Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Sergei Mikhailovich Liapunov - Composer

As a pianist who champions the works of lesser-known composers, I have discovered several composers over the years whose works are not only of high quality both pianistically and compositionally, but that cause audiences to respond with gratification and surprise. Two such composers, Alkan and Medtner, have enjoyed the patronage of first-rate pianists, and good representation in recordings (though there is room for many more). Sergei Liapunov (also spelled Lyapunov), however, has not had as much attention devoted to his music as he deserves, in spite of a few fine recordings.

Sergei Mikhailovich Liapunov was born on 30 November 1859 in Yaroslavl, Russia, a town about 250 km northeast of Moscow. His father, Mikhail Vasilievich Liapunov (1820-1868) was a mathematician and astronomer who became the director of the Demidovsky Institute in Yaroslavl, while his mother, Sofya Alexandrovna (née Shipilov), an accomplished amateur pianist, did much to foster Sergei's interest in music. Sergei had two brothers, Alexander (1857-1918; photo), who became a famous and influential mathematician, and Boris (1862-1943), a philologist who was a member of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R.

After Mikhail's early death, the family moved to Nizhny-Novgorod, where Sergei was enrolled in a class of the Russian Musical Society. When his mother died in the late 1870s, the Liapunov sons were assisted by the Shipilov family, but for which the three brothers would have suffered severe financial disadvantages.

Nikolai Rubinstein (1835-1881) advised Sergei to move to Moscow to enter the Conservatory there, which he did in 1878, studying piano with Karl Klindworth (1830-1916), Paul Pabst (1834-1897), and V.I. Wilborg, and composition with Nikolai Hubert (1840-1888), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), and Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915). While in Nizhny-Novgorod, Liapunov had already been attracted to the music of Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) and his cohorts Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). Now that he was in Moscow, where they were not well known, his leanings toward their style became evident in spite of his exposure to the more western-oriented works of Tchaikovsky and Sergei Taneyev prevalent at the Conservatory.

Liapunov turned down an offer to teach at the Moscow Conservatory in favor of moving to St. Petersburg to pursue his work and put himself under the influence of Mily Balakirev, which he did in 1884. It is a more or less received opinion that Balakirev completely controlled Liapunov's musical development, as he had done at first with the other members of the Moguchaya Kuchka ("The Mighty Handful"). (Rimsky-Korsakov, in his memoirs, describes Liapunov as being completely under Balakirev's sway.) I, however, do not totally agree with that assessment, as it is clear that Liapunov early on developed a melodic style entirely his own, and though he owes much to Balakirev's (sometimes despotic) influence, he was never completely overwhelmed by his teacher and mentor.

A major influence in Liapunov's work was his collaboration in 1893 with Balakirev and Anatol Liadov (1855-1914) in the collection of folksongs from northern Russia, particularly the provinces of Kostromsk, Vologodsk, and Vyatsk. Many of these folksongs found their way into his Russian folksong arrangements of Opp. 10 and 13, the Solemn Overture on Russian Themes, Op. 7 of 1896, as well as into other works throughout his career. Perhaps the most famous of the pieces that demonstrate this influence is the 10th of the Twelve Transcendental Etudes, Op. 11, Lezhginka, which must surely rank as Liapunov's "hit tune." ...

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