Artistic, creative, musical pedagogy, public and private
Translated by John Ranck
But1 you are getting old, pick
Flowers, growing on the graves
And with them renew your heart. . .
And ethereally brightening-within-me
Beloved shadows arose in the Argentine mist
The Tcherepnins are from the vicinity of Izborsk, an ancient Russian town in the Pskov province. If I remember correctly, my aged aunts lived on an estate there which had been passed down to them by their fathers and grandfathers. Our lineage is not of the old aristocracy, and judging by excerpts from the book of Records of the Nobility of the Pskov province, the first mention of the family appears only in the early 19th century.
I was born on May 3, 1873 in St. Petersburg. My father, a doctor, was lively and very gifted. His large practice drew from all social strata and included literary luminaries with whom he collaborated as medical consultant for the gazette, “The Voice” that was published by Kraevsky.4 Some of the leading writers and poets of the day were among its editors. It was my father’s sorrowful duty to serve as Dostoevsky’s doctor during the writer’s last illness. Social activities also played a large role in my father’s life. He was an active participant in various medical societies and frequently served as chairman. He also counted among his patients several leading musical and theatrical figures.
My father was introduced to the “Mussorgsky cult” at the hospitable “Tuesdays” that were hosted by his colleague, Dr. Golovin. At these gatherings, Golovin served the traditional suckling pig, and Mussorgsky regularly introduced his new compositions and displayed his impressive improvisational ability. One of my father’s close friends, the eccentric Dr. Aristov, was an ardent supporter of Serov,5 whose work “The Power of the Fiend” he considered to be the ultimate operatic achievement.
My father’s first wife, my mother, was Zinaida Alexandrovna Rataeva, daughter of the Master of Hounds, Alexander Nikolaevich Rataev. The Rataevs were by origin from the Yaroslavl province, where they had significant landholdings. My mother did not live long after my appearance in the world and abandoned my father and me after suffering a brief illness when giving birth to me. Although he included me later in his new family, my father did not keep in touch with the relatives on her side of the family, so I only know and remember them only from photographs. I remember the dignified, well-built figure of my grandfather in the picturesque parade uniform he wore as Master of Hounds. I also remember the austere, beautiful face of my grandmother, a native of the Volga region, who, rumor has it, was a good musician. My heart aches to recall the daguerreotype of my mother, with her young, girlish figure, her hair in a chignon, and her beaming, wondrous eyes that were also cheerful, restless and questioning. The daguerreotype print catches the expression of her beautiful, precious eyes into which, with a devoted son’s love, I was denied the chance to gaze.
Martha Egorovna, my mother’s former serf, worked for my parents during their short time together. Before my mother died, she asked Martha to take care of me. Martha’s boundless love, the warmth of her spirit and her many fond caresses, which would have been welcomed by anyone, were especially dear to me, a child and an orphan.
My father’s second wife was Olga Sergeevna Ivashintzeva. The Ivashintzevs also came from Pskov and were closely related to Field-Marshal Suvorov,6 a circumstance that earned them special attention at the Imperial Court. One of the Ivashintzevs, her brother, was a chamberlain. His sons were educated in the Corps des Pages7 and rose to be General officers. Two of them were my age and became my close friends. After the revolution they found refuge with one of their classmates at the Corps, the late King Alexander of Serbia, and occupied important positions in the Serbian army appropriate to their rank. When I visited Belgrade, I hoped to see my childhood friends, but they were no longer among the living. They were perhaps my first audience, were gracious critics of my early playing and improvisations, and I dearly loved them.
My father and his second wife had five children, two of whom have died: Sergei, who was a very gifted doctor, and Masha, who died as a young child. I hope that my other sisters, Olga, Tatiana, and Nadezhda are still alive, but I lost touch with them a long time ago.8
I remember neither when I learned to read and write nor who taught me, but the beginning of my musical training and everything related to that are firmly etched in my memory. The first of my music tutoresses was my aunt Olimpiada Petrovna, my father’s older sister. We met several times a week. Under her patient and loving instruction my music lessons quickly became the central focus of my life. They introduced me to the magical new realms of music that were fated to be my home for the rest of my life. My musical curiosity soon outstripped her assignments, so I began my own investigations and created compositions on my own that were based on what I had studied or heard.
When I entered pre-grammar school and then grammar school, I temporarily put my musical activities on the back burner. Once I became comfortable with my grammar school studies, I returned to music with my former constancy and eagerness. My father, never dreaming that I would become a professional musician, was inclined nonetheless to provide me with a serious musical education. He chose a young teacher, a fellow chess player, Nikolai Egorovich Shishkin, who went on to be a professor at the Moscow conservatory. Shishkin gave me such a good musical/pianistic start that when he moved to Moscow, Demjansky, one of the best known of the [St. Petersburg] Conservatory’s teachers, took me as one of his students. A patient and friend of my father, Demjansky lived in an apartment on the same floor as my family, which was very convenient. He was a very cultured, broad-minded man, and his playing was very intelligent, if one can use that term, with a very light touch. In contrast to Shishkin, he preferred to talk and clarify issues, rather than play or listen to his students play. He constantly smoked strong-smelling cigarettes in a long cigarette holder, and left ashes all over the keyboard. His lessons were interesting, but left less of an impression than those of the strict, withdrawn, intelligent Shishkin.
We somehow became acquainted with Professor Zikke, whom Rubinstein had invited from Germany to be conductor. He was, among other things, the first conductor of Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina.” Father asked Zikke to hear me play. I must have impressed him, since he asked me to work with him not as a student, but in order “to broaden my musical horizon.” His elegant, disciplined, “kapellmeisterly” playing laid before me the beauty of “Tannhäuser,” “Lohengrin,” “Tristan,” and many other German masterpieces. He played willingly and at length, I think as much for himself as for his sole, rapt admirer. Von Bülow, Mahler, and Weingartner must have played like this, and so must have that figment of Hoffmann’s imagination, Kreisler. The only difference being that Kapellmeister Kreisler’s inspired playing caused all the audience to leave, save the good servant Gottlieb, who remained in order to put out the candle; whereas the playing of “Kapellmeister Zikke” lit a candle in me that has lasted all my musical life.9
Thus my domestic environs were very favorable to musical development. The same could be said of grammar school, where during my final years I became friends with N. A. Elachich, an excellent pianist whose family was very close to Fedor Ignatevich Stravinsky, the well-known bass singer at the Mariinsky Theater and father of Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky. From there I was, as they say, only a stone’s throw from Rimsky-Korsakov himself, the cult of whose music reigned in both families, who were friendly and kindred spirits. With Elachich’s help, I, too, was drawn into this orbit - playing, listening to, and studying Russian music. This music, especially that of the young Russian school and of Nikolai Andreyevich [Rimsky-Korsakov], became our daily bread.
Our lives outside of school were filled with many concerts given by touring symphonies (especially the “Russian Symphony Concerts” led by Rimsky-Korsakov), touring opera companies and foreign soloists. Our signatures adorned several of the welcoming testimonials given to Nikolai Andreyevich by his fans at many of his concert appearances.
Elachich once invited me to a concert that was to be held in one of the concert halls at the Conservatory, then still in its old location on Theater Street.10 The unusual concert was a performance of “Paraphrases” for piano four-hands, based on a children’s tune “Tati-Tati”11 and written by Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov12 and Cui. The performers were Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife, Nadezhda Nikolaevna, and the well-known pianist, N. S. Lavrov. Rimsky-Korsakov, Stasov,13 and Cui attended the performance. The audience had all been seated, but the concert did not begin until the former Conservatory directory, Anton G. Rubinstein arrived. He was late, and for some reason, entered from the stage wings, nodded regally to the crowd, then descended the stairs to his usual place in the first row.
I was especially struck by the harmonic ingenuity of the piece, by its unique lyricism and by its infinite rhythmic complexity and unique humor. I was amazed at the charming musical humor of our great composers, to which group Franz Liszt later wanted to add his name. Almost a half century later, I attempted to capture this in my orchestral version of “Paraphrases,” which was premiered in America by one of the best contemporary conductors, Sergei Alexandrovich Koussevitsky.
At grammar school we both (that is, Elachich and I) began to participate in musical serenades, sometimes together on two pianos. I particularly remember our successful performance of Weber’s “Konzertstück,” which met with universal approval.
Dimitri Nikolaevich Solovov14 was the composer of many religious works, and when he assumed the directorship, music quickly filled the halls of the school. Particular attention was paid to choral music, and a student orchestra was formed, conducted by the venerable Vojáček, organist of the Mariinsky Theater15. It fell to me to fill in on piano for missing wind parts, and I sometimes conducted the group in the absence of the maestro. By the end of my grammar school studies, my piano and accompanying skills had developed so much that from then on I dreamt of applying myself completely to music and entering the Conservatory. My father saw things otherwise: “First go to university, and get a good start in life: an engineer, doctor, lawyer, the country needs this “troika”; one can make a living in music, but you need to go after “the five-ruble note” and then you can make do. . .” It was decided that I would enter law school “and then we will see,” he concluded. I worked diligently at the university and some of the courses interested me very much. I was especially interested in Russian law (taught by the students’ favorite, Sergeyevich),16 and in the course on general legal history that was taught by the strict, philosophical Korkunov. In 1895 I completed the coursework with a Bachelor of Law degree, which qualified me for entry-level government work. Although I did not put my judicial expertise into practice, I remain interested in judicial doctrine.
During that period, my musical activities continued unabated and even expanded: I composed pieces for violin and piano, wrote some commissioned choral works for theater, as well as some art songs, duets and church hymns. All of this, of course, was groping, amateurish work, but occurred in the previously-mentioned well-intentioned performances. I began to make a name for myself as an accompanist and made connections with instrumentalists and singers. As a result, my father, who had become convinced that I was to become a musician and not a lawyer, proposed that I not delay enrollment in a conservatory.
I entered the Conservatory in the fall of 1893. Although by that time I had written several compositions, I was still not convinced I had what it takes to be a composer. I thought it prudent to enroll at first as a pianist since that would allow me to take all the required theory coursework. Those classes were necessary and very useful to me in my subsequent composition courses. Having heard my entrance exam, professor Van-Ark took me into his class as a “special student.”
A. G. Rubinstein invited Karl Karlovich Van-Ark to teach at the Conservatory. He had great authority, both among his colleagues and his students. Short, with a thickly bearded face, an unsteady, dipping walk, and crooked, short legs, professor Van-Ark’s external appearance was exceedingly unusual, resembling some kind of dwarf or gnome. A superb musician and skilled teacher, he taught many of the leading pianists, and his studio was at a high level. Perhaps the most gifted of his many students was my classmate Pavel Liubimovich Cohn, a first-rate pianist, and an enthusiastic admirer of and proponent of Anton. G. Rubinstein’s music. He went on to serve for many years as a distinguished professor at the Vienna Music Academy, and is now my colleague at the Russian Conservatory in Paris.
As far as I can remember, K. K. Van-Ark did not perform publicly as a pianist, but his playing, of which we heard many examples in class, was very alluring. He possessed an incredibly soft, full, melodious touch and bewitched us with the well-considered perfection of his playing. His performance of the classics of the repertoire, even in excerpts for purely pedagogical purposes, is firmly embedded in my memory. I still remember the first phrase of Schumann’s piano concerto that he played with his uniquely transcendent sound.
Even the best teachers, however, may have feckless students who are not “in tune” with the general pedagogical goals and examples of their teacher. I was such an “ugly duckling” in Van-Ark’s class. My assignments did not go well and fell short of my dreams. At that time I expected to be quickly introduced to the world-famous piano repertoire. I dreamt of playing Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, works that I had long been playing and knew, even if my performance of them was amateurish. The professor, however, consistently and persistently limited me to works by Hiller, Burgmüller, Wollenhaupt and other equally colorless, half-salon, half-pedagogical German composers whose music I found completely uninteresting. I could understand working on pieces that would challenge my technique, even if they were of little musical interest; but evidently other flaws in my playing, of which I was unaware, worried him.
One must remember that at the time I had already begun making friends with other Russian musicians and knew and dearly loved the contemporary Russian piano literature, which I unconsciously imitated in my own compositions. No one suggested that I study any Russian music, except for the time I was assigned to play the second piano part in a classmate’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto in B-flat minor.” Both my teacher and I agreed the performance was not entirely successful. This was particularly discouraging to me, since I considered my accompanying skills quite strong and unassailable as a result of my successful if low-paying performances at various “clubs”.
All of this taken together gradually led to a cooling of my interest in Van-Ark’s classwork. It sowed in me the absolute and quite accurate feeling that I would never be a “real” pianist.
Meanwhile my theoretical studies continued to advance. I finally realized the necessity and timeliness of a special focus on theoretical subjects and I enrolled in a compositional theory course. Specific subjects included harmony, counterpoint, fugue, musical encyclopedia (a class on form), and instrumentation. Once one has completed the exams in those courses, as well as in those of aesthetics and music history, one receives a diploma in compositional theory.
It generally took three years to complete the above-mentioned coursework: year one, harmony; year two, counterpoint; year three, fugue and everything else. If a student showed special compositional promise, he was transferred to the free composition course. During this three-year course, under the guidance of a teacher and according to a fixed sequence and syllabus, he studied purely practical compositional approaches to various kinds of music. At the same time, the student attended a course in special instrumentation that mainly involved orchestrating assigned pieces. Upon completion of the free composition course, students were required to compose a cantata to a prescribed text for solo voices, chorus and orchestra. This work was required to be at least thirty minutes long. It was due within a month of the delivery of the text and was to be prepared with both a full score and piano reduction. Once the cantata was presented to and approved by a committee of theory professors, the student received a “Free Artist” diploma.17
Depending on his commitment and passing the required classes, a student in either the theory or the free composition course sometimes took longer than the prescribed three years to complete the program. So it was with me: I began the study of special theoretical subjects in the fall of 1894 and reached my cantata exam in the fall of 1898, having completed the entire course in four years.
During my scholastic tenure all the above-mentioned classes, except for, of course, music history and aesthetics, were taught sequentially by the same teacher who led the student from his first exercises in harmony to the day his final-exam cantata text was delivered. The cantata was then to be composed completely independently, with no help from the teacher.
Two teachers taught the compositional theory classes in parallel: Nikolai Feopemptovich Solovov and Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov. One would think that as an enthusiastic and keen admirer of Rimsky-Korsakov, as I was even then, I would logically be put into his class. But fate saw fit to direct me at first to professor Solovov. The truth is that E. I. Ivanov-Smolensky,18 who was one of my father’s musical friends and a voice teacher at the Conservatory (and afterwards my colleague), prevailed upon my father to have me enroll in Solovov’s class. He told my father that Solovov was a more experienced teacher, was more suited to my nature, and was, to be precise, “less strict” with his students than was Rimsky-Korsakov. He pointed out to my father that Rimsky-Korsakov was much more particular in his choice of students and that he was much more exacting and demanding, which was, in fact, the case. In hindsight, it is clear to me that the very sweet, anti-musical, “nanny-goat-voiced” Egor Ivanovich simply wanted to enroll an extra, and perhaps not completely inept, student in his friend Solovov’s class. Ivanov-Smolensky clearly preferred Solovov’s modest musical talents to those of Rimsky-Korsakov.
It was no sooner said than done. Ivanov-Smolensky introduced me to my future teacher. After a brief and extremely superficial exam, he accepted me into his class. I remained there, undergoing a course in advanced harmony, during the first two months of the fall semester of 1894.
Nikolai Feopemptovich was, at that time, fairly well known as a composer. He was the author of the opera “Cordelia,”19 which played for several seasons at the Mariinsky Theater, and of “Vakula the Blacksmith,” scenes of which are still occasionally performed.20 Solovov was esteemed and liked by a significant part of the public. Subsequently, in the last year of my conductorship at the Mariinsky Theater, I was assigned by the management to prepare a revival of “Cordelia,” and we spent much time together rehearsing it. Nikolai Feopemptovich was sincerely sad to see me leave the theater, since the revival was then set aside for a long time. I thoroughly and carefully prepared the staging, and while being absorbed in the work, something in “Cordelia” even began to appeal to me.
Professor Solovov was very affable in handling his students, and unfailingly diligent in class; but that internal fire, which is transferred to students, was not in him, and his instruction was always a little formal, at least in the class I had with him.
During those times spent hanging out with my fellow friends/theory classmates, which also included Rimsky-Korsakov’s students, I became more and more obsessed with the idea of transferring to his class. This was not easy to do. Officially, such a transfer was not impossible, but . . . would Rimsky-Korsakov accept me into his class? And how could I get Solovov’s permission for the transfer? (Such permission was absolutely essential, according to established custom and requirements of Conservatory ethics.) After much vacillation and agitation, I decided to introduce myself to Rimsky-Korsakov. I brought some of my compositions with me. As I recall they were some variations for violin and piano on a Ukrainian folk theme, an upbeat piano piece (of which I was for some reason quite proud), and some songs to texts of Maikov.21
Nikolai Andreyevich listened very attentively to all the pieces, chatted with me about musical matters. In parting he said he would accept me into his class, in accordance with Conservatory statutes, once I had my former teacher's approval. As far as obtaining the permission was concerned, everything went swimmingly. Nikolai Feopemptovich released me without taking any offense, and wished me well. When I finished my Conservatory studies, he wanted to sign my diploma along with Rimsky-Korsakov. Later on, as music critic, he was always supportive of my composing and conducting activities, and. when he was named director of the Imperial Chapel, he retained his connections with both the Conservatory and the Music Society as an honorary member. For a time we both taught at the Conservatory.
Having fulfilled all the required formalities, I was invited by Nikolai Andreyevich to take the official exams. He carefully tested my ear, ascertained my knowledge of theory and solfège, and made me sing in clefs. Following this exam, I was required to write out some harmonic puzzles based on what I had done with Professor Solovov. Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov attended the exam. Soon to be the famous Conservatory director, he was already taking an active role in its musical and academic life. After the favorable outcome, Nikolai Andreyevich gave me a note for the registrar that authorized my transfer to his class and qualified me for the course in advanced harmony. From that moment my musical education followed its true course. Before me opened limitless possibilities for developing all my musical capabilities under the guidance of a great composer and exceptional pedagogue, who became in a musical sense my “alma pater,” and who devoted with love and dedication his generous spirit and time (so necessary for his own creative work), to the development of the next generation of Russian composers and musicians.
Revisiting the memory of these years with Rimsky-Korsakov, years that were so meaningful and fruitful for me, I must confess that my memory of his most well-deserved professorial image is often eclipsed by my memory of him as composer/artist. For me, the pedagogical examples and methods that he used so wisely to develop in us the musical and technical skills that are so important to the composer were less impressive and beneficial than what I absorbed from constant interaction with him and with his creative personality. With the charm of his compositions, which we always had the chance to hear both in performance and by playing through them ourselves, “Professor” Rimsky-Korsakov evoked in his students that unfailing inclination and disposition toward work that reigned in his classroom. This robustly inspired our purely technical assignments in harmony, counterpoint, fugue, and other theoretical matters.
As he gradually became better acquainted with his students, Nikolai Andreyevich would readily chat with us about various musical issues, share ideas with us from his rich treasure trove of musical style, and constantly report to the class about this or that development in musical life, whether it be a concert, an opera, newly composed music, etc. Nikolai Andreyevich would sometimes sit with us during symphony rehearsals and confide his impressions. His critical judgement, always well-founded, caught so to speak “on the fly,” was an important contribution to our musical development. This also complemented and enriched his serious, methodical class discussions.
Long before our class in free composition, Nikolai Andreyevich displayed steady interest in our burgeoning musical instincts. Those instincts were engendered in many ways by our association with him. He listened closely to our compositions no matter how poor and feeble our efforts. He played through them and always offered his impressions in the most inoffensive and supportive terms.
Nikolai Andreyevich often said: “A composer is known by his desire to compose.” We would actually reply, “mortal desire is a bitter fate.”22 M. M. Ivanov,23 a very poor composer and music critic of the influential journal “New Times,” was a case in point. He was Nikolai Andreyevich's great detractor and ill-wisher, and author of two very weak and silly operas. His “Putjatishna’s Pastime” is a worthless, intolerable piece based on the eternal comedy “Wit works woe.”24 Nikolai Andreyevich described the situation: “Yes. Well, yes, it happens of course . . . But even so, still and all, but he – is a composer.” With that, he ended the conversation.
At the time I began my counterpoint class that spring, I showed Nikolai Andreyevich the sketches for my orchestra pieces called “La Princesse lointaine.” The piece was based on Edmund Rostand’s work of the same name, and had great success when it was performed in the Suvorovsky Hall.25 Nikolai Andreyevich was interested in the piece and gave me several ideas about how to broaden and deepen its musical content, and make it more polished and modern. He suggested that I do a fundamental revision in my spare time during the summer, asked me to send him the revised version, and promised that he would help me with the orchestration. Having finished my exams, I immediately began to rework, or more accurately, to fulfill the artistic realization of my sketches. Nikolai Andreyevich told me, “Always remember that in true art there must be nothing left unfinished; there must be nothing that does not contribute to its artistic shape; nothing that does not serve its end; not a single haphazard note or bit of orchestration; nothing that could be replaced without changing the sense of the work or its entire musical realization.”
We students held dear our great teacher’s wise counsel, which helped us to avoid dilettantism and those pernicious currents that, alas, were not unknown in the music of the day. Others (though not members of the Russian school that he established and that grew under his careful, loving guidance) could be reproached for having a negligent attitude toward their talent.
Stravinsky, one of the most gifted of Rimsky-Korsakov’s students, if perhaps not the most gifted, frequently said: “By their nature my scores are like a cashier’s check. Take the tiniest detail away from the check, and it ceases to be valid.” With admiration and love, Stravinsky’s contemporaries and posterity have honored and will continue to honor his “checks,” replete as they are in musical abundance. He was, however, not alone in continuing the great legacy of our glorious teacher: Rimsky-Korsakov inspired a school. An entire generation of Russian composers created works that built on his everlasting body of work. These works were a tribute to their great teacher and mentor.
The summer when I worked on “La Princesse lointaine” was one of my happiest and most musically productive summers. I was surrounded by joyful, life-loving, rather mature young creatures: my three sisters and my brother. I realized that they loved not only me, but also my music. I also experienced restless dreams “of another happiness.”26 To put these dreams to music was a great joy and contributed greatly to my compositional output. Perhaps that is why the songs I wrote that summer are so well-loved by both musicians and the public. Well, my spirit was bright and happy.
We were then living near Oranienbaum,27 that old, historic, spotlessly clean, charming little seaside village, thirty versts28 from Petersburg. Shadows of the ill-fated reign of Peter the Third, infamous husband of the famous Catherine, hung in the air.
In that dear little nook I was quite impressionable and comfortable. The wonderful sylvan countryside, praised by Zhukovski29 and called the “Russian Switzerland;” Kronstadt castle standing guard over access to the capital; the gentle, tender sea with its special scent; the austere, baroque, sprawling Rastrelli palace, mirrored in the clean, bright, lake that was almost like the one at Tsarskoe Selo; the austere Protestant church, in front of which that unfortunate admirer of Frederick the Great, who paid dearly for his enthusiasm and his mistakes, would strictly drill his Holstein [soldiers] in Frederick’s style.30 I was always excited when I used to pass by the little home of the famous singer Dar’ja Mikhailovna Leonova, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky’s friend whom he admired and accompanied.31 The composer often visited her to play his great compositions. I would also often admire the humble, almost hermitage-like little chapel that stood in a resinous pine forest as if transported there from the Old Believer trans-Volga region so lyrically described by Mel’nikov-Pecherskii.32
Beloved by Petersburgers as a place for their summer homes, Oranienbaum had a theater and a Kursaal33 with a good orchestra that was comprised of members of the Imperial Theater who were happy to breathe the purifying sea air and to refresh their wives’ and children’s health. Maurice Fedorovich Keller, the concertmaster of the Mariinsky Opera Orchestra, conducted the group. He was a very experienced, knowledgeable and talented conductor, and the Kursaal concerts were well attended by the locals. When there was a symphony concert, even people from the suburbs and the capital attended. I participated in the musical life of the Kursaal as orchestra pianist and occasionally covered the harp part. I also accompanied instrumentalists and singers. Maurice Fedorovich was interested in my compositions and since he knew I was working on an orchestra piece, asked to see the score when it was ready. He promised to run through it during a rehearsal and if it went well, to put “Princess Lointaine” on a symphony program. Of course this was awfully tempting and I immediately proceeded with the orchestration, finally producing simultaneously an arrangement and a finished copy.
I was not quite a novice in that regard. The previous year in Sevastopol,34 I was a guest of Admiral Lavrov (an old friend of my father and fellow Pskov native), who was the local chief of city administration. I had composed some Polonaises for orchestra in honor of my kindly hostess, the admiral’s wife. In celebration of the Admiral’s name day, I conducted the pieces with orchestra on the sea-side boulevard in the presence of all the city’s officials. The pieces made a reasonably good impression. The performance went smoothly enough with a full-enough sonority and was not devoid of its purely coloristic elements. It is one thing, however, to orchestrate an unpretentious piece with a sufficient number of Polish musical elements, and another to create a fully-planned piece for orchestra destined for a Symphony performance.
My guiding star in this case was my enthusiasm for the overture to Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which I had heard twice that season both in rehearsal and in performance. I had acquired the score from Bessel35 and it became my desk companion, or even more than that, since it went with me everywhere.
During that summer, with my father’s consent, I gave up two days a week to travel by train to St. Petersburg to give some music lessons. I took great pride in this, since it allowed me to contribute to household expenses and to have ample spending money. The score to “Romeo and Juliet”went with me on every train trip and I soon became familiar enough with the music that I could write it out from memory. It was extremely beneficial having those pleasing sonorities fresh in my mind, hearing how they sounded in rehearsal, and studying how the composer had achieved them. The awareness that the orchestral style of “Romeo” corresponded to the musical style of my orchestral pieces provided me with a certain confidence and the courage to compose my first real orchestral score. I can say without exaggeration that studying the beautiful passages found in the “Romeo” score taught me more about orchestration than I could have learned from any textbook on the subject, had I decided to use one.
I had quite a variety of musical “gigs” that summer. They began in the morning with two-hour sessions accompanying an elderly amateur violinist who had a solid technique and a big repertoire. Of Swiss ancestry, R. was proprietor of the famous restaurant, “Dominic’s,” located on Nevsky Prospect across from the Kazan Cathedral. After our sessions, he usually invited me to share a “bachelor’s repast” with him. We would order the menu du jour, and after a lively conversation (R. was a very interesting and entertaining interlocutor), the first stage of my toil would conclude. Then I would teach elementary theory to a bright and also elderly civil servant, Mr. V., a minister at one of the fashionable departments. He was neither a composer nor a musician and it remains a mystery to me what part of his inner being responded to the study of the secret relationship of intervals, scale structure, etc., that are contained in this uncomplicated science of theoretical subtleties.
After him came an elegant, pure-blooded Pole, V., a University student. My dealings with him consisted in correcting his compositions and occasionally even writing for him. My day ended with piano lessons given to a couple of young women. Finally the blessed hour arrived when I bundled myself into a cozy corner of a railway carriage and drew from my briefcase my trusty traveling companion, the score of “Romeo” and, in its interesting and instructive company, quietly arrived at my comfortable Oranienbaum home and hearth.36
Rimsky-Korsakov always said that the secret to good orchestration is above all, good voice leading. It was certainly thanks to thorough sketches and close attention to voice leading that, in a short amount of time, I was able to create a very respectable and quite colorful score. “Romeo and Juliet” aided the process, and the result was not unimaginative in its structure. Maurice Fedorovich thought it was quite good and offered several valuable suggestions on the use of the strings. We decided to test the piece in rehearsal, and if it were successful, to include it in a program.
The day of the rehearsal, which was so important to me, finally arrived. The orchestra was to rehearse the piece in the foyer of Kursaal. Maurice Fedorovich began the rehearsal with my piece. He was conscientiously involved with its details when two people of medium height entered the foyer. They were dressed in the then-stylish, loose coat with a cape, wearing soft felt hats with a drooping brim (of the type often worn by artists), and sporting black beards on open, obviously Russian faces. Both were from the Volga region, one from Nizhny Novgorod, the other from Jaroslavl. They were the well-known composers Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev and Sergei Mikhailovich Liapunov37, with whom I was fated to come into frequent contact. They were there for the rehearsal of Liapunov’s piano concerto, which was the featured composition on the upcoming program.38
Whether he wanted to or not, Balakirev was present at my musical baptism. I considered this to be a good omen for me as a Russian musician. This was all the more so since A. Petrov, one of Balakirev's close associates, told me that Mily Alexeyevich (Balakirev) would play passages from “Princess dreams” for him on the piano, which passages he recalled perfectly with his marvelous musical ear and amazing memory. He spoke quite approvingly about the music and its orchestration.
Maurice Fedorovich introduced me to our renowned “maestri.” They were very interested to know that I was Rimsky-Korsakov’s student. Since my teacher had studied with him, Balakirev was sort of my musical grandfather.
“La Princesse lointaine” was a hit with both the public and with the critics. During the following season, Keller occasionally performed my piece, which enabled me to understand it in a way that was very helpful to me in future compositions. After the concert, the dashing principal conductor handed me an impressively large package that turned out to contain a genuine Vyborg krendel39 that had arrived that day from the “cold cliffs of Finland”40, from a young woman who was living there at the time. She had excellent grounds to consider herself my ‘Princesse Lointaine’ and me her knight in shining armor, the indisputable proof of which is our later shared fate, which has united us for what will soon be half a century. So my first laurels were very closely associated with that sweet taste, and with those bright hopes for the future that were later realized to my complete delight.
That summer Cezar Antonovich Cui, his family, and Mitrofan Petrovich Belaieff,41 his wife and adopted daughter Valya lived near us at the summer home of the engineer Erakov. They often vacationed together and I became acquainted with the Belaieffs at Cui’s house. Cezar Antonovich often sang his art songs, pleasantly accompanied by his daughter, Lidia Cezarovna. I still recall those beautiful songs written to text of the poet Richepin. Their profound effect on me was due as much to the clear and unusual style of Cui’s music as to the poet’s profound and emotional words.42
Lidia Cezarovna and I would often play four-hand piano versions of selections from “Angelo” or “Ratcliff,” the charming dances from “The Prisoner in the Caucasus” and other compositions by her father. This induced Belaieff to invite me to play works for piano four-hands. In technique and dynamics, his playing was not very accomplished, but he played with very strict rhythm. Playing with him was particularly interesting because we focused mainly on Russian symphonic works that were his Leipzig publishing company’s specialty. His love of four-hand piano playing was one of the reasons that all his publications of orchestral compositions were also released in a version for piano four-hands.
His favorite composer at that time was Glazunov. We also played compositions by Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Vitol,43 Kopilov44 (of whom he had a particularly high opinion for some reason), Tchaikovsky (“Romeo” and other compositions), and Glinka opera overtures and his Spanish songs. He played with indefatigable enthusiasm and he loved to talk about a piece after having played it. I found many of his opinions to be very original, and sometimes completely unexpected. I found that our musical get-togethers, which occurred quite regularly, were extremely helpful. They allowed me to become acquainted with contemporary Russian symphonic repertoire, broadened my horizons, and added not a few valuable musical impressions to my propitious, fruitful summer.
When I returned to Petersburg that fall, much unpleasantness awaited me in connection with “La Princesse lointaine.” Published reviews had reached the Conservatory, and apparently I had violated the rule that forbade students from having their compositions performed publicly without their professor’s permission and without the professor’’s presence at the event. I had doubly offended Nikolai Andreyevich: I did not obtain his permission in a timely manner, and had evaded his promise to help orchestrate the work. I had orchestrated it illegally, so to speak, not having waited, as was the custom, for classes to resume in the fall. It was bitter to realize I had offended my dear professor. Soon, however, thanks to his generous, benevolent spirit, Nikolai Andreyevich forgave me and allowed me to bring my composition to class. To my great, and one must say, unexpected happiness, Nikolai Andreyevich’s response to both the music in its new setting and its instrumentation was very positive. At Nikolai Andreyevich’’s suggestion, M. P. Belaieff published “La Princess lointaine” when I graduated from the conservatory. The Board of Trustees at the time consisted of Rimsky-Korsakov (President), Glazunov and Liadov. Released as Opus 4, “La Princesse lointaine” was first performed in its printed version on one of the Russian Symphonic Concerts conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov.
I was recently in Madrid to stage productions of “Prince Igor” and “Boris” at the Royal Opera House. I heard “La Princesse lointaine” in a lovely performance, which the audience insisted be reprised.45 This experience invoked memories of the above-mentioned circumstances of its premiere.
I was very busy during the academic year 1894-95, both at the University (preparing for final tests and Governmental exams) and at the Conservatory (taking courses in fugue and musical form). I must confess that my studies in the fugue class were not very fruitful. It appears that I am not, by nature, inclined to abstract musical thought. I felt a breath of cold air from all these solid, respectable sound combinations. They were not born from my hearing, but rather, inflexibly established, obligatory, some forbidden, some permitted and legitimized. For some reason at this stage of my “musical drill” they were made immutable for me and handed down from my professor, who was “master of my musical soul.” In retrospect, I think he had learned all these deadly doctrines simply to guide his students rather than to inspire them with his own creative nature, which was so alien to scholastic “taboos.” With nothing but his “Apollonian” ear, he had established and affirmed the boundaries of the permitted and the forbidden, the hoped-for and the expected in musical art.
I learned much more in the class on musical form, in which the professor introduced us to the eternal monuments of classical musical structure. This class was especially useful since it included obligatory exercises that were coordinated with the various musical forms. The professor always analyzed, discussed and corrected these exercises.
At that time the breadth and depth of my accompanying work increased in interest and importance, depending on the atmosphere surrounding the event and the musical caliber of the musicians involved. A student of Professor Aujer, Viktor Grigorievich Valter,46 (who went on to become concertmaster of the opera orchestra for many years) was then enjoying increased recognition and success as a violinist. A native of Kharkov, he had studied at the university there, where he majored in the natural sciences. Viktor Grigorievich was a very intelligent, erudite man, who sacrificed the possibility of a brilliant academic career to study music. We frequently played music and attended concerts together, and I quickly became his main accompanist. At his request, I composed a short and (as far as I can remember) sonorous and lyrical piece for violin that he frequently played in our appearances together. I also wrote a set of variations on a Ukrainian melody that he had supplied, which variations he sarcastically referred to as “Ukrainian in style.” I also worked up a version of Paganini’s “Caprice in a” that we added to our repertoire.
I remember our appearance at one of the Academy of Fine Arts’ Watercolor Fridays. These were established and hosted by the charming Albert Nikolaevich Benois, a renowned watercolorist.47 Artists would draw from nature at these soirées, and the invited musicians’ performance supported their artistic endeavors. On the night in question, Valter, myself and our great artist, Ivan Fedorovich Gorbunov48 attended. After we performed my piece, Albert Nikolaevich introduced me to the group as its composer, which deeply touched me. The occasion concluded as usual with a modest meal after which the flabby, old Gorbunov held forth. At the insistence of the artists (it was Lent), Gorbunov, in his inimitable fashion, whipped up a cold soup with kvas in an enormous, ancient lacquered bowl. The contents were sauerkraut, radishes, pickled mushrooms, etc., all ruthlessly smothered in sunflower oil. I must confess, this “sibyllic soup” was not quite tolerable to my palate at the time, but the painters really knocked it back (with vodka) and praised it to the sky. Among the guests that evening was Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, a great friend of the artists and frequenter of the Watercolor Fridays. He was very relaxed, affectionate and cordial with everyone.
It was in the hospitable, welcoming house of Albert Nikolaevich Benois, a place that would soon become like home, that I performed my first serious job as a conductor. Albert Nikolaevich was a fine musician who dearly loved and composed music. V. G. Valter, a great admirer of Albert Nikolaevich, decided to lead a performance at Albert’s home of Tchaikovsky’s “String Serenade,” performed by a small group of musicians from our opera orchestra. The concert was scheduled to celebrate Albert Nikolaevich’s birthday and I was to be the conductor. I do not know how well I managed to do this among such experienced musicians, but I do remember that with their generous assistance my first serious conducting debut was quite successful, and the piece became a favorite part of my repertoire.
One day Valter invited me to hear a performance the famous violinist Brodsky49 who was appearing at the Imperial Russian Music Society. M. P. Belaieff and V. G. Valter, who headed the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society50, managed to get him to perform at one of their concerts. At this concert, in an exception to the usual monastic rules,51 members of the society were able to attend with their families, and the comparatively small concert hall was packed. The unthinkable happened: the pianist, with whom Brodsky had rehearsed the program did not show up. The astonished Brodsky was about to leave in a huff. Valter introduced me to the famous musician, expressed confidence that I could perform the program with him, and we went on stage.
I was well-acquainted with everything Brodsky had programmed, with the exception of a short Italian piece, so it was not surprising that I was up to the task. Furthermore, great artist that he was, Brodsky’s playing was rhythmically beyond reproach so it was easy to follow him. We concluded with Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” at a dizzying clip and with an exceptional character and brilliance. Exiting the stage, Brodsky took me by the hand and announced to the surrounding admirers and members of the Society, “Well, such things can happen only in Russia!” Everyone was very pleased, and Brodsky in particular was beaming. Hearing of the concert, Nikolai Andreyevich congratulated me and said “You did well.”
During this period, a Society of Musical Convocations was organized in Nikolai Andreyevich’s name. Ivan Augustovich Davidov was its president and treasurer. He was Nikolai Andreyevich’s former student, a banker by trade, and nephew of the Conservatory president, the well-known cellist and composer, Karl Yulevich Davidov.
The Society, comprised of people close to Nikolai Andreyevich as well as his ardent admirers, was not put off by the enormity of this artistic endeavor, and carried it off honorably and with respect for Nikolai Andreyevich. They arranged a production of the newly completed version of “The Maid of Pskov.”52 Ivan Augustovich Davidov conducted, though he was not really up to the task. At one of the performances, at the beginning of the last act, the entire enterprise fell apart. And where did this happen? At what is considered the climactic moment when Ivan the Terrible is reading from the breviary: “And because the evildoers have had pleasure in the sins of the Devil, etc.”53 The audience was astonished when the orchestra suddenly stopped playing, and the conductor’’s voice could be heard saying to Tsar Ivan, played by the great bass, M. Koryakin: “Misha, we need to start over.” From the stage, the response of the long-suffering Great Tsar Ivan rang out “From where?” “Tra-ta-ta, ta, ta,” Ivan Augustovich sang in his falsetto, conductor’s voice, and the spectacle rolled on to its more or less satisfactory conclusion.
How could have this have happened, especially in one of our leading theaters? Because even such a well-educated and talented musician as Ivan54 Augustovich Davidov sincerely believed that no one we knew had the the multifaceted background to mount an opera production, no matter how much he knew and loved the repertoire. Such classes were not taught at the Conservatory, and the high priests of our Mariinsky Theater kept the wonderous secrets of opera production to themselves. Young conductors such as F. M. Blumenfeld55 and myself penetrated these secrets only by means of purely practical experience, or by leaving the country to work abroad, unsupported and unencouraged by their old friends who had many years of experience.
Recognizing my aptitude for practical musical activities, and being familiar with my accompanying work, Nikolai Andreyevich recommended me to the Music Society, which was then rehearsing Schumann’s opera, “Genoveva.”56 I was responsible for training the chorus in operatic and general choral repertoire as well as accompanying stage rehearsals and concert performances. In addition to Nikolai Andreyevich, other members of his exceptionally musical family also belonged to the Society. Nikolai Andreyevich attended not only concerts, but even choral rehearsals.
The chorus’s broad repertoire included such great pieces as the divine Kyrie from Bach’s “Mass in B inor” and Mussorgsky’s beautiful choruses, “Joshua” and “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” I also remember the charming women’s chorus from Mussorgsky’s “Salambo” that always touched me deeply, as well as the incredibly delightful, slightly saccharine D major chorus in Dargomyzhsky’s “Rogdana.” Nikolai Andreyevich’s daughter, Sophia Nikolaevna sang the alto solo in “Joshua.” The slightly unusual timbre of her deep, alto voice sounded almost like an instrument. This lead to a very embarrassing incident: Nikolai Andreyevich had asked me to visit him to go over some orchestral parts. While we were working in his studio, the sweet sound of some kind of instrument came from the room next to us. “What is that, Nikolai Andreyevich?” I asked, “an oboe?” He did not say anything. The sound grew deeper. “An English Horn?” I asked. “No,” he peevishly answered, “that is Sonia practicing.”57 I was completely devastated by my faux pas.
Sofia Nikolaevna once brought to a rehearsal some pages of manuscript that were covered with very familiar, slanted handwriting. It was Nezhata’s bïlina, “Twas on the Ilmen Lake” (“Kak na ozere na Ilmene”) from Nikolai Andreyevich’s “Sadko,” on which he was then working. The piece made quite an impression when we performed it at one of the next Society gatherings (undoubtedly its first performance).58
Thanks to my father’s close former colleagues in publishing, I was given an internship as music reviewer for the Rus’ gazette that was published at the time by the well-known A. Proxovshchikov. “The trial” turned out to be not entirely successful and was marked by the following acts of bravery: in a review, I unmercifully criticized Chaliapin, who at that time was an aspiring singer, was my age (we were both born in 1873), and was appearing in a certain opera at the Panaevsky Theater. My thunderous criticism rained down upon his performance of Bertram in Meyerbeer’s opera “Robert le diable.” I seem to remember I spoke more approvingly and encouragingly of his portrayal of Mephistopheles in Gounod’s “Faust.” The second of my feats of daring was my incrimination of Nikolai Nikolaevich Figner (an audience favorite, the first and best of our Lenskis and Hermanns) for transposing down a half-step the final aria in the second act of “Romeo.”59 When these reviews appeared in the press, I was ordered to see the editor, who very wisely explained to me that such transpositions are not a distortion of the music, but rather necessary accommodation to the capability of the singer’s voice. (After many years of conducting, I agree with that.) After these two incidents, my star as a music critic began to fade. It soon completely burned out, never to be rekindled.