition, he continued to teach counterpoint, his speciality, until 1905. Taneyev’s knowledge of Renaissance counterpoint, including Ockeghem and Lassus, was unequalled in Russia, and he passed it on to his many pupils, who included Glière, Lyapunov, Medtner, Rachmaninov and Scriabin.

Taneyev remained unmarried and lived, on the whole, a quiet and ordered life, looked after by his childhood nurse, the redoubtable Pelageya Vassilievna Ivanovna. Even so, after some years of friendship with Lev Tolstoy, he became for a while an unwitting (or unwilling) object of infatuation for Tolstoy’s wife. In the wake of the failed Revolution of 1905, he resigned from the Conservatory in protest at the Director’s punishment of students who had been involved in popular agitation. In his last ten years he resumed his career as a concert pianist, published an important and influential textbook on 'Invertible Counterpoint' and began another one on canon. He developed pneumonia after attending Scriabin’s funeral at the end of April 1915, then finally succumbed to a heart attack on 19 June 1915.

A man of wide intellectual attainments and many interests (for instance, he taught himself Esperanto and set texts in that language), Taneyev was slow to develop as a composer and, while universally respected and admired, remained a solitary figure artistically. His ideal was Mozart, and he defended his cultivation of such extraordinary contrapuntal erudition by saying it could all be found in Mozart as a means of presenting ideas with the greatest clarity; in fact, clarity and simplicity were his declared aims. He had a strong interest in Russian folk music, but especially as a basis for polyphonic treatment, feeling that Russian music had not yet experienced the polyphonic phase which the rest of Europe had gone through in the sixteenth century. He generally disapproved of the approach of the Russian Nationalist school based in St Petersburg—but this did not prevent his becoming good friends with Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. He believed in well-balanced structures and thorough, logical development, tendencies that make him in a sense the most ‘Germanic’ of Russian composers. Not for nothing was he sometimes called ‘the Russian Brahms’; yet like his mentor Tchaikovsky he disliked Brahms’s music and always cultivated a distinctive style that transcends national genres. For his only opera he turned, not to Russian history or folklore, but to Classical Greek drama—the Oresteia of Aeschylus. His other principal works include four symphonies, a good deal of choral and piano music, but especially an impressive output of chamber music.

from notes by Calum MacDonald


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