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ClassicsOnline Home » CUI: 25 Preludes, Op. 64
César Cui (1835-1918)
25 Preludes for piano, Op. 64
On the one hand a Lieutenant General, graduate of the St.
Petersburg Engineering School and Academy of Military Engineering (1851-57),
noted authority on fortification, instructor to the last Tsar. On the other
President of the Imperial Russian Musical Society, critic, occasional student
of Moniuszko, disciple of Balakirev Professionally a military engineer,
vocationally a musician, by blood not a Russian at all, César Antonovich Cui
was born in Vilnius - to a French father (an officer with Napoleon's ill-fated
Grand Army of 1812, wounded at Smolensk) and a Lithuanian mother.
His precocious musicality, largely dormant during his years
at military college, was re-awakened by Balakirev (whom he first met in 1856)
and Dargomizhsky (one of whose pupils, Malvira Bamberg, he married in 1858).
Together with Balakirev, guiding spirit of the late 19th century Russian
nationalist movement, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky, he was a member
of the so-called Five or Mighty Handful - its "musical eagle". His
literary forays, at home and abroad, reveal the extent of his fanaticism (more
than that of any of his peers) for promoting the ideals and aesthetics of this
group (and, correspondingly, for destroying those unlike-minded).
"Everything seductive in music should be utilised" to the cause, he
declared: "the charm of harmony, the science of counterpoint, the richness
of polyphony, the colour of the orchestra".
In his article "Our Music during the last 25 years"
(Vestnik Evropï, October 1883), the critic Vladimir Stasov believed that
Even though the "Balakirev
party" (as Dargomizhsky called it) was closely knit and in complete accord
as to its manner of thinking and artistic direction, its works did not bear the
stamp of sameness and uniformity. They were as totally unlike as the natures of
the composers themselves. While these young musicians shared a common purpose,
each of them retained his own individuality. Taken as a whole, the works of
each represents his own world, a world separate and distinct from that of the
other members of the school. Each remained true to his own character, his own
basic nature; each pursued the path towards perfection, towards the development
of his art in his own way.
Of Cui he wrote
He was...self-taught as a
musician...[he] had little bent for orchestration and he never became a skilled
orchestrator... The principal characteristics of Cui's music are poetry,
passion and an extraordinary warmth of feeling and tenderness which move the
listener to the very depths of his soul. True, Cui concerned himself almost
exclusively with presenting love in all its various manifestations (jealousy,
despair, self-sacrifice, etc) and therefore, his may seem to have been a very
one-sided talent, but in depth and intensity, his portrayals of this emotion
surpass anything ever achieved not only by his colleagues in the Russian school
but perhaps by anyone in the whole field of music.
And of his inability, ironically, to compose
"national" music in the primitive, glossy, tribai, imitative style of
a Mussorgsky, Rimsky, Borodin, or Balakirev, he says
There is not a trace of anything
Russian or "Eastern" in any of Cui's works... Because he himself had
little propensity for writing in the national vein. Cui never fully understood
or appreciated "nationalism" in the works of others. His gifts were
too exclusively lyrical, too exclusively pyschological.
As a writer (principally from 1864 to 1900) - denouncing
"conservatism", "the backward taste of the public and [the]
narrow views of [other] critics" - Cui spared no one. "Obsolete
ideas, lies, nonsensical and slanderous charges," Stasov documents,
"had to be exposed in all their ugliness, and this Cui did with true
talent - in a lively, entertaining, spirited and bold fashion. Many people did
not like his [early] articles but everyone enjoyed reading them. Most of our
enemies dreaded them..." Generous, bigoted, vitriolic, misguided,
malicious, elegant, satirical, opinionated: "master of unnecessary invective".
He despised Tchaikovsky: "In his music, Mr. Tchaikovsky [constantly]
complains about his fate and talks about his maladies" (1884). The young Rachmaninov's
First Symphony he likened cynically to "the Seven Plagues of Egypt...
[music to delight] the inhabitants of Hell" (1897). Wagner he buried as
"a man devoid of all talent [whose] melodies, where they are found at all,
are... more sour than the stalest Mendelssohn" (1863). Richard Strauss, he
damned, "may be characterised in four words: little talent, much
impudence...a mockery of music" (1904). On occasion he could even turn on
his own fellow-travellers - for instance, Mussorgsky - assessing Boris Godunov
to be an opera of "chopped recitative and looseness of musical
discourse... the consequence of immaturity, indiscriminating, self-complacent,
hasty method of composition" (1874).
Today Cui is all but forgotten, a footnote of Russian
history. "As a composer," Richard Anthony Leonard argues (in his History
of Russian Music, 1956), "he was the weakest member of The Five, and
by so wide a margin that we wonder at the respect and even deference which he
commanded from the group... the poorest composer... the loudest talker".
"By nature, "Tchaikovsky felt, "Cui is more drawn towards light
and piquantly rhythmic French music; but the demands of 'the invincible band',
which he has joined, compel him to do violence to his natural gifts and to
follow those paths of would-be original harmony which do not suit him"
(1869). To his critics he was weak, mediocre, undistinguished, insipid,
directionless. He wrote more than a dozen operas (including the celebrated William
Ratcliff), hundreds of choruses and songs, and volumes of concentrated
piano miniatures "pressed violets" of a salon age long ago. A "colourless"
Violin Sonata and three string quartets "lacking in inspiration"
(W.W. Cobbett, 1929) suggest that if he had any interest in sonata principle or
large-scale symphonic organisation it must have been limited. Instrumentally,
he was obsessed by Chopin (from childhood), Liszt and Schumann. Operatically,
by Meyerbeer and Auber. Heine, Hugo, Dumas, Maupassant, Mickiewicz... Pushkin, Lermontov,
Tolstoy, Nekrasov, the folk poets of the Trans-Caucasus, provided him with his
texts and libretti. To his admirers he was a "creative genius"
(Rimsky), his art illumined by veins of refined, continuous arioso "melody
[exhaling] almost feminine tenderness" (Rosa Newmarch).
Spanning a creative lifetime - from 1857 (the Scherzo Op. 1)
to 1916 (the Sonatine Op. 106) - and comprised largely of morceaux, impromptus,
waltzes, polonaises, mazurkas and variations professionally turned and crafted,
Cui's piano music isn't at all what one might expect from the critic or
nationalist in him. Reflecting more Old Guard than Young Turk, it's a gentle
utterance, looking back nostalgically to the past, intimate rather than public,
favouring silken boudoir to panelled concert room. Technically undemanding,
romantically clichéd, harmonically conventional, tonally unsurprising, more
diatonic than chromatic, concerned with horizons of Iyricism untouched by modal
pathos or tragic intensity, it has more in common stylistically with Tchaikovsky
or Rubinstein than Mussorgsky or Balakirev. The bravura of a Liapunov, the angst
of a Rachmaninov, the headily erotic, spiritual incense of a Scriabin are
domains beyond its experience.
The Twenty Five Preludes Op. 64 (1903), published by Jurgenson
of Moscow, belong to the period of Rachmaninov's Op. 23 Preludes, the early F
minor Sonata Op. 5 of Medtner, and Scriabin's radically different Fourth
Sonata, Poème tragique, Poème satanique, and nineteen Preludes Opp. 31,
33, 35, 37, 39. Comprising Cui's largest collective work for piano, the whole
is constructed tonally around a circle of fifths, from Cto C. Unlike Chopin
(Op. 28) or Scriabin (Op.11), however, both of whom preferred relative minor
relationships, Cui pairs each major key instead with its mediant minor
- in the process contriving a neat pivotal scheme whereby preceding thirds
become successive tonics. Structurally, most of the prelude sare in ternary
form, with revealingly varied reprises biased towards either registral transfer
or textural/harmonic/dynamic enrichment. Expressively, many dimensions are
glimpsed - from exquisitely whispered dreams (Nos. 5, 9, 15, 17), through
landscapes of Schumannesque horns (No. 21), "Davidsbündler" marches
(Nos. 8, 25) and fantasy waltzes (Nos. 3, 12, 23), to promenades (No. 1),
etudes (Nos. 4, 10, 24), pseudo folk dances (Nos. 19, 20) and bouquets of
melancholic remembrance (Nos. 2, 6, 22). Metrically, four are unusual: No. 14
in 5/4 (2+3), a stumbling waltz; No. 15, in 7/8 (3+4), almost an example of
written-out rubato in triple time; No. 17, in 3/2 but with the beat displaced
to suggest a 1+3+2 accent; and No. 18, where 6/8 quavers are offset against 2/4
ones. Polyphonically and pianistically, the canonic interplay of No. 7 is
Among the dedicatees Josef Slivinski (Nos. 17-19), Ossip Gabrilowitsch
(Nos. 23-25) - pupils of Leschetizky /Anton Rubinstein - and Paderewski (Nos.
20-22) deserve mention.
© 1993 Ate Orga
The pianist Jeffrey Biegel has won an international
reputation as a distinguished soloist with many of the leading international
orchestras in the United States of America, Europe and the Far East. He studied
at the Juilliard School with Adele Marcus, herself a pupil of Josef Lhevinne
and Artur Schnabel and won First Grand Prize in the 1989 Marguerite Long
International Piano Competition, four years after triumph at the William Kapell
/ University of Maryland Competition. He made his New York début at the Alice
Tully Hall of the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in 1986 as the recipient
of the Juilliard / William Petschek Piano Début Award, encouraged by the high
praise of Leonard Bernstein. This was the beginning of a busy international
career that has earned him wide acclaim as a soloist, recitalist and chamber
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CUI: 25 Preludes, Op. 64