1893-1895, 1896-1897, 1897-1898
The following years at the Conservatory were very productive. I was in the “free composition” class, and instead of simply completing the assignments, day and night I composed works on my own initiative, many of which were later published. As I recall, the first performance of my “String Quartet in a,” op. 11 was at my father’s house, and Nikolai Andreyevich, Valter and some of my fellow students attended. The manuscript was badly copied and did not allow time for page turns. Nikolai Andreyevich joked that I had written an octet, since, in addition to the four players, an additional four people were needed to turn the pages.
During that period I moved out of my father’s place and rented a large furnished apartment on Nikolaievsky Street, not far from where my father lived.60 This made it convenient to have lunch and dinner with my family. I had always played on a Schroeder piano, so the Shroeder piano company gave me a large concert grand that was a great aid to my playing and composing. By a wonderful coincidence, two of my classmates, Nikolai Nikolaevich Amani61 and Fedor Stepanovich Akimenko,62 lived in the same building and on the same staircase as I. They were both very gifted composers, and Amani (who, sadly, died very young) was also a first-rate pianist and studied with Yeshipov Leshetitsky. With the coming of spring, our storm windows were removed and the sounds of our current projects poured from our apartments into the courtyard. I was on the second floor, Amani on the third, and Akimenko on the fifth floor. Liszt’s “Piano Concerto in Eb” and other required graduation pieces wafted from Amani’s window. In this way we were always aware of each other’s progress.
The short, elderly, one-eyed woman, Polya, was my housemaid. She was especially sweet and obliging, and she had a very high opinion of her client’s musical abilities. If, in my absence, someone stopped by to invite me to accompany him to a concert, she haughtily replied: “They (meaning me) do not accompany. They compose and conduct here.”
For our beloved teacher, the 1895-96 season was filled with difficulties connected with the production of his opera, “Christmas Eve,” at the Mariinsky Theater. We, his students, with understandable anxiety and great empathy for Nikolai Andreyevich, followed all the machinations of this ugly tale and experienced them with him. In his “Chronicle,” Rimsky-Korsakov discusses this production at some length, but either because of a sincere tactfulness, or for some other reason, he lets slip not a single word of the unfriendly role, to say the very least, that his Conservatory colleague, Nikolai Feopemptovich Solovov played in the affair. Allow me to lay out, in what can be considered a supplement to the “Chronicle” account, what was known of the affair in music circles and must have been known even to Nikolai Andreyevich himself.
Many years before Nikolai Alexeyevich composed “Christmas Eve”, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna announced an opera composition competition to encourage creation of Russian operas.63 As libretto, contestants were to use Ya. P. Polonsky’s64 “Vakula the Blacksmith,” a liberally reworked version of Gogol’s story “Christmas Eve.” Two operas were presented to a jury that included Nikolai Andreyevich. One of them, which was awarded the prize, was written by Tchaikovsky. The other, written by Solovov, received honorable mention. After the prize was awarded, voices were raised saying that the name of the composer of the winning composition had been known beforehand by members of the jury.
Talking about it with him afterwards, I learned the following from Nikolai Andreyevich: the jury, which was well-acquainted with Tchaikovsky’s musical language, recognized it after having heard only the first few bars of the piece. Its melodic contour, harmonic phrasing, and the outline of the introduction (especially its beginning) were so characteristically Tchaikovskian that no one else could have written it. Of course, one could not fault the jury that the authorship of the music was betrayed by the music itself. Furthermore, they awarded it the prize because its musical qualities were immeasurably better than those of the other piece.
I was able to hear Solovov’s version of “Vakula the Blacksmith” in the People’s Palace in Petersburg.65 Some of it caught my fancy, particularly some of the choral writing, but there was no comparison with the brilliant lyricism or the vitality of Tchaikovsky’s work. Its rancorous author, however, did not agree and he openly accused the jury of prejudice and of incorrectly awarding the prize.
When Rimsky-Korsakov completed his “Christmas Eve” after Peter Ilyich’s death, the chances for a production of Solovov’s “Vakula” at the Mariinsky Theater (which was one of his cherished hopes) significantly declined due to the “official” plans to mount Rimsky-Korsakov’’s opera. It was necessary, therefore, to eliminate this unexpected, threatening rival. Solovov’s brother, Modest Feopemtovich, court administrator for Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, brought this about. One must presume that the exceedingly harsh pronouncement from the Grand Duke (about which Nikolai Andreyevich wrote with such umbrage and bitterness in his “Chronicle”), who so dearly loved Russian art, could not have happened without direct involvement from someone closely connected to him.
The first performance of “Christmas Eve” was very successful, and there were many friendly calls for the absent composer to appear. In a scathing review of the performance, Professor Solovov, music critic for one of the most widely-read music newspapers in Petersburg, let loose an attempt to denigrate the opera from a new and unexpected point of view: he accused the librettist (who was the composer himself) of blasphemy and of violating the sanctity of Christmas Eve. “At the very time when Orthodox Christians should be celebrating the birth of the Savior of the World, the stage is filled with imps, witches on broomsticks, seething cauldrons and pitchforks, etc. etc.,” spewed the hopped up reviewer in his critique-denunciation (and why would the Holy Synod see this and not move to rebuke and to put an end to such blasphemous activities for the salvation of the Christian spirit?). We all grieved for Nikolai Andreyevich and felt sincerely indignant when he brought this deeply disturbing article to our class.
I write these lines almost fifty years after the fact. Solovov and his “Vakula the Blacksmith” are forgotten, while “Christmas Eve” has taken a place of honor in the Russian opera repertoire. Before the present, hopelessly prolonged war began five years ago, there was great interest in opera in Germany. This lead to a series of performances in the big German opera houses and necessitated a translation of the text and an adaptation to the conditions of the German stage. This was done in 1938 by the publishing firm M. P. Belaieff-Leipzig, which had the rights to the opera by authority of the Board of Trustees that directed Belaieff’s publishing activities. The festive, brilliant “Catherine Polonaise” for chorus and orchestra from “Christmas Eve” enjoys great popularity, especially in England. In my opinion it is the most luxuriant and formally sophisticated music in all the Russian repertoire. “Dance Scenes,” which Nikolai Andreyevich selected from “Christmas Eve” for concert performance, has entered the symphonic repertoire. I frequently perform these beautiful, sprightly, marvelous “Scenes” in concert.66
For the last part of “Scenes” (the return flight of Vakula) Nikolai Andreyevich uses a new and completely unexpected sound: incredibly beautiful harmonics and a D string glissando for two measures that form a delightful series of arpeggiated D major chords. Stravinsky made good use of this effect in the magically dreamlike introduction of “The Firebird.”
In my mind’s eye I look back at this year with gratitude since it was very productive in my musical development and growing self-esteem.
Attendance at the rehearsals of the Russian Symphonic Concerts contributed greatly to our growing musical abilities. These rehearsals were conducted by our teacher and by his close colleagues and students. The great Russian composer, Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov, who had his own profound artistic destiny, would also conduct. A. K. Liadov later communicated to me Tchaikovsky’s opinion of Glazunov’s artistic gifts: “If he finds his path, with his great talent, he will become a great ‘eclectic’ composer.” In those days “eclectic” had a pejorative meaning, and this probably offended Glazunov not a little. It turned out that Tchaikovsky was correct, and it was precisely Glazunov’s eclectic works, based on Russian musical folklore, that gained him a world-wide reputation and made him rich.
The Imperial Russian Music Society allowed Conservatory composition students to attend their rehearsals. We heard first-class European artists and well-known conductors in foreign and Russian repertory. We heard the Hungarian conductor Nikisch lead brilliant, insightful performances of Tchaikovsky’s immortal works; we heard Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto played by Paderevsky; we heard Schuch67 conduct profound productions of “Freischütz” and “Oberon,” Emil Sauer68 in the warhorse “Konzertstück” by Weber, and many other performances that are forever etched in my grateful memory. We also attended several opera rehearsals in the Theater when they were preparing works by our teacher.
In summary of the above, we were “buried” in music, and if one of us did not make full use of these extraordinary conditions for development, it is his own fault.
The fall of 1896 through the winter of 1897 were marked by very interesting and intensive coursework. We composed a lot of vocal music during that period: art songs. duets, works for a cappella chorus, chorus with orchestra, operatic sketches, etc. I say “we” meaning myself, N. N. Amani69 and F. S. Akimenko, my friends in the free composition class.
As he wrote in his “Chronicle,” during this time Nikolai Andreyevich went through a period of renewed interest in writing purely for the voice, not having first sketched out the material on an instrument. He especially valued and loved Akimenko’s sweet art songs that were later published by the firm of Belaieff. These art songs were touching both in their sincerity and in their impeccable, purely Glinka-esque, tuneful, vocal approach to the text. Some of these songs were titled “Do not tarry,” “At midnight an angel descends from the heavens,” “The Mermaid,” and “The Prayer.” All of us, including Nikolai Andreyevich, especially liked Amani’s music for “John of Damascus,” which is based on a story by A. Tolstoy; his excerpts from “Mtsyri,” based on Lermontov’s poem; and especially his graceful, accomplished songs for piano, which were also published by Belaieff. Of my vocal works, Nikolai Andreyevich admired my art song on texts of A. Maikov, and especially my “Jewish Lullaby” (“Zion rocked my cradle”), which was subsequently included in my op. 7,70 published by Belaieff. During this period Nikolai Andreyevich himself greatly admired Maikov’s poetry, and apparently my related compositions were pleasing to him. He also liked some of my choral works. With his permission, at publication time I dedicated one of these to him: “Old Song” for chorus and orchestra, to texts by Koltsov.71
Aside from my more or less interesting classwork and other musical activities, my memorable professional involvement during this period comprised conducting seriously undertaken and well-rehearsed opera scenes. These consisted of Tatiana’s salon scene in “Onegin,” Liza’s bedroom scene in “The Queen of Spades,” and the second act of “Freischütz.” The performers were students of Mme. Grening-Wilde,72 who was a very popular singing teacher in town. She invited me to help the group work on ensemble and to conduct. The orchestra consisted of two pianos. Some of the singers were talented, for example, the woman who sang the role of Tatiana, who subsequently made quite a name for herself. The vocal parts were all well-prepared by their teacher. Of Liza’s friends in the “Queen of Spades” scene, I particularly remember the beautiful and cheerful Elena Konstantinovna Glazunov, sister of the composer. There was also an adequate women’s chorus that made a creditable showing in both “The Queen of Spades” and “Freischütz.” At this point my dear, one-eyed maidservant, Polya, could perhaps have said with her well-known affectation that “They do not accompany, they conduct.”
It was also during this season that a long-awaited event occurred in my personal life: I became engaged. My fiancée73 and I were students at the Conservatory. She was studying voice with Natalia Alexandrovna Iretska who admired her voice and led her to hope that she could become a singer. I always admired the extraordinary sensitivity of my wife’s love of music, which she inherited from her parents. Her mother, Maria Karlovna Benois, née Kind, was a distinguished pianist with a reputation in Europe, and a professor at our Conservatory. Her father, our beloved watercolorist and academic, Albert Nikolaevich Benois, a skillful amateur pianist and improvisor, had a great knowledge of the classical music literature. They both had musicians among their forebears: Maria Karlovna’s great-grandfather was an associate of Carl Maria von Weber and the author of the libretto of Weber’s “Freischütz.” Her father, Karl Johann Kind, was conductor of the 8th Navel Regiment’s chorus.
Albert Nikolaevich’s grandfather was the well-known Catterino Albertovich Cavos, conductor of the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Opera. He wrote a series of operas and ballets that were included in the opera’s repertoire; incidentally, for personal reasons he withdrew his opera “Ivan Susanin” from the Bolshoi’s repertoire to make way for Glinka’s great work, “The Life of the Tsar.”74
During the spring I began work on my “Symphony N. 1.” When I had enough material to be divided into parts, I brought my sketches to Nikolai Andreyevich. They met with approval, which greatly encouraged me to do more. During the summer I decided to complete the symphony and in the fall began the orchestration.
As usual, my fiancée spent the summer in Finland with her mother. I naturally wanted to be near her. So in the same seaside village where she lived, I booked a room with a wealthy peasant farmer whose surname was Kiukhanen. The Kiukhanens let me have their winter cottage and moved into their summer one. The Schroeder piano company bedecked my hut with a beautiful instrument and the whole setup created a very favorable working environment.
The region itself in which I spent that memorable summer was quite bleak. Spruce and scotch pines, sand, barren meadows with sparse, anemic grasses . . . The harsh, almost always gloomy seashore . . . Walking along its dull, boring delta, I frequently wondered whether this were the dark blue sea that Pushkin imagined in his immortal “Fairy tale about the fisherman and the goldfish.”75 When, many years later, under the warm, radiant Crimean sky, I created my musical response to Pushkin’s delightful work,76 I always returned to that bleak Finnish seaside landscape, with its “gloomy paleness” in Maikov’s words, that provided me with so many luminous, joyful and productive impressions and experiences.
I was also able to meet the remarkable Finnish baker who created the famous Vyborg krendel, one of which was destined to be my first artistic laurel. This worthy man was quite remarkable. . . He was short, quite young, lively and agile, the complete opposite of our stereotypical phlegmatic Finn, with carefully trimmed sideburns on his affable, likable face. Despite the early hour, he was always dressed in a severe black frock coat and top hat. In such attire he would stand in front of a large blazing fireplace, and with firm, steady fingers, almost ritualistically knead, twist, and squeeze his soon-to-be-finished creations. Then, having put them in the oven and having armed himself with an oven fork, he would hilariously jump up and leap away from the oven with an unflappable, grave expression, twirling his oven fork while the gems in the oven gradually assumed an aspect worthy of their creator. I think the presence of an audience that patiently awaited the “chefs d’oeuvre” (which smelled so appetizingly of almond, saffron, and cardamom) inspired him to add his famous, decorative touches. He was undoubtedly a great artist in his craft and a poet in his soul.
Work on the symphony continued apace and I had sketched out all four movements by the end of the summer. I communicated this to Nikolai Andreyevich, and expressed my strong desire to acquaint him with my sketches, and get his opinion of the work. In response I received an invitation from him to visit him at his country house. That summer he was staying in a dacha in Smychkovo, not far from Luga. As he wrote in his “Chronicle,” he “did much uninterrupted composing” there. This invitation to his student was, therefore, all the more touching, since he spent an entire day of the limited time he had for his own inspired creative work acquainting himself with his student’s new composition.
I arrived in Smychkovo on the morning train and by lunch had played through three movements of the symphony. After lunch and a brief garden walk together, I played the final movement for him. He thereupon expressed at some length and in some detail his opinion of what he had just heard. In general, he rather liked the symphony. He was very taken with the thematic material of the first movement, which, it must be said, had a very Borodin-like character. He praised the lyric, singing, individual quality of the Andante, but he was quite indifferent to the Scherzo. He was more favorably inclined toward the overall style of the orchestration. The Finale was not without rhythmic interest, and was successful in its overall form. In his opinion, however, it was too much influenced by Glazunov. In parting, he suggested that I immediately begin working on the instrumentation and gave me some very good general advice. After completing my Conservatory studies, Nikolai Andreyevich conducted my “Symphony No.1” at one of the Russian Symphony Concerts.
Fall arrived.. . . The return to St. Petersburg; the joyful, serene work and the responsibilities of establishing my little domicile; the long search for an apartment and setting up house in the outskirts of Pushkin’s Kolomna.77 This part of town is near the “Goat Bog” and on the Catherine Canal. In spring, swift Finnish steamers joyously scurry along it, fantastically luminous in the evening with their multicolored signal lights. Nearby is the famous Kalinkin bridge78 that crosses the Fontanka river, on which Catherine the Second entered St. Petersburg before her coronation. The lower reaches of the Fontanka lead to the mouth of the Neva, which is a forest of masts, with countless Finnish shallops loaded with potatoes, Baltic herring, ice cream, cranberries and firewood, firewood, firewood. A singularly warm, muggy air always accompanied the southern breeze off the sea. It was all somehow peaceful and full of its own character, and so little resembled Meshchanskaja, Podiacheskaja, and Gorokhovaja Streets. There are so many like this in residential Petersburg (not the showy, historical part). Furthermore, it is no distance at all from the Alarchin Bridge79 to the Conservatory or to the theaters. Any cabby could get you there for a ten- or at most fifteen-kopek coin.
On November 5th, 1897, a stormy day that was marked by a huge flood, we were married. Our dear “cabin on the Kolomna” took us under its welcoming roof. Thanks to my wife’s unique, heartfelt, engaging goodness and hospitality, we were soon surrounded by a small circle of friends and relatives who gladly visited our home. Those same sincere traits won the hearts of everyone in her new family. For almost a half-century she has blessed and comforted them with her selfless, familial love and her ceaseless concern for their well-being. My brother, who visited us frequently, was her enthusiastic admirer, and my sisters, using their school slang, “worshipped her.” Several talented people, including her sisters and brothers, were among those friends and relatives who visited us. My association with them was both interesting and served as an aid to my artistic development.
There was much music making at our place. Frequently my classmates Amani and Akimenko would stop by. We would share our new work with each other and play lots of music, often piano four-hands. Amani, who was a wonderful pianist, beautifully played his own works as well as the classics. Akimenko would charm us with his early art songs. Two singers, former Conservatory students, Terese Fedorovna Leshetitskaya (who later became a famous chamber singer and professor) and Marianna Borisovna Cherkasskaya (a future Mariinsky prima donna and pride of Russian opera) would also visit. They gladly sang for us and were the first performers of many of our early art songs. After a long and distinguished career as an artist and teacher, Terese Fedorovna is currently my colleague at the Russian Conservatory in Paris, where she serves as both dean and professor of the vocal department.
Marianna Borisovna Cherkasskaya was closely associated with one of the sublime experiences of my, alas, short-lived tenure as conductor at the Mariinsky Theater. I am speaking of the unforgettable (for me) performances of “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia” (with Cherkasskaia as Fevronia). I conducted these while the “Legend”’s great creator was still alive (and frequently in attendance).80 There never was and, given the current conditions, never will be another Fevronia like Cherkasskaya. In musical terms and in stage presence she was so in harmony with the very source of Rimsky-Korsakov’s creative impulse, and he himself frequently coached her in this role. The “Kitezh” performances on which she and I worked together are a high point of my conducting career.
Viktor Grigorievich Valter, my long-time musical colleague, was our young family’s true and loving friend, and remained so to the end of his days. Nikolai Martinovich Shtrup, a fierce admirer of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music and his close friend, also frequently visited us and soon became our close friend as well. He was also a friend of my father-in-law through his work in the art department of the Finance Ministry.
The doors to my father-in-law’s hospitable, welcoming home were opened especially widely during this period. There was always a lot of music there, and many well-known members of the artistic and musical world visited him. The atmosphere was always exciting, friendly and art-filled.
Meanwhile, lessons in Rimsky-Korsakov’s class and other musical activities took their usual course. Besides the class assignments, I wrote many art songs during that period. Looking back on my rather extensive artistic activities of that time, it is impossible to ignore that, with few exceptions, the works of that period bear the dedication “To my dear wife.” The first of these dedicated pieces to be published was an art song set to words by Tiutchev81, “Like an unresolved mystery,” which appeared first in my op. 1 collection, “Six art songs for soprano voice” published by M. P. Belaieff, Leningrad.
My coursework with Nikolai Andreyevich soon ended and the time had arrived to work on the composition for my final exam thesis for the “Free Artist” diploma -- a cantata for solo voice, chorus and orchestra. I was the only one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s students graduating that year. Amani and Akimenko completed their studies two years later. The libretto comprised an episode in the life of Tsar Sardanapal82. Some time ago Famintsin wrote a misbegotten opera on Sardanapal. It was produced at the time at the Mariinsky Theater, but was not a success.83 An act from this opera was suggested to me as the libretto for the cantata. It was sufficiently self-contained and complete in terms of its content. In general, the libretto was rewarding enough material for the music and included possibilities for an ensemble and ample opportunities for choral writing. But would it really be possible to rid that failed and washed up work of its connotations? Should it not be possible to find some other more recent literary source material better suited for a budding composer’s graduation cantata? After all, in Moscow they gave Pushkin’s “Gypsy” (“Aleko”) to Rachmaninoff for his graduation composition.84 The proposed libretto, it must be said, was little suited to me except for some welcome lyric moments, like Sapho’s Song, and the occasional ensemble passages, etc. that were nearer my musical temperament. Zorin’s lyrics were competent, soniferous and well-served by the music.
The necessity of completing the cantata in the alloted time-frame was exciting. I cheerfully undertook uninterrupted work with quite fruitful results. I completed the score in time for the deadline, put it in an envelope and delivered it to the Conservatory office. There I learned that the Artistic Committee had decided that professors from the Moscow conservatory would evaluate the compositions of that year’s St. Petersburg’s graduating class and visa versa. Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev85 would evaluate my cantata.
The critiques by the professors who were evaluating the works were to be carried out by letter. Therefore, Nikolai Andreyevich very much appreciated the attention that Sergei Ivanovich paid to his student’s work by travelling to Petersburg to deliver in person to the award panel his musical impressions of my cantata and his comments. Taneyev was like that: he was incapable of doing anything by half-measure when it concerned music. He did everything thoroughly, without worrying about whether or not it was convenient nor about how much time it took.
According to regulations, the meeting of the examining committee took place in the composer’s absence. I know about this only because Rimsky-Korsakov and other jury members told me about so. True to his no-nonsense approach to the task, Taneyev began by playing through my entire cantata for the jury, occasionally repeating the parts to which he wanted them to pay particular attention. He then did a very comprehensive analysis of the purely musical content and of its form and orchestration. Nikolai Andreyevich said jokingly to me: “Taneyev read to us an entire dissertation on your cantata.” In conclusion, Sergei Ivanovich responded very favorably to my cantata, which occasioned my being awarded the “Free Artist” diploma. In addition it was decided by Conservatory decree that I would conduct a performance of the complete cantata.
Thereafter, Taneyev always showed an interest in my composing and conducting activities. Did he like my music? I do not know; I do not think so . . . Perhaps my graduation cantata, in which he had shown such interest and affection, pleased him more than any of my other works. When Belaieff published an excerpt from the cantata (“Chant de Sapho,” for soprano, women’s chorus and orchestra, op. 5), I gratefully dedicated it to Sergei Ivanovich.
Once, during one of Sergei Ivanovich’s trips to Petersburg, my wife invited him to have lunch with us after one of the symphony rehearsals. Immediately upon arrival, he went over to the piano, on which happened to be the score of the first two movements of my “String Sextet in F-minor” on which I was then working. Glancing over the score, Sergei Ivanovich immediately proceeded to play through it, not for five or ten minutes, but, almost maliciously, for practically an hour, since both these movements were very long. Having played through them once, Sergei Ivanovich proceeded to do so a second time. In the meantime, the dishes had cooled, been reheated and burned. When he had finally finished painstakingly playing both movements, he got up from the piano. It turned out we had only a quarter of an hour left for lunch before he had to leave to meet the theater director in connection with a performance of his “Orestes”86, and I had to hurry off to my pupils at the Conservatory. So we had, in a real sense, also “played through” our lunch, to the utmost aggravation of our thoughtful, hospitable, kindly hostess, who had hoped to entertain the well-known Russian composer and pianist who was her old friend and an admirer of her mother’s talents.
When I was periodically in Moscow to conduct symphonic concerts, at some of the rehearsals I would invariably happen upon Sergei Ivanovich, surrounded by his students who apparently could never tear themselves away from their maestro. Once, when I was conducting an Historic Concert (arranged by S. N. Vasilenko and one of a series of concerts dedicated to Mozart’s music), I saw Sergei Ivanovich at one of the rehearsals. He was with his eternal retinue of followers in one of the loges and was holding the scores of the Mozart works on the program. During the intermission, after I had lead the orchestra in Mozart’s overture to “Don Giovanni,” I made my way to his picturesque group and greeted Sergei Ivanovich. “What is going on, Nikolai Nikolaevich?” he shouted (out of the blue, it seemed to me), “In the second measure the contrabasses play half notes instead of the quarter notes like the rest of the orchestra. After all, this denotes the devils (literally, sic) dragging Don Juan into hell.” Apparently, in Taneyev’s opinion, my bass players had not held their half-notes long enough, when in reality the resonance of the hall lengthened the first quarter note of the bar. But whatever the case, I felt uneasy -- all the more so since the “Taneyev fine fellows” all laughed uproariously at their teacher’s unexpected (at least by me) outburst. Sergei Ivanovich was by nature much given to laughter and loved to make other people laugh. Does that not serve to explain this quite harmless and unexpected episode?
I also remember that I caught sight of Taneyev and his constellation at one of the Moscow Philharmonic rehearsals of my symphonic poem, “Narcissus and Echo” and hastened to greet him with the usual “Venite adoremus “ at the intermission and to ask him what impressions he had of my music. “Yes, well, as for the music, Nikolai Nikolaevich,” he answered, “there was so much noise that I must confess I didn’t notice it.” I must say that this judgement was offensive to me and was scarcely merited or accurate. Be that as it may, my poem recently received the Glinka award and those conferring it to me had the right, no less than Taneyev, to lay claim to strict and scrupulous musical taste and to responsibility in evaluating new Russian musical compositions. Perhaps Taneyev said this, so to speak, “ad usum delphini,” (in order not to tempt the little ones)?87 As for me personally, I always regarded Taneyev’s music with a reverent awe and an involuntary, deliberate respect. It moved me only a little. As a conductor, I gladly included in my concert programs his very “Apollonian” little “Apollo’s temple in Delphi” (an entr’acte from his stage work The Oresteia) -- with its beautiful, serene, heliac music and delightful orchestration.
Performance of graduating students’ work was the final, solemn, annual event at the Conservatory and took place before a large audience that included invited guests from the Petersburg musical world. Our great opera soloists, orchestra members and choruses participated in the event. The cantata composers, depending on their ability and inclination, conducted their works.
Before the Conservatory had its large concert hall, the performances were held in the Mikhailovsky Palace, residence of the Conservatory patron and President of the Imperial Russian Music Society, Grand Duchess Catherine Mikhailovna.88 My cantata was performed in the just-opened Bolshoi concert hall, which was subsequently changed to the Theater for Musical Drama. It continued, however, to present concert performances.
The solo arias of my cantata were sung by my Conservatory friends: Sofia Nikolaevna Gladkaya, the future Gladkaya-Kedrova, wife of Nikolai Nikolaevich Kedrov, a beautiful singer who now graces our Mariinsky stage, and who now enjoys an international reputation and serves with me on the faculty of the Russian Conservatory in Paris; and Nikolai Nikolaevich Kedrov,89 founder of the world-famous vocal quartet, who has dedicated his entire life to the service of Russian folk and art song. He was soon to become a dear friend and a well-known performer of my vocal works. To the end of his life, Kedrov was a constant presence in my musical life, whether in Russia, Europe or America. The third soloist in the cantata was Jakov Jakovlevich Karklin, the future well-known singer and great pedagogue. Soon after his graduation from the Conservatory, he accepted an invitation to head one of the departments of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Siberia90 and was a great success as an artist, pedagogue and music director. All my soloists were, as it is now accepted to say, “Conservatory Laureates,” whose vocal and musical/artistic education was guided by gifted professors who were committed to the ideals of our Conservatory’s founder, Anton Grigor’evich Rubinstein, and who were his like-minded protegés: Natalia Alexandrovna Iretskaya91 (S. N. Gladkaya), and Stanislav Ivanovich Gabel92 (N. N. Kedrov and Ya. Ya. Karklin).
Due to the benevolence of the experienced orchestra and chorus, and the attentive, friendly cooperation of the soloists, the cantata went quite well under my direction and was received with warmth and compassion by both the musicians and the general public. And so my musical “baptism by fire” was over. Ahead of me, by the grace of God, extended a long, creative road.
Of all the new, unexpected and joyous experiences of that day, I particularly remember one of the many positive reactions to my cantata: “I congratulate you,” said an audience member whom I did not know, taking me by the hand, “based on what you have given us, they certainly trained you well. Today we saw how you returned the favor.” These words from an unknown well-wisher, opened a credit account, so to speak, for my future compositions, and have continually inspired me in my creative work.
My wife and I spent the summer of 1897 in my beloved Oranienbaum with her father, the charming and kindly Albert Nikolaevich Benois, at the lovely and spacious seaside dacha, Latkina, with its beautiful views of the sea, and large, Venetian windows that opened onto it. Her entire dear family gathered there. At the time, my wife’s sister, Camilla, was a piano student at the Conservatory and studied with her mother. Her brothers, Albert and Nikolai, had finished their studies. Like her sister, Camilla Al’bertovna was very musical and showed promise of becoming a first-rate pianist; she also had a sweet, though amateurish voice. She soon married Dimitri Leonidovich Horvat,93 a military engineer, head of the Ussuriysk94 and then the Eastern Siberian railway. For most of his life he lived in the Far East and in China. Neither Camilla nor her sister ever became professional musicians.
That summer, as was always the case at my father-in-law’s house, there was much music-making and even more landscape painting. Everyone in the family painted, starting with the master of the house, who had transmitted to each of his children a portion of his great talent. My wife also frequently painted watercolors and later on, when we lived in Greece, not infrequently showed her works in exhibitions.95 The most gifted painters in the family were my wife’s sister, Camilla, and her brother, Albert, who was also a fine violinist. He studied with Isaiah Izai and eventually became a professional painter. My wife’s younger brother, Nikolai was also a gifted artist. He was preparing himself for a career as a diplomat, but changed his mind and entered the military (he was an officer in the Life Guard of the Preobrazhensky regiment and a military inventor)96. We all lived together comfortably and at ease under Albert Nikolaevich’s kindly and hospitable roof.
My musical endeavors were fruitful. My wife and I occupied a wing of the house that had its own piano, which was helpful. Leaving for the summer, Nikolai Andreyevich entrusted me to Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov, who asked to edit my “Six Melodies for Orchestra,” op. 1, and helped prepare them for publication. In the fall, he planned to present them to Mitrofan Petrovich Belaieff, the Leipzig publishing house. I was thus so happy to come into immediate musical association with our great national composer, who is the pride of our country, and whose ethical sense is so impeccable. In the not too distant future I was to become his permanent, long-time colleague, associate, and closely devoted friend, and I remained so to the very end of his life.
As usual, Alexander Konstantinovich spent that summer with his parents and brothers near St. Petersburg “at the lakes” in his beautiful dacha on the shore of the peaceful Upper Lake.97 At his invitation, I traveled to “the lakes” with some recently completed art songs. Alexander Konstantinovich played through them, gave me some recommendations. and proposed minor alterations. He offered his suggestions in a dear, almost friend-like manner, rather than as a professor. Sometimes, at my request, he would play pieces on which he was working and then we would have long talks about various musical issues. I left there enriched as much by our musical activities as by the purely Russian, simple, serious, steadfast, meaningful and joyous atmosphere that reigned in his house. I was profoundly impressed not only by him but also by his estimable parents.
Alexander Konstantinovich loved his father, Konstantine Ilyich, an affable, charming man of unusual goodness who enjoyed universal love and respect. When I wrote my “6 Musical Illustrations to Pushkin’s ‘Tale of the Fisherman and the Goldfish,’” Alexander Konstantinovich expressed his affection for my piece, whereupon I told him that when imagining the gentle image of the short, old fisherman, I always thought about his father. Glazunov, much to my surprise, with a very wily expression on his face, asked, “What? Old man? You surely didn’t compose it with mama in mind?”98 I was, I must confess, very embarrassed and quickly dissuaded him.
Both of Alexander Konstantinovich’s parents tenderly loved their brilliant son. He sometimes, however, found the persistent concern for him expressed by his mother, Elena Pavlovna, to be rather tiring. Might this not have been behind his remark concerning my “Goldfish?”
My student, the composer Prokofiev, once told me in Paris that in the 1920s he and his wife once called upon Elena Pavlovna, who was living with Alexander Konstantinovich in their St. Petersburg apartment that was remembered by so many. The apartment was at number 8 Kazansky St., Saint Petersburg (then called Leningrad). Konstantine Ilyich, Alexander Konstantinovich’s father, was already deceased.99 When Prokofiev’s wife asked how they were, an anxious and sorrowful Elena Pavlovna replied, “Yes, well, today the laundress came and ruined all the children’s underwear so it is impossible to clothe them.” “What children’s underwear, Elena Pavlovna? Do you really have children living with you?” “Yes, little Sasha’s white shirts,” Elena Pavlovna fretfully replied. “Soon he will not even be able to conduct in them.”
One summer Alexander Konstantinovich was quite enamored of Brahms’ music and was studying it. Apparently he wanted to have me join him in his enthusiasm and he gave me the score to Brahms’ marvelous first symphony and two of his string sextets. They were not without influence on my subsequent compositions. Who can look at my “Fantaisie Dramatique,” op. 17 and not see a marked influence of Brahms’ orchestral style on the composition? My ill-fated “String Sextet in F-minor,” (which at that time was unpublished and the manuscript of which disappeared a long time ago, probably in some trunk or other on Glinka Street, St. Petersburg) would never have been written without the marvelous influence of Brahms’ sextets.
That summer I wrote few new pieces: two unaccompanied choruses for mixed voices, “Lazy noon” to poetry of Alexei Tolstoy100 and “Heavenly Little Cloud” to poetry of Lermontov, published as op. 2, and two duets for female voices accompanied by piano, “Where dear one whispers” to a text by E. Baratynsky101 and “Springtime waters” on a text by F. Tiutchev102 (op. 3). My most important job that summer was to put the final touches on the orchestral score of the “Symphony No.1.” Nikolai Andreyevich had included the piece on a concert in the forthcoming season’s Russian Symphony concert series that he himself would conduct. Besides completing the score, it was necessary to rewrite and re-orchestrate the Scherzo, which Nikolai Andreyevich thought was not quite good enough. Meanwhile, the summer was almost over and Albert Nikolaevich decided to end it with a month-long trip to Switzerland with all his children and invited my wife and me. Tempting as it was, however, we were unable to accept his generous invitation, partly for family reasons, but mainly because the symphony needed quite a bit of work.
We greatly enjoyed the beautiful, early fall weather in the empty house in Ladkin, which also kept us us productive. Nikolai Martinovich Shtrup, a close friend of Rimsky-Korsakov’s family and enthusiastic admirer of the composer’s music, stayed with us for a short time. Shtrup was an associate of my father-in-law through his work in the Art Department of the Ministry of Finance.103 Nikolai Martinovich was clever, erudite, sensitive to music, and a very interesting conversationalist. He brought many books with him, and we spent homey evenings reading aloud to each other in the twilight of the large room, with a beautiful view of the seaside. It was also great to work together, and truly pleasing to play the piano by the light of two stearin candles. He also introduced me to the works of Leskov,104 and to Theodor Amadé Hoffman, who were to become life-long literary companions.