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Georgy Catoire

born: 27 April 1861
died: 21 May 1926
country: Russia

Georges (Georgy) L’vovich Catoire was born in Moscow on 27 April 1861, to parents of French extraction. As a child, his musical aptitudes—as composer and pianist—were soon apparent, although it was not certain that he would pursue a musical career. When he was fourteen, Catoire took his first piano lessons from Karl Klindworth, a pupil of Liszt and disciple of Wagner who, amongst other achievements, made the vocal scores of the ‘Ring’ cycle, and who was also to teach at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1869 to 1881. Catoire had enrolled as a student of mathematics at Moscow University, but music remained an equal enthusiasm for him. It was Klindworth who first directed Catoire towards the music of Wagner, as a result of which Catoire joined the Wagner Society in 1879. In 1884, Klindworth took a post in Berlin, and the following year Catoire attended the Bayreuth Festival, having become one of the first musicians in Russia—certainly in Moscow—to recognize Wagner’s genius. Catoire continued to study science and mathematics at Moscow University, and he graduated with honours in mathematics in 1884, but music now came to exert the stronger pull.

Following his graduation, Catoire worked for a time in his father’s business, but the post was uncongenial to him. He took lessons for a time from V I Vilborg, a pupil of Klindworth, and composed a piano sonata (unpublished) and several other short piano pieces. He transcribed Liszt’s ‘Dante’ Sonata for piano duet, and also parts of Tchaikovsky’s first Suite for orchestra—which later so impressed its composer that Tchaikovsky persuaded his publishers to issue it.

Catoire eventually went to Berlin to continue studies with Klindworth, whose other pupils included Lyapunov and Ethelbert Nevin. At this time Klindworth was one of the principal conductors of the Berlin Philharmonic. Later, in St Petersburg, Catoire studied for a time with Lyapunov (who was less than eighteen months his senior). Having made the acquaintance of Tchaikovsky in Moscow—a turning point in the young man’s career—Catoire took further composition lessons in Berlin with Otto Tirsch and the Belgian pedagogue Philippe Rüfer at the Klindworth–Scharwenka Conservatoire (which had been formed on Klindworth’s retirement in 1893, when his school was merged with Scharwenka’s).

On his final return to Russia in 1887, and completing his formal, if somewhat chequered, musical studies with Rimsky-Korsakov (which resulted in Catoire’s Trois morceaux, Op 2) and Liadov (which produced the Caprice, Op 3), Catoire settled in Moscow, determined to devote himself wholly to music. From that time, which is to say around 1888, and notwithstanding his extensive education, Catoire was entirely self-taught, apart from seeking occasional help from both Arensky and Taneyev.

Thereafter, Catoire pursued his own original studies, principally with regard to harmony. In many ways, Catoire’s approach to harmony was typical of composers of his generation in that he found the expansion of tonality in the latter years of the nineteenth century—through the growth of chromaticism and a greater tonal freedom in the relationship of certain keys, particularly in Catoire’s case the subdominant and supertonic, to the tonic—both liberating and fruitful areas to explore. What sets Catoire somewhat apart, even from those composers with whom he might at first appear superficially similar (most notably, Scriabin) is the larger-scale rhythmic freedom in his work, compared with, say, Scriabin’s evolving obsession with the two-bar phrase. Nevertheless, Catoire was not averse to this cellular method of structure in his earlier work, a characteristic both he and Scriabin may have taken initially from several of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces.

In Catoire’s case, we encounter an original musical mind, one set free by two important creative characteristics: a command of pianistic technique in which anything is possible, evolved in its own way from Liszt and Alkan; and an individual, inquiring freedom which comes from a self-taught composer unafraid to explore the recesses of his imagination.

In this regard one is reminded of Liszt’s highly prophetic writing on John Field’s music: ‘… it is so perfectly adapted to those fleeting impressions which do not belong to that commoner order of sentiments which is bred by one’s social environment, but rather to those pure emotional emanations which eternally weave their spell over the heart of man, because he finds them eternally the same whether he is in the presence of the beauties of Nature, or of those soft sweet tendernesses which surround the morning of life, before reflection arrives to darken with her shadow those radiant prisms of feeling.’

Following his discoveries with regard to harmony and the craft of composition and its codification, late in life Catoire published several important treatises, which are said to have laid the foundation for much composition teaching in the USSR. The composer and enthnomusicologist Vladimir Fere, a pupil of both Glière and Catoire at the Moscow Conservatoire, later wrote, as translated by Robert Rimm: ‘Studying with Catoire, I immediately experienced serious difficulties. Catoire’s teaching method was diametrically opposed to that of Gliere. From the very beginning Georgy L’vovich kept his students within the limits of rigorous academic discipline … he especially emphasized the role of harmony in the structure and form of any composition. Catoire’s personal tastes and preferences were determinative: a student was assigned an entirely precise and single possible path for his composition.’ By this time (the early 1920s) Catoire had become a noted teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire, having been appointed professor of composition there in 1916. His career in Russia therefore spanned the Revolution years: his most famous composition pupil was Dmitri Kabalevsky. Catoire died in Moscow in 1926, less than a month after his 65th birthday.

Catoire’s list of works is not extensive but it includes an early symphony and a once-admired piano concerto alongside several vocal and choral works and a handful of other orchestral compositions. Catoire’s principal interest as a composer would seem to have been in chamber music and in solo piano music, wherein his contributions were more significant. The outstanding Russian writer on music, Victor Belayev, thought sufficiently highly of Catoire to publish a monograph on him in Moscow a few months after the composer’s death. Leonid Sabaneyev, in his book Modern Russian Composers (1927), described Catoire as having suffered from the ‘single, but nowadays unpardonable fault of modesty, an inability to advertise himself’.

After his death Catoire’s reputation as a composer virtually fell into oblivion. His name is barely mentioned in western music dictionaries, and The New Grove makes no mention of his solo piano music at all. There are several reasons for the decline in his reputation; the first was undoubtedly Catoire’s inherent modesty, as Sabaneyev noted. Secondly, Catoire’s music had little in common, aesthetically, with the demands of later Soviet governments; the output of a perceived musical conservative, there was no socio-political mileage in Catoire’s work, although a short posthumous collection of previously unpublished piano music was issued by the State Publishing House in Moscow in 1928—and so, apart from the interest of a few virtuoso students, his music gradually fell into disuse. Thirdly, Catoire’s piano music is technically demanding, and can only be properly revealed when played by a musician possessing a transcendental technique. In addition, with the post-Revolutionary collapse of almost all music publishing houses, Catoire’s music literally went out of circulation—published scores of his works became very scarce. Finally, unlike other Russian composers, Catoire founded no ‘school’, although he was an analytical ground-breaker in the study of harmony, and neither did his music enjoy a fashionable vogue. Circumstances of history, therefore, rather than any shortcomings in his art, have conspired to keep Catoire’s name and music hidden for decades, even from interested musicians.

Apart from the Symphony and Piano Concerto, Catoire composed a symphonic poem after Lermontov, Mtsïri, together with a cantata—Rusalka, also after Lermontov—for chorus and orchestra, and miscellaneous songs. Among his seven large-scale chamber works are the Piano Trio in F minor, Op 14 (written in 1900 and enjoying some vogue in the years up to 1914), the Piano Quartet, Op 31, and his Poème for violin and piano, which is surely one of the most beautiful pieces of violin music by any Russian composer.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1999


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