ClassicsOnline Home » TANEYEV, S. I.: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4
Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856-1915)
Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 12
Symphony No. 2 in B Flat Minor
Rimsky-Korsakov, survivor and musical executor of the band of Five Russian nationalist composers, seems to have entertained mixed feelings about Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev. In his published memoirs he has high praise for the younger composer as a wonderful musician and highly trained teacher and goes on to describe both his expertise in counterpoint and the dry, laboured character of his early compositions. He continues to explain how Taneyev in the 1890s changed his attitude to the nationalists, whom he had previously regarded as amateur, a view that Anton Rubinstein, with some justification, had unwisely expressed some thirty years before. There was a public quarrel with Balakirev during the rehearsal of a concert in Smolensk, but Taneyev came to respect the music left by Borodin and the work that Rimsky-Korsakov's former pupil Glazunov had done in preparing it for publication. Mussorgsky, however, he could never accept. Rimsky-Korsakov adds a description of Taneyev's technique of composition, particularly with reference to the new opera The Oresteia. In preparation Taneyev would treat thematic material with every device of counterpoint, realising its full possibilities, before tackling the work itself.
Some ambivalence in the attitude of Rimsky-Korsakov to Taneyev appears in the reminiscences of the composer by his faithful Boswell Yastrebtsev. Whereas in his memoirs he had publicly expressed pleasure in The Oresteia, in private he found it lacking in inspiration. There seemed to be some suspicion that Taneyev had influenced Glazunov against Rimsky-Korsakov and a notion that he was arrogant to subordinates but unduly flattering towards anyone who would play his music. The suspicion, as so often with the nationalists, seems even then to be that of the amateur for the professional, and Taneyev was highly professional. Nevertheless Rimsky-Korsakov was sufficiently impressed by the C minor Symphony, while criticism of its composer's behaviour and compositions was largely kept within his family circle.
Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev was born in 1856, the son of a government official and nephew of Alexander Sergeyevich Taneyev, director of the Imperial Chancellery and, in private, a gifted composer and admirer of the nationalists. Sergey Ivanovich had piano lessons from the age of five and when he was ten became a pupil of the Moscow Conservatory, where his later teachers were Nikolay Rubinstein, the director of the Conservatory, and Tchaikovsky, with whom he remained on close terms until the latter's sudden death in 1893.
Taneyev distinguished himself in the first place as a pianist, making his début in 1875 with the D minor Piano Concerto of Brahms, following this with the first Moscow performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto at the end of the year, in which he had graduated from the Conservatory with the double distinction of a gold medal for both performance and composition. With Nikolay Rubinstein he had spent the summer abroad and in the following year toured Russia with the great violinist Leopold Auer. 1877 and 1878 he spent abroad, visiting Paris, where he met the Russian novelist Turgenev and leading French musicians, and giving concerts in the Baltic provinces.
In 1878 Tchaikovsky, now in receipt of a pension from Nadezhda von Meck, resigned from the Conservatory and was succeeded by Taneyev as professor of harmony and orchestration, the latter at first demurring at the offer of composition classes. After the death of Nikolay Rubinstein and retirement of Liszt's pupil Karl Klindworth in 1882 he became professor of piano at the Conservatory and professor of composition in succession to his former teacher Nikolay Gubert in 1883. Two years later he was persuaded to become director, a position he held for four years.
Released from the immediate pressure of administrative duties, Taneyev was able from 1889 to devote himself to writing and composition. He completed his opera The Oresteia in 1894, after some ten years' work, but it was withdrawn from production when, in spite of a favourable reception by the public, the directorate insisted on cuts. The last of his four symphonies, published in 1901 as No. 1, was well received, even if Rimsky-Korsakov and his friends found in it too much of their greatly admired Glazunov. The year 1906 brought the publication in Leipzig of the sixth of a series of numbered string quartets and three years later he published in Leipzig and Moscow his influential book on invertible counterpoint, the summary of his years as the most proficient teacher of his generation in Russia, who could count among his former pupils Skryabin, Glier and Rakhmaninov. Tchaikovsky's willingness to listen to his advice and criticism is testimony to Taneyev's technical proficiency, his musicianship and his frankness. He died in the summer of 1915, after catching a chill at the funeral of Skryabin in April. Rakhmaninov paid public tribute to his old teacher, declaring that he taught his pupils how to live, how to think, how to work and even how to speak, this last with clarity and precision.
Taneyev's Symphony in C minor was completed in 1898 and is an impressive work. Obviously it is marked by technical assurance at every turn, but is not lacking in dramatic inspiration and lyrical charm, the latter quality evident enough in the second subject of the first movement and the former in the opening itself. He had criticised Tchaikovsky for writing in his symphonies music that sounded like ballet music, an objection that Tchaikovsky had answered by drawing attention to lyrical elements in Beethoven. His own treatment of thematic material of this kind is technically fluent and it is sufficiently interwoven with its musical context to obviate any similar criticism. The slow movement opens with a deeply felt long-drawn melody, expansively treated and ending with the ascent of a solo violin to a sustained high note. This is followed by a scherzo, offering delightful scope for a varied and colourful use of the woodwind instruments of the orchestra. The finale introduces a less playful mood, providing a conclusion of sufficient weight to balance the preceding movements, its references to earlier material ensuring the unity of the whole work.
The B flat minor Symphony, the second in order of composition, has only three movements. It was started during the composer's visit to Paris and was completed in 1878. The symphony follows a first symphony composed during Taneyev's time as a student at the Conservatory and completed in 1874, to be published posthumously in 1948. In this second symphony it is possible to detect elements that suggest a passing resemblance to Brahms, a composer that Taneyev disliked, and very occasional Russian undertones. The slow movement unfolds in initially solemn mood, colourfully and delicately orchestrated, its melodic interest enhanced by the characteristic use of counterpoint, and even at times suggesting Mahler. The atmosphere is broken by the final movement, with its resolute opening and succeeding lyrical thematic material, leading to a brilliant and forceful conclusion.