Sergei Taneyev: Tchaikovsky's Heir or the Russian Bach?

Unfortunately for Sergei Taneyev, his music has long been held in high respect. His intellectual rigour, cosmopolitan outlook and above all his mastery of counterpoint have attached a reverence to Taneyev’s name for successive generations of Russian musicians. But love for his music has remained in short supply, and engagement with Taneyev’s Romantic expression has remained distant at best. A reputation for compositional greatness is rarely founded on craftsmanship alone, but Taneyev’s technical accomplishment has even had the reverse effect, and respect for his skill has become the greatest impediment to appreciation of his music. 

Taneyev’s reputation as a teacher has been a contributing factor. He succeeded Tchaikovsky as director of the Moscow Conservatory and his pupils included Lyapunov, Glière, Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Advocates for the music of these last two composers have struggled to maintain for them reputations for academic rigour, and Taneyev’s erudition has been repeatedly called into service on their behalf. Taneyev himself studied with Tchaikovsky, and his music forms a stylistic link between the works of his more famous teacher and pupils. Tchaikovsky’s voice can be heard in Taneyev’s classical approach to form and his cautious engagement with Russian folk idioms. His legacy to Rachmaninov is manifest in the maximalist approach both composers take to large scale forms, particularly the symphony and the cantata. His musical influence on Scriabin is open to question, but the two composers were close friends, and the tendency of each composer to pursue esoteric and often megalomaniac projects can only have been mutually reinforced through their friendship. 

But Taneyev’s music also stands apart from its historical context. Structural thinking dominated Taneyev’s work, and the composition of individual works would usually begin with the planning of a structural scheme, filling in the details, the orchestration, phrase structures and foreground textures at a later stage. This approach is almost unique in the history of Russian music, and owes more to Taneyev’s study of German music than to any of his Russian predecessors. It has led to his being called ‘the Russian Brahms’, at least by his advocates, who have been keen to promote the surety of his compositional technique and his ability to apply techniques learnt from his study of musical history without compromising the individuality of his work. 

Traditions of church polyphony were the historical models closest to Taneyev’s heart. The skill with which he wove polyphonic intricacies into his own music led Tchaikovsky to an even more prestigious comparison, dubbing him ‘the Russian Bach’. And Bach had been one of Taneyev’s earliest inspirations, although from his later student years his attentions were increasingly drawn to the polyphonists of the Renaissance, in particular to Ockeghem, Josquin and Lassus. He was an avid student of this music and its techniques at the Moscow Conservatory and later an influential teacher of it at the same institution. His magnum opus on the subject Podvizhnoy kontrapunkt strogogo pis'ma [Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style], secured his reputation within his lifetime as Russia’s leading expert on polyphony. Kousevitsky later described the work as ‘one of the greatest musical treatises ever written’, although more recent readers, especially of the English translation (tr. G. Ackley Brower, Boston, 1962), have found it somewhat dry. 

Taneyev’s life story is also something of a disappointment compared to some of his more flamboyant contemporaries. He never married and was cared for throughout his adult life by his childhood nanny. He was a model staff member at the Moscow Conservatory, and his career there was neither tainted nor enlivened by even the suggestion of scandal. One incident of celebrity love entanglement is associated with his name, but it appears to have occurred without any impropriety or even knowledge on his part. In 1895, Taneyev became acquainted with Tolstoy, and in the following years was a regular visitor to Tolstoy’s country estate Yasnaya Polyana. During one of these visits, Tolstoy’s wife became briefly infatuated by the composer. The incident had painful resonances for the author, whose recent story The Kreutzer Sonata covered very similar ground. Taneyev’s ignorance that any of this was taking place around him corroborates his honourable reputation, but also suggests a certain naivety that may explain the straightforward nature of his other personal and professional relationships. 

His teaching reputation aside, Taneyev was best known in his lifetime as a pianist. He was an early champion of Tchaikovsky’s piano works, giving the first Moscow performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, premiering the Second and completing the one movement version of the Third, which had been left unfinished at Tchaikovsky’s death. Taneyev had first come to public attention on the piano, accompanying the celebrated violinist Leopold Auer. The pair toured Russia in 1876, the year after Taneyev’s graduation, and many of Taneyev’s works for solo violin were written at the behest of his early collaborator. His Suite de Concert Op. 28 was written to showcase Auer’s virtuoso talents. The work is a concerto, in function if not in form, the violin backed by a full Romantic orchestra, yet performing a series of movements based on baroque dance forms. Contemporary and baroque are combined here without even the suggestion of neo-classical irony, in stark contrast to Stravinsky’s later use of similar Baroque forms. Tchaikovsky’s Variations of a Rococo Theme better demonstrates the type of engagement with the 18th century that Taneyev seeks; formal elegance and a conformity to generic expectations of tempo and meter, but phrasing, orchestration and scale that are unmistakably late Romantic. The Suite has recently been recorded on the Chandos label by Lydia Mordkovitch with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Neeme Järvi (CHAN10491). It is coupled with the Rimsky-Korsakov Violin Concerto, and both are fully deserving of the increased attention the disc has brought. It is to Taneyev’s credit that his work gets star billing on this disc, a rare example of his work superseding that of his counterpart at the St Petersburg Conservatory. The range of comparisons that the performance has drawn demonstrates the subtle variety in Mordkovitch’s performance, but also the number of influences, both Russian and European, that Taneyev had absorbed by the time of his later works. Composers invoked by reviewers include Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and even Paganini. 

Such a cosmopolitan approach came easily to Taneyev. There was no antagonism between himself and the Russian nationalists of his day - the Mighty Handful, their pupils and successors - but Taneyev’s interest in Russian folk culture and folk music was less passionate and less political. Like Tchaikovsky, he included Russian folk melodies in his works, but as a lingua franca, a shared musical inheritance without any specific political message. He also collected folksongs in the (non-Slavic) Caucuses in the 1880s, publishing transcriptions on his return to Moscow. In terms of technique, the strongest international influence on Taneyev’s music came from Germany, his minutely planned thematic relationships and movement forms (especially large-scale sonata forms) drawing on the legacy of Beethoven and its refinements in Brahms.. He had an interest in mythology, but that of ancient Greece rather than pagan Russia. His only opera, and the grandest musical project of his career, was a treatment of The Oresteia of Aeschylus. It occupied him for seven years, but the effort was rewarded by the considerable success of its premiere production at the Marinsky in 1895. Admirers included Stanislavsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, who wrote in his autobiography ‘for all its strict premeditation [The Oresteia] was striking in its wealth of beauty and expressiveness’. The proviso is telling, and the meticulous formal structuring that Taneyev applied to all his music leaves little scope for a narrative to unfold at its own pace. Unfortunately, modern audiences have had little opportunity to decide for themselves as the work has been neglected since the composer’s death. A Deutsche Gramaphon LP by the Belorussian State Opera (2709 097) was issued on CD but has since been deleted. Unevenness of musical invention was the complaint raised most frequently by contemporary commentators, and the modern assumption that worthy musical material is let down by weak dramatic treatment has led to the overture surviving in the repertoire longer than the opera itself. The overture is well represented on CD, the most recent recording by the Philharmonia under Neeme Järvi (CHAN8953). 

Järvi couples the overture with another of Taneyev’s better known works, the Fourth Symphony. He was an unconfident symphonist, initially numbering this work as his first, thereby relegating the earlier three to the status of student exercises. Taneyev’s reticence to promote his earlier symphonies stems, perhaps, from his close association with Tchaikovsky, one of the greatest symphonists of the 19th century. Nevertheless, Taneyev’s Fourth in particular has had a continuous performance history (at least in Russia) ever since its premiere in 1898. When Rimsky-Korsakov set his composition pupil Igor Stravinsky the task of composing a symphony, his advice was to study Taneyev’s recently published Fourth for guidance. The Fourth remains popular on record, Rozhdestvensky has recorded it twice (Chant du Monde LDC278 931 and Melodiya CM 04117-8), and recordings are also available by the London Symphony Orchestra under Yuri Ahronovich (RL30372 NLA) and the prosaically titled Moscow Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra under Peter Tiboris (Bridge 9034). These recordings span the 1970s to the early 1990s, but in terms of both sound quality and availability are superseded by the Järvi release. The First and Third Symphonies have proved a popular pairing in recent years, comfortably occupying the duration of a compact disc. Thomas Sanderling has recorded the pair for Naxos with the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra (8 570336), as has Valery Polynasky with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (CHAN10390). The Second Symphony is incomplete, but the two finished movements are available as a coupling with the Fourth Symphony on the Polyansky recording and on the Marco Polo release by Stephen Genzenhauser with the Warsaw Philharmonic (223196). Of the first three symphonies, the Third is probably the most worthy of attention. Its most distinctive feature is the first movement, which derives its momentum from a cross-accented triple metre. It is not a completely original idea (Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony is its notably German inspiration), but in combination with Taneyev’s structural planning and carefully orchestrated textures it gives the ideal balance of rigour and energy. 

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