Anatoly Lunacharsky: Taneyev and Scriabin

This winter the Stradivarius Quartet gave a series of chamber concerts by the famous Moscow composer Taneyev.

Taneyev is well known in Russia and Europe as the author of the most profound and comprehensive work on counterpoint. This work and Taneyev’s merits as an artist have earned him the greatest respect as a unique mathematician of music.

However, this, too, was the reason why Taneyev was grossly underrated as a composer by the general public. What I mean by this term is the public that attends concerts, is interested in music and is familiar with it, but does not belong to the small circle of highly qualified persons with an exceptionally erudite knowledge of music.

A little rumour has been circulated about Taneyev to the effect that he is a “brainy” musician who solved his musical problems as a mathematician would solve his, and that is why, they say, he can be of interest only to professionals, but leaves his audiences cold.

The Stradivarius Quartet performed in rather small halls and thus their concerts could not acquire the nature of mass propaganda for Taneyev’s achievements in a field that was possibly his forte: chamber music. But it is important to note that these concerts invariably met with enthusiastic acclaim. I know many persons, intelligent and well versed in music, who (lacking a true knowledge of his work before) have now changed their opinion of him entirely as a result of these concerts.

I believe that more should be done for a re-evaluation of Taneyev. In but the recent past it was considered quite proper to call Tchaikovsky a sentimental, tearful intellectual, whose music could allegedly be of no use whatsoever to our generation. I believe that the writer of these lines was the first to come out against such an opinion of a great composer who has a place of honour in Russian music which, as is now quite obvious, beginning with Glinka and ending with our own young composers, justly occupies a prominent place in world music.

The great Scriabin has long since been restored in favour and adopted as it were by the revolutionary epoch. I believe it is imperative that the same impetus should be given to a similar process in respect to Taneyev. It would be most rewarding to organise a performance next year of his great oratorio Upon Reading a Psalm and his laconic, stirring and truly tragic opera Orestes.

At the request of the Stradivarius Quartet I spoke on Taneyev, introducing their concert series. The present article is the edited stenographic report of my speech.

II

I would like to say a few words about Taneyev the man.

In both his way of life and appearance Taneyev was a typical Russian gentleman, even with something of Oblomov about him outwardly; he liked the quiet life, the provincial calm of his remote corner of Moscow; he was rather indifferent to politics, though he was not only a liberal, but a democrat with radical leanings who welcomed the 1905 revolution, for example, quite joyously and reflected it to some extent (indirectly) in several of his works.

Though apparently in possession of a well-thought-out philosophical system in which he made ends meet quite harmoniously and without the aid of a god, in whom he flatly refused to believe, he never insisted upon nor even expressed his opinions. They were undoubtedly reflected in his music but, once again, indirectly. Taneyev was a very kind man, he tutored poor pupils without remuneration, he helped them financially from his own small income; he was never concerned with his own welfare and was satisfied to lead a modest, quiet life.

However, one must never forget that this quiet, tepid way of life, calling to mind Goncharov’s Oblomov, has nothing at all in common with Oblomov’s vacuousness. Goncharov himself had very much in common with Oblomov and much of his great novel was autobiographical. Yet, a very different sort of heart beat beneath Goncharov’s robe, and a whole world of images lay concealed by the lazy, dreamy expression on his face, so far removed from the silly sentiments which encompassed the entire world of his famous character.

Taneyev was of the same breed as Goncharov, as Turgenev. The seeming sluggishness and laxness of their lives was compensated by a tremendous, forceful inner creativeness. The work of men of this type – a type soon to be relegated to the past, perhaps – is of especial value in its fruitful, contemplative nature.

A slowness, a sweet pensiveness, a journey through ideas and emotions “in a horse-drawn carriage,” so to say, is simply a poor showing in untalented persons; but with talented persons this produces an unusual soundness in everything they create, a depth and completeness in their work.

In our neurotic age, when history itself is dashing on headlong, and the commotion of city life has reached a stage of terrible confusion, and people are so high-strung that it seems their nerves have been pulled taut and are vibrating at a thousandfold acceleration, in this age art has plunged through impressionism to futurism, momentalism, etc. This process is quite natural, but it does not necessarily mean it is progressive.

Such fleet and instant art undoubtedly produces definite impressions; it can achieve that which is impossible in the carriage of transparent, viscous as honey ancient classical art; but much has been lost on the way.

Taneyev lived in a world of music, but he did not regard music as a world unto itself, a world ruled by its own strange laws. He did not regard it as a complex sphere of higher mathematics, as would a scholar in his ivory tower.

Taneyev was a musical philosopher in two respects. In the first place, he tried to set his musical forms into a single graceful structure by a profound, slow and sure process of thinking based on a tremendous knowledge of music. Secondly, he imbued this creation with the essence of his deep and sensitive intellect; his own world outlook, his thoughts about the universe, human life, etc., were expressed in his musical forms. I do not believe that anyone, even those who are indifferent to Taneyev, would ever take it into their heads to deny this forceful presence of a rather austere and compelling intellect that reigns in his music. ...

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