An intellectual follows in Tchaikovsky’s footsteps

Taneyev suite concert
Natural harmony. © Charles Thibo

Two weeks ago, I presented Luciano Berio’s “Petite Suite”, an interesting piano piece blending different traditions, Baroque and the music of the early 20th century popular in Paris. If you did not like Berio’s suite, you may like this one better. It has a much more classical ring, it was composed for a symphonic orchestra, written by a student of Pyotr Tchaikovsky some 40 years before Berio presented his “Petite Suite” to the public.

Baroque and Romanticism

Sergei Taneyev’s “Suite de Concert”, Op. 28, is the composer’s only composition for solo violin, and the Hyperion label has released a beautiful recording with the Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts and the Scottish BBC Symphony Orchestra. The composer dedicated it to Leopold Auer, a well-known violinist and conductor at the turn of the century and a teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. It combines elements from the Romantic era, like the third movement called “Märchen” (fairy tale) and the Baroque style like the Prelude, the Gavotte and the Tarantella. And the many variations of the theme of the fourth movement are a nod to Tchaikovsky’s  Suite No. 3, Op. 55.

The Concert Suite for Violin and Orchestra is one of Taneyev’s later works, it was written in 1908/09, when the composer was 52 years old. Taneyev had his first piano lessons when he was five, and his musical carer started in September 1866, when he enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory, although he was not yet ten years old. He studies composition with Tchaikovsky and piano with Nikolai Rubinstein.

The master’s tolerated critic

Tchaikovsky was his paragon; from 1875 on he would play the solo part in the Russian premieres of Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra. Oxford Music Online notes that “a firm friendship between them had begun while Taneyev was still a student, and it continued until Tchaikovsky’s death, despite the frankness with which Taneyev was prepared (and, uniquely among Tchaikovsky’s circle, encouraged) to criticize Tchaikovsky’s work.”

Taneyev’s biography is firmly linked to the Moscow Conservatory. In 1878 he took over Tchaikovsky’s harmony and orchestration class upon Tchaikovsky’s resignation, in 1881 he added the piano class of Rubinstein, who had died, and in 1883 the composition class. Two years later he reluctantly accepted to be the director of the conservatory, but in 1889 he came to the conclusion that enough is enough and that his duties distracted him to much from composing. He resigned the directorship, though he continued to teach counterpoint. His pupils including Aleksander Skryabin and Sergei Rachmaninov.

Fighting a prejudice

Taneyev’s teaching and his research for a treatise on counterpoint however were an excellent precondition to compose a piece that blends different traditions and highlights their differences. The French musicologist André Lischke writes that Taneyev wasan expert in Russian music, expert in the old masters, the French-Flamish School, Palestrina as well as Bach and the Vienna School.”

This is probably the origin of a common opinion about Taneyev’s music: too intellectual, not emotional enough and in some way a betrayal of Tchaikovsky’s legacy. The “Suite de Concert” proves these critics wrong. Taneyev’s works merits five stars out of five.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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