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8.223496 - CUI: 25 Preludes, Op. 64

César Cui (1835–1918)
25 Preludes for piano, Op. 64


On the one hand a Lieutenant General, graduate of the St. Petersburg Engineering School and Academy of Military Engineering (1851–57), noted authority on fortification, instructor to the last Tsar. On the other President of the Imperial Russian Musical Society, critic, occasional student of Moniuszko, disciple of Balakirev. Professionally a military engineer, vocationally a musician, by blood not a Russian at all, César Antonovich Cui was born in Vilnius—to a French father (an officer with Napoleon’s ill-fated Grand Army of 1812, wounded at Smolensk) and a Lithuanian mother.

His precocious musicality, largely dormant during his years at military college, was re-awakened by Balakirev (whom he first met in 1856) and Dargomizhsky (one of whose pupils, Malvira Bamberg, he married in 1858). Together with Balakirev, guiding spirit of the late 19th century Russian nationalist movement, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky, he was a member of the so-called “Five” or “Mighty Handful”—its “musical eagle”. His literary forays, at home and abroad, reveal the extent of his fanaticism (more than that of any of his peers) for promoting the ideals and aesthetics of this group (and, correspondingly, for destroying those unlike-minded). “Everything seductive in music should be utilised” to the cause, he declared: “the charm of harmony, the science of counterpoint, the richness of polyphony, the colour of the orchestra”.

In his article “Our Music during the last 25 years” (Vestnik Evropï, October 1883), the critic Vladimir Stasov believed that: “Even though the ‘Balakirev party’ (as Dargomizhsky called it) was closely knit and in complete accord as to its manner of thinking and artistic direction, its works did not bear the stamp of sameness and uniformity. They were as totally unlike as the natures of the composers themselves. While these young musicians shared a common purpose, each of them retained his own individuality. Taken as a whole, the works of each represents his own world, a world separate and distinct from that of the other members of the school. Each remained true to his own character, his own basic nature; each pursued the path towards perfection, towards the development of his art in his own way”.

Of Cui he wrote: “He was…self-taught as a musician…[he] had little bent for orchestration and he never became a skilled orchestrator… The principal characteristics of Cui’s music are poetry, passion and an extraordinary warmth of feeling and tenderness which move the listener to the very depths of his soul. True, Cui concerned himself almost exclusively with presenting love in all its various manifestations (jealousy, despair, self-sacrifice, etc) and therefore, his may seem to have been a very one-sided talent, but in depth and intensity, his portrayals of this emotion surpass anything ever achieved not only by his colleagues in the Russian school but perhaps by anyone in the whole field of music”.

And of his inability, ironically, to compose “national” music in the primitive, glossy, tribai, imitative style of a Mussorgsky, Rimsky, Borodin, or Balakirev, he says: “There is not a trace of anything Russian or ‘Eastern’ in any of Cui’s works…Because he himself had little propensity for writing in the national vein. Cui never fully understood or appreciated “nationalism” in the works of others. His gifts were too exclusively lyrical, too exclusively psychological”.

As a writer (principally from 1864 to 1900)—denouncing “conservatism”, “the backward taste of the public and [the] narrow views of [other] critics”—Cui spared no one. “Obsolete ideas, lies, non-sensical and slanderous charges”, Stasov documents, “had to be exposed in all their ugliness, and this Cui did with true talent—in a lively, entertaining, spirited and bold fashion. Many people did not like his [early] articles but everyone enjoyed reading them. Most of our enemies dreaded them…” Generous, bigoted, vitriolic, misguided, malicious, elegant, satirical, opinionated: “master of unnecessary invective”. He despised Tchaikovsky: “In his music, Mr. Tchaikovsky [constantly] complains about his fate and talks about his maladies” (1884). The young Rachmaninov’s First Symphony he likened cynically to “the Seven Plagues of Egypt… [music to delight] the inhabitants of Hell” (1897). Wagner he buried as “a man devoid of all talent [whose] melodies, where they are found at all, are…more sour than the stalest Mendelssohn” (1863). Richard Strauss, he damned, “may be characterised in four words: little talent, much impudence…a mockery of music” (1904). On occasion he could even turn on his own fellow-travellers—for instance, Mussorgsky—assessing Boris Godunov to be an opera of “chopped recitative and looseness of musical discourse… the consequence of immaturity, indiscriminating, self-complacent, hasty method of composition” (1874).

Today Cui is all but forgotten, a footnote of Russian history. “As a composer”, Richard Anthony Leonard argues (in his History of Russian Music, 1956), “he was the weakest member of ‘The Five’, and by so wide a margin that we wonder at the respect and even deference which he commanded from the group… the poorest composer… the loudest talker”. “By nature”, Tchaikovsky felt, “Cui is more drawn towards light and piquantly rhythmic French music; but the demands of ‘the invincible band’, which he has joined, compel him to do violence to his natural gifts and to follow those paths of would-be original harmony which do not suit him” (1869). To his critics he was weak, mediocre, undistinguished, insipid, directionless. He wrote more than a dozen operas (including the celebrated William Ratcliff), hundreds of choruses and songs, and volumes of concentrated piano miniatures “pressed violets” of a salon age long ago. A “colourless” Violin Sonata and three string quartets “lacking in inspiration” (W.W. Cobbett, 1929) suggest that if he had any interest in sonata principle or large-scale symphonic organisation it must have been limited. Instrumentally, he was obsessed by Chopin (from childhood), Liszt and Schumann. Operatically, by Meyerbeer and Auber. Heine, Hugo, Dumas, Maupassant, Mickiewicz… Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Nekrasov, the folk poets of the Trans-Caucasus, provided him with his texts and libretti. To his admirers he was a “creative genius” (Rimsky), his art illumined by veins of refined, continuous arioso “melody [exhaling] almost feminine tenderness” (Rosa Newmarch).

Spanning a creative lifetime—from 1857 (the Scherzo Op. 1) to 1916 (the Sonatine Op. 106)—and comprised largely of morceaux, impromptus, waltzes, polonaises, mazurkas and variations professionally turned and crafted, Cui’s piano music isn’t at all what one might expect from the critic or nationalist in him. Reflecting more Old Guard than Young Turk, it’s a gentle utterance, looking back nostalgically to the past, intimate rather than public, favouring silken boudoir to panelled concert room. Technically undemanding, romantically clichéd, harmonically conventional, tonally unsurprising, more diatonic than chromatic, concerned with horizons of Iyricism untouched by modal pathos or tragic intensity, it has more in common stylistically with Tchaikovsky or Rubinstein than Mussorgsky or Balakirev. The bravura of a Liapunov, the angst of a Rachmaninov, the headily erotic, spiritual incense of a Scriabin are domains beyond its experience.

The Twenty Five Preludes Op. 64 (1903), published by Jurgenson of Moscow, belong to the period of Rachmaninov’s Op. 23 Preludes, the early F minor Sonata Op. 5 of Medtner, and Scriabin’s radically different Fourth Sonata, Poème tragique, Poème satanique, and nineteen Preludes Op. 31, 33, 35, 37, 39. Comprising Cui’s largest collective work for piano, the whole is constructed tonally around a circle of fifths, from C to C. Unlike Chopin (Op. 28) or Scriabin (Op.11), however, both of whom preferred relative minor relationships, Cui pairs each major key instead with its mediant minor—in the process contriving a neat pivotal scheme whereby preceding thirds become successive tonics. Structurally, most of the prelude sare in ternary form, with revealingly varied reprises biased towards either registral transfer or textural/harmonic/dynamic enrichment. Expressively, many dimensions are glimpsed—from exquisitely whispered dreams (Nos. 5, 9, 15, 17), through landscapes of Schumannesque horns (No. 21), “Davidsbündler” marches (Nos. 8, 25) and fantasy waltzes (Nos. 3, 12, 23), to promenades (No. 1), etudes (Nos. 4, 10, 24), pseudo folk dances (Nos. 19, 20) and bouquets of melancholic remembrance (Nos. 2, 6, 22). Metrically, four are unusual: No. 14 in 5/4 (2+3), a stumbling waltz; No. 15, in 7/8 (3+4), almost an example of written-out rubato in triple time; No. 17, in 3/2 but with the beat displaced to suggest a 1+3+2 accent; and No. 18, where 6/8 quavers are offset against 2/4 ones. Polyphonically and pianistically, the canonic interplay of No. 7 is ingeniously suave.

Among the dedicatees Josef Slivinski (Nos. 17–19), Ossip Gabrilowitsch (Nos. 23–25)—pupils of Leschetizky /Anton Rubinstein—and Paderewski (Nos. 20–22) deserve mention.

© 1993 Ate Orga
Cambridge, England

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