About this Recording
8.570527 - TANEYEV, S.I.: Suite de Concert / Ioann Damaskin (John of Damascus) (Kaler, Gnesin Academy Chorus, Russian Philharmonic, T. Sanderling)

Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856–1915)
Ioann Damaskin (John of Damascus), Op. 1 • Suite de concert, Op. 28


The cantata Ioann Damaskin was the first serious composition that drew attention to Taneyev as a talented composer. It was inspired by Aleksey Tolstoy’s eponymous poem which, in twelve chapters, tells the life story of John of Damascus, St John Damascene, who lived in the seventh and eighth centuries. The last of the Greek Fathers, John of Damascus was a writer, poet, and a man of encyclopedic erudition. His most important and best known work, the Fountain of Wisdom, was held in the highest esteem by both the Catholic and Greek Churches. There he collated and epitomized the opinions of the great ecclesiastical writers who preceded him.

Taneyev used an excerpt from the eighth chapter of Tolstoy’s poem for his cantata, setting it to a musical theme closely based on the sacred chant So svyatïmi upokoy (Rest with the Holy Ones). The chant existed in various interpretations, and Taneyev took its earliest known version, published in 1772. In keeping with the ancient origins of the melody, he preserved its natural minor by avoiding all chromaticism, and compressed its eighteen bars into eight. The theme derived from So svyatïmi upokoy permeates the entire cantata, thus uniting it thematically. Taneyev masterfully developed this principle of monothematicism in his mature works, and its culmination can be seen in the epic score of his Symphony in C minor, Op. 12.

Unfortunately there are no letters or diary entries that relate to the history of composition of Ioann Damaskin, but Taneyev’s sketch-books show the process, which was very similar to that of Beethoven, through which he selected and developed the musical material. Taneyev noted down all proposed themes, wrote a large number of exercises, contrapuntal and thematic combinations based on those themes, and only when most of the possibilities of the musical material had been explored, did he choose a desired melody.

Highly critical of his own compositions, Taneyev was known for keeping many of his works locked in the drawer, but Ioann Damaskin was the first to which he gave an opus number. The success of the cantata’s première strengthened the composer’s self-belief and even prompted him cheekily to reproach Tchaikovsky, who often scolded his former student for spending too much time with ‘contrapuntal focuses’. Taneyev wrote that the success of the cantata had proved to him that the ‘contrapuntal method of composition does not make music dry and boring’, that ‘contrapuntal “focuses”, as well as harmonic intricacies, stop being such when one masters them completely, and [they] can fully serve artistic aims’. Taneyev triumphed: ‘In the question of counterpoint I now deem myself a victor, and you defeated’. In his letter of reply Tchaikovsky obediently accepted his defeat and shared the joy of Taneyev’s success.

Ioann Damaskin consists of three movements. The Adagio ma non troppo opens with a four-minute introduction, presenting the main musical theme of the extensive fugue that follows. The Andante sostenuto is a short, peaceful, and subdued movement, which ends with a sudden change in dynamics and articulation. The final Allegro is an energetic fugue, where the trumpet plays an important rôle as a signaller of ‘the end of the world’. After a thunderous timpani roll and the powerful exclamation of the brass the music stops, but after a pause the cantata continues with a barely audible conclusion set to the words ‘Accept Thy departed servant /Into Thy heavenly abode’.

Taneyev presents an interesting case when it comes to his compositions inspired by texts on religious themes. He openly admitted being an atheist and stated that sacred music failed to move him in any way. Still, in recent years some Russian musicologists have tried to re-brand Taneyev as a deeply religious person, completely ignoring his personal diary entries, where he unequivocally states his lack of religious faith. The composer thought that the Greek outlook on the world was the most effective—not surprising for a man who had never stopped admiring and continued to educate himself in ancient literature, philosophy, and history. Taneyev was also the only Russian composer in the nineteenth century who completed an opera based on a Greek tragedy, Oresteia (1894).

An objective study of the origins and influences on Taneyev’s vocal works set to religiously-inspired texts has yet to appear. Until then, we are free to listen to Taneyev’s wonderfully sublime vocal scores that have the power to raise us into another world, regardless of whether we believe in it or not.

Suite de concert is Taneyev’s first work for solo violin and orchestra. It was given its very successful première on 22 October 1909 in the Great Hall of the Nobility, with Boris Sibor as soloist. The musicians played from hand-written copies of the work, which had not yet been published.

Sibor, who was Taneyev’s friend, complained about the poverty of Russian large-scale violin repertoire and asked Taneyev to write something in the genre of a suite or fantasia with the inclusion of dance forms. The suite genre had flourished in the times of Taneyev’s favourite composers J.S. Bach, Handel, and Mozart, and Sibor’s request appealed to the composer, who was always drawn to early music. During the composition of the Suite Taneyev discussed the limitations and possibilities of the violin with Sibor, who played through the music with the composer and made comments based on his experience and knowledge of the instrument.

Taneyev’s former pupil Dmitri Engel reviewed the work in Russkie vedomosti (Russian News) on 24 October 1909, No. 244. He proudly wrote about ‘our own, Moscow composer’ Sergey Taneyev and his deceptively simple suite. He marvelled at Taneyev’s status of ‘one of a kind contrapuntal master’, whose composition was written with so much mastery and contained so many intricacies it required multiple hearings for deeper understanding.

The Suite is a stylistically varied work, and the Theme and Variations, comprising a Theme (Andantino) and seven variations (the latter with a coda), makes it a composition of two genres in one. The improvisatory and impassioned opening of the Prelude is reminiscent of the violin concerto style dating back to the time of J.S. Bach. The thematic material of the Prelude appears in other parts of the suite—a technique very close to Taneyev’s heart—thus organically uniting the whole work. Delightful, coherent in structure, lucid in texture, and clear in style, the Gavotte is a homage to Taneyev’s life-long interest in earlier music and the works of his favourite Handel, Bach, and Mozart. Märchen (Fairy Tale) is the most expressive, and extensive, section of the Suite. It is melodically beautiful, bold, and, as Engel thought, it sounded ‘charmingly in the orchestra’. The musical origins of this movement point towards Brahms and Schumann, and their late-Romantic, evocative style. Brief harmonic similarities with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde are the result of Taneyev’s serious and extensive study of his music, a still little known and even often denied aspect of his biography. The Theme and Variations is another foray into Taneyev’s favourite past-time of composing fugues and inventing ‘contrapuntal focuses’. The Scherzando fifth variation is the quickest section of the entire work, a lightning bolt of Taneyev’s humour in baroque style, evaporating into nothingness in the high register of the violin. The crowning glory of the Suite, the Tarantella made Engel exclaim that it had ‘so much contrapuntal brilliance and wit!’

Taneyev’s virtuosic and scintillating Suite is not only a homage to his favourite earlier composers, but a testament to his life-long study of counterpoint, and the incomparable mastery he achieved in it. No one in Taneyev’s Russia surpassed his achievements, for which he is still revered today.

Anastasia Belina

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