July 26 Concert - Tanayev's Piano Quartet in E Major, Op. 20

Sergei Tanayev

Sergei Tanayev

You are well acquainted with Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich after hearing the first two MMF concerts. If you attended the terrific Young Artists concert on Sunday, the 15th, you heard more of the two Russian masters and also an early Rachmaninov trio, but do you know the name Sergei Tanayev (1856-1915)? The composer, teacher, theorist, and brilliant pianist sits between the three famed composers. I confess I knew little about him until recently when I explored his life and works. I think sometimes history gets in the way; by that I mean the fame of those who stand out as major talents often tends to obscure the immense talents of their contemporaries and those that follow them; those who have not acquired the enormous popularity that surrounds familiar “household names” in an art or profession. This has been the fate of Sergei Tanayev. “Obscures” is probably much too strong a word. Perhaps the phrase, “makes light of” is a better phrase when it comes to Tanayev. As a composer he was caught in between giants. Tchaikovsky, while still alive, was well known across Europe for his ballet scores and for his huge concertos and symphonies. As a contemporary of Tchaikovsky’s, though acknowledged as a fine composer, Tanayev never became that “household name” outside his homeland. His pupil, Rachmaninov, the composer and great pianist, quite literally took Europe by storm. As a pianist, Tanayev was equally praised and loved. It is that magic word, love, that was not applied to Tanayev as a composer. His career as a pianist was stellar. He travelled and performed across Europe with his teacher, Nicolai Rubinstein. As a teenager he made his debut in Moscow playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto, No. 2. Tchaikovsky chose young Tanayev to be the soloist for the first Moscow performance of his Piano Concerto No. 1 and the premiere of Piano Concerto No 2.

The Piano Quartet in E Major, Op. 20 that Adam Neiman has included in the concert for July 26th is a delight. We should revel in its overt romanticism and impassioned melodic materials. As Adam indicates in his notes, Tanayev was a “towering figure amongst Russian romantic composers.” Rachmaninov and even Shostakovich, are strongly indebted to him. (When you next hear the two composers, listen for the influences they absorbed.) Again, I return to the question, why is Tanayev not performed more frequently today? Perhaps it is because the super romantics, Tchaikovsky, his teacher, and Rachmaninov, his pupil, were nearly “over the top” in their emotional appeal. This Quartet provides an answer, not a very satisfactory one in my opinion, but it is the reasoning that prevails re the composer’s large library of compositions. This work is a lesson in logic and harmonic discipline, and while it is filled with melodic beauty, it does not have the sweep and sheer enormity of much of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Tanayev’s approach to musical creativity is meticulous and scientific, rooted in the logic of form, beholden to Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. So many of their works overwhelm the more restrained and formal compositions of Tanayev. I believe we need to listen to him with less expectation of excessive emotional reaction and enjoy the thoughtful complexity of the blended strings and the exuberance and power of the piano’s often predominant and energetic voice. There is so much to appreciate in the many captivating melodic statements presented by each of the five instruments. The textures are often lush and spacious. As Adam wrote, there is “unabashed romanticism” in the piece.

Tanayev’s life as a pedagogue was highly appreciated. He attended Moscow Conservatory, enrolled as a child of 5. He continued his studies there and graduated at age 21. He became a teacher at the school and eventually succeeded Tchaikovsky, as director. He resigned in 1905 after the revolution in protest to the harsh treatment that many students received for participating in the upheaval. Tchaikovsky and Tanayev became close friends early in his years at the university. Although they loved to criticize each other’s works, they formed a “mutual admiration society” that lasted for the length of Tchaikovsky’s life. Do take a look at their delightful letters; there are over a hundred of them; all translated and available on the web. Some are simply invites to dinner and notes of social gab while many of them are detailed critiques of each other’s works. A final brief note, dating from September of 1893, just before Tchaikovsky’s death, is most touching. Tchaikovsky asks Tanayev to come visit just “one more time” to discuss a piece. Tchaikovsky calls his friend, Golubchik, (Ducky of Pigeon) in these revealing and interesting letters (one of which I've included below).

Tanayev was not at all the neurotic, self-disparaging Tchaikovsky. He never married and his old nanny kept house for him. His well- documented friendship with Tolstoy is a whole story in itself. In fact the author’s short famed tale, The Kreutzer Sonata (yes, as in Beethoven’s famed Sonata.) is based on Tolstoy’s wife’s infatuation and obsession over Tanayev who often visited the couple in the countryside. So ended a strong friendship! By the way, these feelings were never recognized or acknowledged by the composer! At the time of its publication, the short story was strongly censored for its explicit content. Today it seems quite mild, but it is compelling.

Now a look at Tanayev and his approach to music. He delighted in the masterpieces of the past. Many composers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were influences; in particular Ockeghem (15th Century, Belgian) and Palestrina. (16th Century, Italian) Tchaikovsky’s Russian soul combined with Western European use of form was an easily identifiable influence on Tanayev. He was a theorist and wrote several treatises on music and fugal composition. His most famous is Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style. As its title implies, it is formidable and most difficult to comprehend. Bach certainly was a model for him as witness the counterpoint that is so expertly and meticulously woven into the fabric of the Quartet you will hear. Tanayev was a contemporary and friend of the famed group often called, “the Russian Heap” or the “Mighty Five,” (Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Cui, Borodin, and Balakirev). He had little or no use for their enthusiasm and emphasis on Nationalism in their works.  Rimsky-Korsakov, whose own writings are major contributions to the study of composition, was also his teacher at the conservatory. Though there was what might be termed a “war of musical aesthetics,” the emergence of great native Russian music developed through this line of composers: Tchaikovsky, The Five, Scriabin, Glière, and on to Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Here sits Tanayev squarely in the middle! Tanayev soon became disenchanted by the harmonic journeys of Shoenberg and Hindemith and developed a system of combining multiple melodies to produce interest in the textures of his materials hoping to take the emphasis off the disregard for tonal identity.

The Piano Quartet in E Major was written in 1906, thirteen years after Tchaikovsky’s death. It is intimately linked musically with Tanayev’s mentor. Revel in the melodies that flow seamlessly through the Allegro Brilliante! (brilliant, fast). This first movement is filled with mood changes. The piano and strings hold conversations that are ebullient at times and then melancholy and dark. The Coda (an end section, literally It., tail) is especially bold and brilliant. The second movement, Adagio, piu tosto largo (It., slow, suddenly very slow) is all heart. Adam wrote in his program notes that the movement, “presages the sensuous sentimentality of Hollywood films of the mid-20th century.” There is a contrasting nervous middle section. The last movement, Allegro molto (very fast) is truly a musical treatise on the Fugue (canonic writing, successive entrances of the same phrase as in Frères Jacques). The themes from the previous movements are intricately woven into the musical fabric, layered by the strings and propelled forward by the constant voice of the piano. It is an amazing example of contrapuntal writing. The joyous return of the themes from the previous movements quiets. The ending is peaceful and hushed.

One final time, I come back to my question, why is this composer not heard more often in our concert halls? He is a grand link in the progression of Russian musical heritage. One must always remember that not every work of art is the sublime effort of an outstanding genius. But so often there is, as I found in this Quartet, so much magic to be found in a given work. There is great beauty in the amazing textural and emotional material that flows seamlessly through this whole work. There are so many pieces that “grab” us; that make us feel so comfortable in their settings. The Tanayev Quartet is just that sort of piece. A very “excellent read,” as is said of a book. Tanayev is now on my “to hear bucket list.” I hope you will add him to yours. He wrote symphonies, an opera, and choral works and several more wonderful chamber works. They are of great merit; all intriguing. There is always more to absorb, is there not? I hope you will feel this way after you leave the concert on Thursday, July 26th.

- Fran Rosenthal

Extended Readings

Alternate spelling for searching links is Taneyev”.

Letters from Tchaikovsky to Tanayev - Letter 807 and Letter 5036
Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata


Tchaikovsky Letter to Taneyev

Now I can say without exaggeration that I know your symphony thoroughly [1]. I have played it lots of times, I have looked over the score a lot, and I can tell you that this is one of those pieces which gain a very great deal from closer acquaintance. At first glance it does not produce a particularly favourable impression—perhaps because both Allegro themes do not present great charm as such. This applies especially to the first theme:


The second theme is more characteristic and beautiful, but all the same it is not of first-rate merit. However, I hasten to make some reservations. In both these themes there is not that charm which captivates one from the very first. This, however, does not at all mean that they are banal or useless. One can get used to them and grow fond of them. This is at least what happened to me. At present I have very much come to enjoy the second theme, and each time when, after its first exposition, it appears a third higher, I experience a very agreeable sensation. In any case, I do not see in it, nor in the first theme, that fault which you yourself find in them, that is, that they are too short. Brevity is by no means a fault, provided that the thought has been fully expressed. In Mozart and Beethoven one constantly comes across brief and yet wonderful themes. For example:



or Beethoven


and so on.

As for the theme of the Introduction, which I have long been familiar with, I still find it now, just as I did then, superb in terms of its melodic and especially harmonic beauty. This theme alone is sufficient to serve as proof of its author's great talent.

So that is what I have to say regarding the themes. Now I shall talk about the form. In general it is highly satisfactory. This is certainly no student exercise made up of hastily sewn together bits. One does not find in it any unprepared transitions and unnatural modulations. In the principal subject the progression which comes immediately after the first eight bars is somewhat overfilled with modulations and is on the whole rather strained. After 8 bars in B-flat major in the ninth you already have C-sharp minor, in the eleventh, D major, in the thirteenth, G minor, in the fifteenth, G-flat major, in the seventeenth, E-flat minor, etc. This is far too motley for an Allegro: one just can't keep up with all these transitions. The return to the theme after this progression, by means of a syncopated figure in the French horns, is very beautiful, but I doubt that this figure can stand out against the mass of the orchestra. However, this is a fault of the orchestration which I shall come to later on. The conclusion of the principal subject pleases me inordinately. The whole middle section is most interesting, though I cannot help observing that you are repeating yourself. For it resembles the middle section in your First Symphony. Here again we have the same appearance, in canonical order, of fragments of the themes in the brass instruments; the same playing at combining all the themes; the same abundance of curious details which are more beautiful for the eye than for the ear, because the voices do not always stand out from one another with sufficient distinctness. The whole pedal-point on A-flat before the end is splendid, but, unfortunately, it is developed insufficiently. In my view, it would be essential for the triplets which you have the French horns play to be finally carried over into the trumpets and all the woodwind instruments, with the upper voice being played by all the strings:


Indeed, this truly superb passage in your piece is wasted as a result of the insufficient development and poor orchestration. For this is a case where the orchestration is not just a means, but a goal too. The necessity of leading the fanfare motif to its true exponent, that is to the trumpets, ought to have induced you to prolong, enrich, and develop this whole progression. Having the trumpet support the violins in such a passage is a very coarse error of orchestration. However, I am again running ahead. The ending is splendid and extremely effective. Each time I dwell lovingly and go into raptures over that wonderful appearance of the Introduction's theme, especially when the trumpets play the theme in B-flat major.

You have made indisputable progress in orchestration, although this still is your weak side. You have the brass instruments play far too much and far too often. When you deploy them it rarely produces any effect, because in lesser doses they are appearing constantly and importunately thrusting themselves into all the themes, all the progressions, all the imitations and counterpoints. In general, your orchestration is insufficiently brilliant and characteristic. The instrumental groups rarely stand out from one another. Your orchestration often reminds me of Schumann [2]. However, there is nothing student-like and incorrect about it. It is rather a deficiency arising from your nature, not from lack of skill. I always noticed this deficiency in you, and it is my opinion that, though the progress you have made is certainly very great, you will have to pay particular attention to the former in order to rid yourself of it once and for all.

On the whole I think that you must on no account discard this first movement. There is very little in it which you have to finish developing and polishing off in order to make it worthy of being played anywhere. Don't be discouraged by the fact that nobody liked it when it was performed at the rehearsal. If there is a piece which it is impossible to play well at once, then it is precisely this one. It will not sound well until every member of the orchestra has a clear idea of the relative importance of each phrase in general. It takes several rehearsals for a musician to know what is of first-rate importance, and what doesn't need to stand out from the background. I wonder what people would have said if the first movement, say, of Brahms's symphony had been played only once at a rehearsal. Whom could it have pleased? And yet, this symphony caused a great sensation across the whole of Germany. So, Serezha, carry on writing and finish off this symphony without fail. Even if its first movement doesn't turn out to be a phenomenal work of genius, it is in any case a very good, very interesting, and very talented piece. It will never have a particularly enthusing effect on the listener precisely because it was written without particular enthusiasm. You concocted it out of various old themes artificially joined to one another. Only that which has been composed can inspire enthusiasm. You, on the other hand, to use your own expression, are thinking up [your music]. You possess a rich soil for creative work, but the seeds are still somewhat unripe. That, however, will come of itself. For the time being it is enough with what we have.

There is one more criticism I would like to make. You are far too careless when indicating the bow strokes for the string instruments. For example:


One cannot write like that, or, at least, it has a very bad effect on the overall impression.

In the duet between Tatyana and the Nurse it needs to be D, not D-sharp [3]. The sharp before D was put there by mistake.


I shall be leaving for Russia any day now. Your score will be delivered to you by my brother Anatoly, with whom I shall spend two weeks with my sister, and who will pass through Moscow after Holy Week.

My address is henceforth: Kiev Province, on the Fastov Railway, at Kamenka station.

Write to me, golubchik. Yours

P. Tchaikovsky