Trying to Escape Convention and Banality

Tanayev Sym3-1
Orchestral or chamber music? © Charles Thibo

“It does seem to me, though, that if you insist, with relentless consistency, in sticking to the same compositional techniques when writing symphonies, string quartets, and operas, the results will hardly be as successful. However, I truly do not know. All I know is that you have a great talent, a lot of intelligence, and a whole sea of hatred for everything that is conventional, banal, and to be had cheaply, and that as a result of this we must sooner or later expect to see rich fruits.” Thus the master spoke. Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote on April 14, 1884, in a letter to Sergei Taneyev, his former pupil, what he thought of Taneyev’s latest work, a cantata. Taneyev was fascinated by counterpoint technique and naturally applied it to his multiple choral works.

Taneyev had completed by April 1884 the sketch of his Symphony No. 3 in D minor and played the first movement it to his former teacher in Moscow during the summer. In September he wrote again to Taneyev: “I hate it when my compositions are criticized before they have come into the world […] About the music, the more I familiarize myself with it, the more I like it. Your orchestra will of course sound good the way you have done it, but if it is a question of providing a fault-finding critique […] I shall say them in due course. […] And so it is better if I remain silent.”

A week after those first remarks, the teacher was unable to restrain himself:. Basically he stated that the symphony had not been conceived as an orchestral work, but as a piece of chamber music. “[T]he principal themes are above all not orchestral. This disparity between the idea and the form, or rather, the forced nature of the form, makes itself felt from beginning to end. […] There isn’t a single little half-page in which the string section is left to itself […] despite this general flaw of massiveness and lack of colour, there are passages which will sound splendidly anyway”, Tchaikovsky wrote and included in his letter quite a few suggestions on how to improve he score.

Taneyev refuted the idea that the piece had been conceived as a trio or quartet, but he did accept some of his teacher’s points: “I still think in my heart of hearts that you are right, and that, when all is said and done, I have produced a boring, cumbersome, and colourless piece. I shall await, with even greater impatience than you, the symphony’s performance in order to verify my impressions. I also think that the other movements will in many places remind people of piano pieces.”

The symphony was performed only once during Taneyev’s life, in 1885, conducted by the composer himself. His first two first two symphonies were neither published nor performed during his life, and only the last was published – as Symphony No. 1! So was Tchaikovsky right in his predictions that Tanayev’s composition method lacked originality? Perhaps. The symphony in D minor is not the best piece he wrote, and Tanayev’s undeniable talent as an orchestrator was cloaked by the lack of inspiration. It is a lovely piece of music nevertheless, especially the finale “Allegro con brio”.

Taneyev’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor has been recorded by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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