Sergei Ivanovich TANEYEV (1856–1915)

Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev

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Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev (1856–1915) was one of the most interesting and influential of all Russian musicians. Rachmaninov described him as ‘a master composer, the most erudite musician of his time, a person of rare individuality, originality and character – a pinnacle of musical Moscow’.[1]An accomplished pianist, theorist, composer and pedagogue, he is still considered one of the pillars of Russian music education.

Taneyev became a good friend of his teacher, Pjotr Tchaikovsky, and spent most of his life in close creative contact with the older composer. Very few others were allowed to comment on Tchaikovsky’s compositions, let alone criticise them, but Tchaikovsky’s trust in Taneyev’s opinion was so complete that he destroyed the score of his early opera Voyevoda because Taneyev did not think it good enough.[2]Stravinsky, in his conversations with Robert Craft, said that he highly valued Taneyev’s treatise on counterpoint, ‘respected him as a composer […] and admired him greatly as a pianist’.[3]Taneyev was a close friend of Arensky and Tolstoy; he knew Ivan Turgenev, Émile Zola, César Franck, Fauré, Duparc, d’Indy and the Viardot family; he was close to Rimsky-Korsakov and immensely respected by Glazunov. He was admired in other ways, too: Tolstoy’s wife fell in love with him, and Maria Benois wanted to leave her famous artist husband and their children for him – which Taneyev refused to allow. His heightened sense of duty and complete honesty made him treat everyone in the same manner – adults and children alike. Even Tchaikovsky was unceremoniously asked to leave the room and wait outside if he happened to walk in while Taneyev was teaching one of his private students. One of the very few Russian composers who could lay claim to being a complete teetotaller and non-smoker, Taneyev made his close friends smoke through a tiny window in his kitchen, a fortochka, next to which he placed a sign about the dangers of smoking.

Taneyev entered the newly opened Moscow Conservatoire at the age of nine, studying composition under Tchaikovsky and piano performance under Nikolai Rubinstein. Rubinstein immediately decided that Taneyev belonged ‘to a number of a very few chosen ones’, declaring that he would grow to be ‘an excellent pianist and a great composer’.[4]After only a few years, while still a student at the Conservatoire, Taneyev became known as one of the best performers of his generation. He made his professional debut in 1874, performing works by Liszt and Chopin, and a year later gave the Russian premiere of Brahms’ Piano Concerto in D Minor with brilliant success. When Rubinstein refused to learn Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, calling it ‘unplayable’, it was premiered in St Petersburg by Gustav Kross. Tchaikovsky, unhappy with Kross’ performance, entrusted Taneyev with the Moscow premiere of the work, later writing that he could not have wished for a better interpretation.[5]Thereafter Taneyev premiered all Tchaikovsky’s pieces for piano and orchestra and his chamber works with piano.

After graduating from the Conservatoire in 1875 with the highest distinction – two gold medals in performance and composition – Taneyev was asked to replace Tchaikovsky, who started to receive financial support from his long-term benefactress Nadezhda von Meck and no longer had to teach for a living. In 1881, after the death of Rubinstein, Taneyev took over his piano class, too, and from 1885 to 1889 held the post of the Director of the Conservatoire, single-handedly rescuing the institution from ever-present financial debt and establishing stricter entrance requirements – but also making it easier for poor but talented students to enter. He included more Russian music in the performance syllabus and introduced the new works of his contemporaries and former students in harmony and analysis classes. Taneyev continued to teach counterpoint at the Conservatoire after resigning from his position as Director. His final resignation came in 1905, as a protest against the unfair treatment meted out by his successor, Vasili Safonov, to the students who had sympathised with the failed revolution of the same year.

Among Taneyev’s students are such names as Scriabin, Medtner, Gliere and Rachmaninov, as well as the critic Leonid Sabaneyev, the pianist Alexander Goldenweiser – a founder of the Central Music School in Moscow – and many other brilliant musicians. Although never wealthy, Taneyev refused to take payment from his private students; it made no difference if they came from a well-to-do or a poor family. And, as he did not rely on lessons as a source of income (he received a monthly salary from the Conservatoire), Taneyev was able to hand-pick his students for their musical abilities. But not all felt comfortable with the arrangement and, as Sabaneyev recalled,[6]his mother tried to repay him in other ways: she frequently offered help with various day-to-day errands and always invited Taneyev to tea after the lessons, feeding him cakes and sweets, which he adored.

Beginning to compose while still at the Conservatoire, Taneyev wrote a number of short piano pieces and romances but at that time mainly worked on his composition and harmony exercises. The first work that brought him recognition was a cantata, Ioann Damaskin (‘John of Damascus’), written in 1883–84. It was also the first composition to which Taneyev gave an opus number. In his creative output there are two cantatas, four symphonies, twenty chamber ensembles, a large number of pieces for choir, romances, a concert fantasy for violin and orchestra and a Wagnerian opera, Oresteia. Having tried himself in almost every genre, Taneyev proved a master of large-scale composition, producing several masterpieces, among them his cantata After the Reading of a Psalm and the C minor symphony (No. 4, although it was originally published as his Symphony No. 1).

Taneyev’s influence on Russian composers was far-reaching. He recognised musical talent in the young Prokofiev and recommended that his parents hire Gliere (then Taneyev’s student) as a teacher of theory and composition. Some of his students, such as Nikolai Zhilyaev and Goldenweiser, became respected teachers at the Moscow Conservatoire and taught such figures as Shebalin, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Lazar Berman, Ilya Ginzburg and Nikolai Kapustin. Taneyev’s influences can be heard in the harmonic language of Scriabin’s early piano pieces, in the complex contrapuntal textures of Glazunov’s and Medtner’s piano concertos, and in the well-crafted chamber compositions of Shostakovich’s friend, Vissarion Shebalin.

In April 1915, attending Scriabin’s funeral, Taneyev caught a severe cold and died two months later from heart complications. Shocked by this unexpected death (Taneyev was only 58), Rachmaninov wrote a deeply felt eulogy in which he described the loss of Taneyev as a tragedy for the Russian musical world and remembered him as a teacher who, by his own example, taught ‘how to live, how to think, how to work, and even how to speak’.[7]

Anastasia Belina © 2006

[1] Quoted in Svetlana Savenko, Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev, Muzyka, Moscow, 1984, p. 166.

[2] The score was later restored from surviving orchestral parts by the musicologist Pavel Lamm (cf. note 9 below).

[3] Memories and Commentaries, Faber and Faber, London, 2002, p. 68.

[4] Ludmila Korabelnikova, S. I. Taneyev v moskovskoi konservatorii (‘S. I. Taneyev in the Moscow Conservatoire’), Muzyka, Moscow, 1974, p. 17.

[5] Muzykalno-kriticheskie statii (‘Articles on Musical Criticism’), Muzyka, Moscow, 1953, pp. 235–36.

[6]‘Vospominaniya o Taneyeve’(‘Reminiscences about Taneyev’), Klassika (Moscow), No. XXI, 2003, p. 62.

[7] Savenko, op. cit., p. 167.