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8.553768 - ARENSKY: Suites Nos. 1-3
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Anton Arensky (1861-1906)

Anton Arensky (1861-1906)

Suite No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7 (1885) • Suite No. 2 (‘Silhouettes’), Op. 23 (1892)

Suite No. 3 (‘Variations in C major’), Op. 33 (1894)


Anton Stepanovich Arensky was one of the most lyrically gifted Russian composers of the nineteenth century. Today he is best remembered for his wonderful Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32 and the delightful Waltz from the two-piano suite, Opus 15. He also left his mark as professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory. Among his students were Alexander Scriabin, Sergey Rachmaninov and Reinhold Gliere.


Anton Arensky was born in 1861 in Novgorod. His father, a doctor, was a good amateur cellist, and his mother an excellent pianist who gave him his first music lessons. By the age of nine, he had already composed some songs and piano pieces. When his family moved to St Petersburg his musical opportunities expanded. Arensky attended the St Petersburg Conservatory. He studied with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and graduated with highest honours and the gold medal in 1882. Rimsky-Korsakov thought very highly of his gifted pupil and entrusted him with the preparation of the piano-vocal score of his opera The Snowmaiden. In 1882 Arensky was appointed professor at the Moscow Conservatory where he came in contact with Tchaikovsky and Taneyev. For many years Arensky was conductor of the Russian Choral Society and during the last years of his life he travelled widely conducting and playing the piano. He died of tuberculosis in Finland in 1906.


Arensky composed three operas. He also wrote two piano trios, two string quartets and a piano quintet. Among some of his best compositions are his choral works, piano pieces and songs. He wrote a violin concerto, a piano concerto, the world famous Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, Op. 35a, and two symphonies. According to the musicologist and composer Boris Asafyev: “Arensky succeeded in grasping everything that was expressively valuable in the chamber and solo pianism of Tchaikovsky and the European romantics in developing a new intimate-lyrical style which contained the prerequisites of the pianism of Rachmaninov, Medtner and, of course, early Scriabin”.


Arensky composed his Suite No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7, in 1885. The suite is cast in five distinct movements. The first movement, Variations sur un thème russe, is the longest section of the suite. The theme, the Russian folk-song Venichkom vzmakhnyot (‘Having waved with a broom’, sometimes translated as ‘She flips the besom’), is taken from a collection compiled in 1875-6 by his teacher, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Arensky put the melody through a series of variations, eventually turning the theme into a fugue at the end. The second movement, Air de danse, is a refined waltz in 5/4 metre with a flirtatious theme and whimsical accentuation. The Scherzo which follows is full of unexpected timbre contrasts. Its impetuous drive is interrupted twice by lyrical moments. The character of this third movement is very ‘Russian’, reminding one of similar movements from Borodin’s symphonies. Russian epic traditions seem to loom over the fourth movement, simply entitled Basso ostinato. The invariable figure consisting of six crotchets treads heavily throughout the entire piece (in the 5/4 metre the bar line ‘cuts it off’ at a different note every time). The dense orchestral sonorities give this piece a typically Russian bogatyr character. The fourth movement became so popular that it was published separately from the suite as a piano piece in numerous international anthologies. In a letter to Sergey Taneyev, the famous pianist, Alexander Ziloti stated that “Arensky had become a well-known composer in England only through his Basso ostinato”. The suite ends with a sonorous and ceremonial Marche.


 Suite No. 2, Op. 23, (‘Silhouettes’) was composed as a suite for two pianos by Arensky in 1892, when the composer was at the apex of his creativity. His opera Son na Volge (A Dream on the Volga) had just been given its first performance at the Bolshoy Theatre and he had just completed his Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 54. As piano-duet music this suite became one of Arensky’s most popular works. The novelist Leo Tolstoy liked the Silhouettes very much. In a letter to a friend, Sergey Taneyev wrote: “Two days ago Alexander Goldenweiser and I played the Silhouettes by Anton Arensky on two pianos in my home. Everybody present liked the work very much and it even reconciled Leo Tolstoy with the new music. He liked The Dancer (the last item of the Suite) most of all and mentioned this a number of times”. In its artistic concept, Arensky’s Suite No. 2 resembles Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9. As a superb pianist, Arensky was not unaware of Schumann’s earlier piano work. He taught it to his students and in 1902 was to collaborate with ten other Russian composers in orchestrating Schumann’s Carnaval for full orchestra. The musical portraits in Arensky’s Silhouettes, like the celebrated carnival masks of Schumann, call to life a motley kaleidoscope of images, moods, colour contrasts, and witty characterizations. Like the first suite Silhouettes is made up of five movements. The suite opens with Le Savant (The Scholar). Arensky’s notion of a scholar is an old man, sitting alone, bent over a vast heap of very large volumes. Being of the opinion that the archaic speech of old masters is especially apt here, Arensky creates a piece based on polyphonic movement of voices mixed together with characteristic sonorities in imitation of musical models of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. La Coquette (The Coquette) is a musical representation of the coyness of a coquette in a delicate waltz. According to Arensky’s biographer, Gennady Tsipin, “For an affected creature, who chatters with her admirers about delightful trivialities, the waltz is really the best form, the best creative solution”. Polichinelle (The Buffoon) is a musical portrait of Pulcinella, the girl-chasing bachelor of the commedia dell’arte. This is a vivacious and expansive piece, abounding in keen timbre contrasts. Impetuous figurations, embellished with piquant chromatic sparklets, colour this music with an air of mystery. Le Rêveur (The Dreamer) provides the suite with a much needed emotional contrast. The measured motion of crotchets and the tranquil melody of this piece create a musical portrait of a person lost in languid meditation. Silhouettes ends with a vivacious dance. La Danseuse (The Dancer) is written in the conventional rhythmic pattern of a Spanish dance. The melodic pattern here (triplets, grace-notes and specific accentuation) is also characteristic of Iberian folk-music. Arensky creates a brilliant and colourful stylization of what nineteenth-century Russians imagined to be Spanish dance music. This final dance crowns the entire set.


Suite No. 3 (‘Variations in C major’), Op. 33, also began life as a suite for two pianos, four hands. Published in 1894, it is not so much a suite as an eclectic set of nine variations on a short vivid theme. The Theme (Andante) is introduced in the strings in Romantic choral style. In the Dialogue, the first variation, which follows, the woodwind joins in, taking possession of the theme, playing it in fragments which are answered by graceful responses of the strings, and eventually of the whole orchestra. The second variation, Valse, is an elegant and charming Russian waltz. The third is a bombastic Marche triomphale. In the fourth variation, Menuet XVIIIème siècle (Minuet from the Eighteeenth Century) and the fifth, Gavotte, Arensky evokes Baroque and Classical styles, complete with ornaments. The sixth, Scherzo, is a vivacious and capricious scherzo followed by the sombre and ominous seventh, Marche funèbre (Funeral March). In the eighth variation, Nocturne, and the ninth, Polonaise, Arensky pays tribute to Chopin, his favourite composer for the piano. The Nocturne is dream-like and serene, almost sounding like a segment from a forgotten piano concerto. The Polonaise closes the suite in an appropriately spirited way.


Victor and Marina A. Ledin,

© 1997 Encore Consultants

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