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ClassicsOnline Home » TANEYEV, S.I.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (Novosibirsk Academic Symphony, T. Sanderling)
A pupil of Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, and a teacher of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, Sergey Taneyev was a monumental figure in Russian music of the second half of the nineteenth century. Although highly independent as a mature artist, Taneyev was understandably under Tchaikovsky's influence during the early years of his career. His First Symphony, which can be compared to Tchaikovsky's Second, impresses with its seriousness, skilful orchestration, and a complete absence of virtuosity for its own sake. Written ten years later, the Third Symphony is a large four movement cycle. Its crowning glory, a scintillating Finale, shows Taneyev's contrapuntal prowess at it best.
By David Denton
Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856-1915)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3
The youngest of three sons, Sergey Taneyev delighted his father Ivan Il'yich, an amateur violinist, pianist, and guitarist, with his precocious musical talent. While Ivan struggled to make his wife and two older sons enjoy the compulsory daily music-making sessions, Sergey was eager to play duets with his father. The only drawback was that his first piano teacher categorically forbade him even to listen to his father's playing, let alone play with him. She was afraid that Ivan Il'yich's haphazard and unmusical approach would have a detrimental effect on Sergey's musical education. Her decision proved to be right, and preserved Taneyev from developing a vehement hatred for music for the rest of his life, the fate that befell his older brother, Vladimir. What is more, Sergey Taneyev became a monumental figure in Russian music of the second half of the nineteenth century, whose significance as a performer, composer, theorist, and a pedagogue is only beginning to be discovered in the West. A pupil of Nikolay Rubinstein and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and a teacher of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, Taneyev emerges as a link between these generations that is yet to be properly examined and evaluated.
Taneyev spent the first half of his creative life in Tchaikovsky's shadow, first as a pupil, and later as a colleague. Tchaikovsky's favourite student, Taneyev gradually became one of his most objective critics and closest friends, their friendship lasting until Tchaikovsky's death. Taneyev often commented on Tchaikovsky's music, and in many cases his opinion was more important to the older composer than that of any other musician. In turn, Taneyev was grateful for the criticism and advice from his senior colleague. Yet those who expected him to write in the same expansive way as his teacher were disappointed to find a different kind of expressive language, one characterized by noble gravitas and technical solidity.
In fact Taneyev seldom divulged his feelings to his friends and colleagues, and even his diaries are circumspect and concise. There are, however, a few entries that speak volumes, where he exposes his thoughts for a fleeting moment, and where one can catch a glimpse of a person who was afraid of loneliness and who craved human contact, but who knew only too well that he was doomed to a life of solitude. He believed that his only option was to write more music, and write it in the best way he could. But even there, just as in the diaries, he kept his innermost emotions to himself. His music never aimed to impress, everything was written for a reason, and when, at rare moments, he was unable to contain emotions, we hear the real Taneyev, a private man, but a profound one, with much to give and to share.
Although highly independent as a mature artist, Taneyev was understandably under Tchaikovsky's influence during the early years of his career. Many of his compositions dating from the 1870s were inspired by Tchaikovsky's works in instrumental, vocal, and symphonic genres. It is perhaps fitting, then, to compare Taneyev's First Symphony in E minor with Tchaikovsky's Second (Little Russian) — after all, Taneyev seems to have been inspired by the première of the Little Russian in 1873 in Moscow, beginning work on his first symphony soon after. Completed in 1874 and presented at Taneyev's final examination in 1875, the work earned him a gold medal in composition. After seeing the score, Herman Laroche declared that the eighteen-year-old composer had a great talent and that it would be right to expect from him nothing less than a brilliant musical career. Despite its apparent success with the examining board, however, Taneyev did not give the symphony an opus number, and did not allow it for publication. His high demands on the quality of his own works contributed to the fact that only the last of his symphonies, in C minor, was published during his lifetime (as No. 1, though it is now known more correctly as No. 4).
From the opening pages of his First Symphony, the teenage composer impresses with his talent, seriousness, skilful orchestration, and a complete absence of virtuosity for its own sake, a trait that only grew stronger during his brilliant career. Throughout the symphony, he casts a respectful glance in the direction of his admired teacher, whose influences are evident in the orchestration, form, harmonic language, and methods of thematic development. The Allegro opens with a decisive and rhythmical main theme, and the second subject develops in various ways and appears in different guises throughout the movement. The second and third movements are based on folk-like material; the Andantino, quasi allegretto is disarmingly sincere, while the outer sections of the Vivace (in the style of a mazurka) provide a dramatic contrast to the lyrical middle section. The Finale is dominated by the Russian folk-song 'Ne lyod treshchit' (It's not the ice cracking) that was later used by Stravinsky in the Shrovetide scenes of Petrushka (Tableau IV). Perhaps that was Stravinsky's way to pay homage to Taneyev, whom he greatly respected as a teacher and composer. Taneyev dedicated the symphony to his sister-in-law, Vladimir's wife Elena. Never performed during his lifetime, the work had its première and was published only in 1948.
Ten years separate the First Symphony from the Third Symphony in D minor; Taneyev was nearing his thirtieth birthday and, a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, he was soon to become its director. He had written a successful cantata Ioann Damaskin (John of Damascus), a number of chamber compositions, a piano concerto, another symphony, and he had begun to work on his opera Oresteia. When Tchaikovsky looked over the completed score of the symphony, he remarked that the more he studied it, the more he liked it. Noting the abundance of beautiful places and interesting effects, he nevertheless preferred to give his criticisms after the première, not wanting to pour a 'bucket of cold water' on Taneyev's creative inspiration. He was referring to his own dislike of critical comments before a work had its first performance, but also, no doubt, remembering Taneyev's experiences with the composition of the unfinished Second Symphony and the First Piano Concerto, written six and eight years earlier respectively. Taneyev created the Second Symphony in close contact with Tchaikovsky, who did not hold back on his comments, suggestions and criticisms but who, on the whole, liked the work and encouraged its completion (in vain: Taneyev never completed a Scherzo movement). After receiving negative feedback on the piano concerto from Anton Rubinstein, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov, Taneyev dropped the work, and even Tchaikovsky's kind encouragement and Laroche's admiration could not re-ignite his interest. With his new symphony already complete, however, Taneyev was eager to know Tchaikovsky's thoughts. Tchaikovsky obliged with a long letter, which he began with a caution: 'Maybe I am mistaken and if, after the première of the symphony as it is now, I change my opinion, then I will be very happy to admit it.' He then listed a number of suggestions, which Taneyev did not find offensive or discouraging, but only honest and helpful.
The symphony is a large four-movement cycle: Allegro, Scherzo, Intermezzo, and Finale. The Allegro begins with a gloomy, sombre first theme. Here Taneyev displays his contrapuntal skills, weaving the themes and motifs into contrapuntal intricacies and imitations, and experimenting with canonical textures. One of Taneyev's most prominent techniques is the presentation of the main theme alongside its modified version, or its shorter segment. The Scherzo is bursting with playful energy, and the Intermezzo is an inner portrait of the composer's more intimate world. The scintillating Finale is the crowning glory of the cycle; its peroration abounds in imitations and double canons, showing Taneyev's contrapuntal prowess at its best and pointing in the direction of his last symphonic masterpiece, the Symphony in C minor.
The Third Symphony was dedicated to Anton Arensky, Taneyev's younger colleague at the Moscow Conservatoire and one of his closest friends. Taneyev himself directed the première in 1885 in Moscow, the only performance during his lifetime, and the next performance followed more than thirty years later in 1916, a year after Taneyev's death. The score was published in 1947 in Moscow.
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