Music: Sergei Taneyev: A Rare Find

I have spent the last several months listening to some of the finest chamber music I have ever encountered by a composer of whom you have probably never heard. Until I began dabbling in and then fanatically pursuing the works of Russian composer Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915), I had not heard of him either. If you love the great chamber works of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, and Brahms, I challenge you to listen to this music and not be as entranced by it as I have been.

What explains Taneyev’s obscurity? His musical conservatism, for one. While his contemporaries, like Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Balakirev, were looking to the East to form a Russian nationalist school (known as the Five), Taneyev looked to the West. Taneyev’s chamber music is more Viennese than Russian, and to the extent it is Slavic, it is closer to Dvorak, whose own antecedents are in Schubert. In fact, a good deal of Taneyev’s chamber music inhabits the same elegiac, emotional world as Schubert’s. In addition to a Schubertian poignance, it possesses Dvorakian melodic drive and passion, Mendelssohnian charm and fleetness, and a kind of Elgarian nobility. Surely one reason that Taneyev is so neglected is that anyone on the trail of the Viennese lineage would not have sought its continuation in the Russia of this period.

Apart from the disadvantage of not having pursued what is distinctly Russian, Taneyev was secretive about his own works, revealing them to few beyond his teacher and friend, Tchaikovsky. Some critics claim Taneyev’s renowned self-criticism was based on a kind of pathological self-doubt. That this enormously gifted man could have been so afflicted is one of the great psychological mysteries of the music world (though, considering Bruckner’s behavior, one not without precedent). In any case, Taneyev did little to advance his own music, publishing only 36 of his many works and leaving a number uncompleted. Some of them have just been unearthed from the archives by the Olympia, MDG, and Chandos labels.

It is ironic that Taneyev is little-known in the West to which he turned for his inspiration. In Russia, he has a reputation as a major renaissance figure, even though he eschewed the Russian nationalist school. He was a star pupil of the Moscow Conservatory, winning for the first time its gold medal in performance and composition. He was a star performer, playing the solo parts in the premieres of all Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra. He was a star academician, becoming Tchaikovsky’s successor as head of the Moscow Conservatory and the author of works that are still considered references today. He was a star teacher. His list of pupils reads like a history of Russian music of the first half of the 20th century: Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner, Miaskovsky, Gliere, and Grechaninov. He was also a mentor of Prokofiev and others. And this covers only his accomplishments in music; he also excelled in philosophy and chess.

Taneyev’s academic achievements led Tchaikovsky to say that “he is the best counterpoint master of Russia and I am not even sure that there is his equal in the West.” Others thought Taneyev’s depth of learning made him more an abstract theoretician than a composer. His working methods added to that impression. As Rimsky Korsakov reported in his autobiography, My Musical Life, “before setting out for the real expounding of a composition, [Taneyev would] precede it with a multitude of sketches and studies: he used to write fugues, cannons and various contrapuntal interlacings on the individual themes, phrases and notions of the coming composition, and only after gaining thorough experience in its component parts, did he take up the general plan of the composition.” If the process is labored, so must be the results. What sort of music would one expect of a man who wrote a massive work on Invertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style?

In an age of musical exoticism, the cultivation of counterpoint struck Taneyev’s contemporaries as fastidious and archaic. As if in rebuttal, Taneyev wrote to Tchaikovsky in 1880 that despite Mozart’s use of double, triple, and reverse counterpoints, “Mozart is one of the most comprehensible and accessible composers and his counterpoint learning often merely helps him be clear. Learning is good only when it leads to naturalness and simplicity.” In fact, Taneyev said, “I am attracted by Mozart’s elegant and rounded forms, by a freedom and expediency of Bach’s part-singing and I am seeking to probe, as far as I can, the secrets of their creativity.” Other founts of inspiration were Palestrina, Haydn, and Beethoven. As if to prove how out of step with his times he was, Taneyev concluded in the mid-1890s that “there is nothing more beautiful than Mozart. The consummation of beauty.”

Taneyev was, in other words, a classicist in a Romantic age. His one opera was the only one in the Russia of its period to be based on a classical source, The Orestia. Though Taneyev did write four symphonies (only one published in his lifetime), the powerful contrapuntal element in his work found its fullest flowering, not surprisingly, in chamber music. In these works, Taneyev’s handling of multiple musical lines is more than assured; it is inspired. No matter how laboriously he may have worked over the complex counterpoint in advance, it at no time sounds academic or even premeditated in performance. Though this music is worked out in countless felicitous details, it never strikes one as “studied.” At the same time, Taneyev’s extraordinary sense of structure and grasp of tonal architecture are such that one can return to his music, as one can to Beethoven’s, without ever losing the initial sense of satisfaction. In fact, it only grows with repeated hearings.

My first encounter with Taneyev’s music was on an old Olympia disc containing his String Quintet, Op. 14. The piece is staggeringly good, belonging in the company of the greatest quintets written by his idols. I was dumbfounded that a work of this quality was no longer available. It is a big-boned piece; its third movement alone lasts more than 20 minutes and easily sustains its length.

Next, on another Olympia CD no longer available, I discovered Quartets Nos. 8 and 9, which are really unnumbered works from the early 1880s. It turns out that Taneyev wrote ten quartets but saw fit to publish only six of them, leaving these impassioned, brilliant pieces to be forgotten.

A new CD release proves that Olympia has not abandoned Taneyev. The Krasni Quartet’s superb performances of Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 are the beginning of a recorded cycle of the six numbered works. My allusions to Schubert are more than borne out by the plaintive nature of these very moving, profound works.

The MDG label has issued a CD with the only performance of all three String Trios. After its premier performance, the Trio from 1880 remained in a drawer until its publication in 1956, the centenary of Taneyev’s birth. More than any others, these three works bear out Taneyev’s abiding love of Mozart. They are exquisite.

My exploration then led me to Taneyev’s chamber music with piano, which is as big-boned as his other chamber works, but looser-limbed and less tightly wound within Classical forms. His own instrument seems to have inspired Taneyev to more Romantic imaginative flights, as can be heard in the Piano Trio, played by the Borodin Trio on Chandos, or the Piano Quintet on Arabesque, with pianist Jerome Lowenthal and other artists. A new Centaur CD makes the Piano Quartet, Op. 20, available with the Piano Trio. Unfortunately, the best efforts of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio are subverted by the boomy acoustic in which this recording was made. I especially love the second movement of the Quartet. It sounds as if someone pinched its main theme for the 1960s popular hit Blue Moon.

If you think I have been exaggerating the merits of this vital, arresting music, you need only do two things: immediately obtain the Olympia recording of the first two string quartets and the MDG recording of the string trios. I have no doubt that once you have heard them, you will want to hunt down the Piano Trio, the Piano Quartet, and the Piano Quintet and to scour the remainder bins to find the String Quintet and Quartets Nos. 8 and 9. As long as it is issuing the published string quartets, surely Olympia can also restore these other treasures to the catalog. Meanwhile, I wait with baited breath for the rest of the numbered quartets. Sergei Taneyev is my find of the year.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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