Musical austerity derived from Bach’s logic

Taneyev Trio B minor_final
Morning aesthetics. © Charles Thibo

A disturbing first movement, a gentle second movement – and the rest will remain a mystery for us for ever. The composer did not finish the work, he set it aside and two years later he was dead. Sergei Taneyev worked in November and December 1913 on the first two parts of his String Trio in B minor. It was one of his last compositions and the last piece of chamber music, his preferred genre, the one in which he excelled. Taneyev was a conservative man in questions of music aesthetics. He found endless opportunities for creativity in contrapuntal* technique, and chamber music gave him the means to express this.

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in his autobiography that in his early days, the 1880, Taneyev had shown “towards Glazunov’s early appearances […] deep distrust; Borodin he had considered a clever dilettante and nothing more; and Mussorgsky made him laugh.” He softened his stand later, and while he remained himself committed to the style cast in iron by the Vienna classics – his acknowledged model was Mozart – the music journalist Malcolm MacDonald saw in the trio a hint to expressionism.

Variations of a popular tune

MacDonald wrote in the sleeve-notes for the label Hyperion that the trio “is a sombre, troubled work, as is immediately evident from the nervous oscillations of the opening of the Allegro. The febrile mood, the sometimes intensely chromatic harmony, the passionate climaxes that appear and disappear, the restless rise and fall of the cello’s figurations, all point towards a change in aesthetic orientation on Taneyev’s part. Passages of this movement might be characterized as expressionistic.” The Andante theme of the second movement in a folk-song style is followed by seven variations taking the shape of self-contained miniature suite.

Taneyev is the odd man out in the history of Russian music. Deeply intellectual, an excellent composition theorist, an accomplished pianist. Not very engaging as a person, far removed from anything flamboyant, his music is almost austere in the sense that Taneyev kept the notes in his scores to a strict minimum. His sense of mathematical precision reflects Johann Sebastian Bach’s logic and the absolute music that was built by the Vienna classics upon Bach’s foundation.

Pleading the counterpoint case

The “Guardian” has published an interesting portrait in 2005, from which I will quote a few lines as a conclusion to this post. “Taneyev sensed that 19th-century music had reached a technical impasse, where the concentration on ever richer and more chromatic harmonies was dragging composers into a kind of swamp where the music could have no clarity”, wrote Gerard McBurney. The answer for Taneyev lay in moving away from harmony to concentrate on what he saw as the far more interesting, vivid and ancient art of counterpoint (combining melodies). “Taneyev was a proto-modernist figure – despite the old-fashioned sound of his music.”

Taneyev’s three string trios have been recorded by the Belcanto Strings.

© Charles Thibo


Pristine elegance with a fatal destiny

Fragility. © Charles Thibo

“Such moments wait to be discovered: they are transitional, passing references to pure beauty, captured for an instant before they sink back into relatively quotidian”, writes the scholar Maynard Solomon and he explicitly refers to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G (KV 453). Pure beauty with all its fragility – Mozart’s piano concerto reminds me of the first blossoms on a tree in early spring, pristine, delicate, graceful, of exceptional elegance, promising new and abundant life, but threatened each night by the cold, wind gusts, heavy rain and thus imbued with a fatal destiny.

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Moving to the pulse of Moscheles’ piano concerto

Out, out into the fresh air! © Charles Thibo

The first time I came across the name of Ignaz Moscheles was in the context of the “Sonntagsmusiken”, organized by Fanny Mendelssohn at the Mendelssohns’ mansion in Berlin. Moscheles, one of the greatest piano virtuosos of his time and a first-rate music teacher, was a regular guest at the Mendelssohns’ and both Fanny and Felix visited him while he stayed on London. His friendship with Fanny’s brother Felix led to his appointment as principal professor of piano at the newly founded Leipzig Conservatory in 1846. He had taught the 15 year old Felix in the 20s in Berlin, Edvard Grieg was one of his students many years later in Leipzig.

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