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8.223400 - CUI: Suites Nos. 2 and 4 / Le Flibustier
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César Cui (1835–1918)
Suites Nos. 2 and 4 • Le Flibustier

 

César Cui was born in Vilnius in 1835, the son of a French officer in Napoleon’s army, who had stayed behind after the retreat from Moscow, married a Lithuanian and taken employment as a teacher of French. Cui spent his earlier years in his native city, where he was able to take lessons in harmony and composition from Stanislaw Moniuszko, one of the leading Polish composers of his generation. It was natural that Cui’s own first attempts at composition emulated Chopin.

In 1851 Cui became a student at the Engineering School in St. Petersburg, proceeding thereafter to the Academy of Military Engineering, where he studied from 1855 to 1857. These years brought important association with ambitious nationalist musicians, above all with Balakirev, who, with Cui, proved a powerful force in the creation of a school of Russian music, in opposition to the cosmopolitan or allegedly German tendencies of composers such as Anton Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He, in turn, found occasion to deplore the amateurism of Balakirev’s immediate supporters, the group of five, nicknamed by their friend, the polymath Stasov, the “Mighty Handful”. Cui’s position in the Five was justified principally by his work as a music critic, a role in which he exercised considerable influence and that not always in favour of others of the Five, notably Mussorgsky. Rimsky-Korsakov, another member of the group, alleged that Balakirev and Cui always regarded themselves as superior to the others, a judgement that posterity has not endorsed. Other musicians with whom Cui associated in St. Petersburg included Dargomizhsky, one of whose pupils, the singer Malvina Bamberg, became Cui’s wife in 1858.

Cui enjoyed a long double career, one in music, as writer, critic and composer, and the other as a leading authority on military fortification, with the final rank of Lieutenant General. As a composer he turned his early attention to opera, with The Mandarin’s Son completed in 1859, but not performed until 1883. A more sustained work, on a much larger scale, was William Ratcliffe, based on Heine, completed in 1868 and first staged the following year, with very limited success, although greeted warmly enough by his friends. His later operas largely based on French rather than Russian sources, although he twice again turned to Pushkin for inspiration, had an equally varied reception. Le Flibustier, a three-act opera based on a work by the French dramatist Jean Richepin, was completed in 1889 and first staged in Paris at the Opera-Comique in January 1894, to be coolly received.

Cui’s posthumous reputation as a composer has depended largely on compositions on a much smaller scale than his operas or ambitious works, songs, including an 1890 setting of twenty poems by Richepin and short pieces for violin and piano. In this category may be included the orchestral suites. The first of these is in fact a Suite miniature, while the second, completed in 1887, more ambitious in scope, offers music of great charm in an opening Theme and Variations, by turns lyrical and lively, a ballad-like second movement, a cheerful Scherzo and a final March. The Suite generally numbered fourth, with the explanatory subtitle “A Argenteau”, orchestrated in 1887, is based on pieces from a piano suite of the same date, both a tribute to the Countess Mercy Argenteau, who had written to Napravnik, conductor at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, seeking information about contemporary Russian composers. She had found Napravnik’s music as little to her taste as that of Borodin and that of Tchaikovsky. A Polka by Cui, however, led to further acquaintance and to a production in 1886 of his opera The Prisoner of the Caucasus at Liege and the performance of an orchestral suite. The first movement of the fourth orchestral suite celebrates a great cedar-tree on the estate of the Countess at Argenteau, followed by a Spanish-style Serenade, with a plucked string accompaniment. A fanfare leads into a battle for toy soldiers, leading to a scene of solemnity at the Chapel. The last movement celebrates a well known landmark on the Argenteau estate there, the rock of the movement title. The whole suite offers a series of delightful vignettes, pieces in a miniature form of which Cui was a master, here colourfully orchestrated.

Keith Anderson


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