About this Recording
8.570584 - TANEYEV, S.I.: Oresteya: Overture and Entr'acte / Overture in D Minor / Overture on a Russian theme (Novosibirsk Academic Symphony, T. Sanderling)

Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856–1915): Oresteia Overture and Interlude • Adagio in C
Overture in D minor • Cantata on Pushkin’s ‘Exegi Monumentum’ • Overture on a Russian Theme • Canzona


The Russian composer, pianist, teacher, and academic Sergey Taneyev was known for his interest in early Netherlands composers, counterpoint, ancient languages, history, and literature, all of which lasted his whole life. Taneyev was a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, later becoming its professor and director. He was one of Tchaikovsky’s most intimate friends, was close to count Leo Tolstoy’s family, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Nikolai Rubinstein, and held in great respect by most of his colleagues, both in Russia and abroad.

This disc offers some of Taneyev’s finest orchestral music, and some of his early works that are today no longer heard in concert halls. Five out of seven works belong to an early period of composition, written while Taneyev was still a student at the Conservatory, or during his first years as a professor there.

Taneyev wrote only one opera, Oresteia (1894), based on the eponymous tragedy by Aeschylus. Initially the overture was intended as part of the opera, but it quickly became an independent work that was always performed on its own. Taneyev completed it six years before finishing the opera, and it had its première in Moscow on 28 October 1889, conducted by Tchaikovsky. The firm of Belyayev in Leipzig published the Oresteia Overture in 1897. The Overture is the only programmatic work that Taneyev ever wrote. It is built on musical material from the opera, and includes almost all its major themes. In the preface to the score a short summary of the tragedy is given, telling the dark story of the house of Atreus, with murder, adultery, and even inadvertent cannibalism.

Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, and his brother Thyestes, fought for the right to rule Argos. Thyestes seduced the wife of Atreus, and had to flee from his brother’s rage. When he returned some years later in the hope of restoring peace in the family, Atreus pretended to forgive everything and invited him to a celebratory banquet, but killed the children of Thyestes and fed him their roasted flesh. When Thyestes realised what had happened, he cried out in horror, cursed the house of Atreus, and fled with his only surviving son, Aegisthus. Agamemnon thus inherited the throne and married Clytemnestra, with whom he had three children, Orestes, Electra, and Iphigenia. He sacrificed Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis, seeking a fair wind for his ships, before he left for the war with Troy, which lasted ten years. When he returned, Clytemnestra killed him in revenge, and ruled Argos with her lover Aegisthus, who had returned during Agamemnon’s absence. Clytemnestra’s son Orestes was ordered by Apollo to kill his mother to avenge the death of his father. He obeyed, but was tormented by the Furies, spirits of retribution, and suffered agonizing moral torment. When the court of the Areopagus cast equal votes for and against Orestes, the goddess Athena cast hers in his favour, and thus Orestes was finally freed from his sin.

Taneyev arranged the thematic material in accordance with the operatic narrative and kept most of the leading themes from the opera. The work opens with the theme of Fate in the lower strings, followed by the theme of murdered children in the high register. The theme of the Furies is easily recognised in the shrill piccolo trills, and the heroic theme of Orestes in the brass is also unmistakeable. Finally Apollo appears with a majestic idea in the flutes, accompanied by shimmering strings, before the overture closes with a theme built on the musical material from the apotheosis, Orestes is forgiven, from the finale of the opera.

Taneyev’s friend and one of Russia’s most important critics at the time, Herman Laroche (1845–1904) wrote:

Constructed from the most solid contrapuntal material, full of the most delicate thematic work, symbolically reminiscent of the main idea of the Oresteia, the overture of the first Russian master of canon and fugue is so complex in its construction that his “aims” even for a professional musician would not be clear after two, but three-four performances; for the public the witty play of imitations, often concealed in the middle voices, is more unnoticeable, and will remain so even after a hundredth performance.

The critics greeted the Oresteia Overture favourably, but were surprised to find strong influences of Wagner. For this there was some justification. Taneyev’s initial abhorrence of Wagner was very well-known in Moscow. His steadily growing interest in Wagner’s music remained unknown to most, and it is only now being examined and re-evaluated. Despite all its contrapuntal intricacies and polyphonic complexity, the Overture does not overwhelm its listeners. It is a fascinating work that opens more and more doors into the musical world of this “Russian Bach” with every new hearing.

The Entr’acte from the Oresteia is a symphonic interlude in the middle of the third act. The Furies, who relentlessly pursue Orestes after he killed his mother, drive him to attempt suicide but do not allow him to die. When Orestes is unable to find refuge in death, he decides to go to the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, to ask the god to save him. After all, it was Apollo who told Orestes to kill his mother in order to avenge the murder of his father Agamemnon. Apollo appears from behind a cloud of smoke, banishes the Furies from the Temple, and sends Orestes to the goddess Athena, who will pardon him.

This symphonic interlude became one of the most popular excerpts from the opera during Taneyev’s lifetime. Performed by various orchestras in Russia and abroad, it was often conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov, who admired Taneyev’s opera.

The sublime and majestic music of the Entr’acte is very close to Wagner in harmony and orchestral colour. It depicts Apollo’s abode, and for the first time in the lengthy opera the listener is offered respite from the elements of terror and drama. The leading theme of the Entr’acte is that of Apollo, which will be familiar from the Oresteia Overture.

Taneyev wrote the Adagio in C major in 1875, his final year of study at the Moscow Conservatory. The composer was very critical of his early works, only a handful of which were published during his lifetime. After his death, a large number of compositions unknown to audiences and even to his friends were discovered among his papers. One such work, the Adagio for small orchestra, was published only in 1950. Written in one of Taneyev’s favourite keys, C major, it is gentle, soothing, and peaceful in character, with soaring lyrical melodies supported by pulsating strings. Tchaikovsky’s influence can be heard here, particularly in the orchestration and harmonic language.

In 1875 Taneyev began to study early music and counterpoint. This resulted in a method of composition that was not very common among Russian composers at the time. Before writing a final version of a work, Taneyev wrote out most of its main themes in an exercise book and then developed them contrapuntally until all possibilities were exhausted and he knew exactly what the themes were capable of achieving. In this way, many of his works were suspected of being academic and dry, even before their premières. Upon hearing them, however, many musicians were surprised to find them interesting, colourful, and not at all devoid of melodic interest. What is more, Tchaikovsky called Taneyev the ‘Russian Bach’ and many of Taneyev’s colleagues thought that he was the finest master of counterpoint in Russia, and possibly the whole of Europe, at the time.

In 1882 the Director of the Moscow Conservatory, Nikolay Gubert, asked Taneyev, who taught there from 1877, to write a composition for the All-Russian Art and Trade Exhibition organized in the same year. Gubert was the director of the musical section of the exhibition, with the task of organizing various concerts. The overture had to be written in a particular style: it had to satisfy the demands presented to the students of harmony, counterpoint, form, and fugue classes at the Conservatory. On 18 May 1882 Taneyev gave the première of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto in Moscow, after which the Conservatory examinations began, and he found that he had so little time to finish the overture that he had to forgo a few nights’ sleep in order to finish it. The overture had its première on 13 June 1882, conducted by the composer, but was only published in 1948. This was the first work where he displayed his already considerable contrapuntal skills. The Overture on a Russian Theme is in C major, in sonata-form with a shortened recapitulation. Taneyev took its main theme, a song about Tatar occupation, Kak za rechkoyu da za Dar’eyu (Beyond the River Dar’ya), from the collection 100 Russian Folk Songs, compiled by Rimsky-Korsakov. The whole theme appears in the introduction, after which it is never played in its entirety, but its elements, undergoing complex polyphonic development, can be heard throughout the overture. This work offers a rare opportunity to hear Taneyev’s use of Russian folk material, which is almost never present in his mature style.

Tchaikovsky, who was unable to attend the première, looked over the score and praised it highly. It delighted him as much as the overture to The Magic Flute, but he warned Taneyev about the danger of simply playing with sounds, advising that ‘the aim of art is not only to please the hearing organs, but also soul and heart’. Following Tchaikovsky’s comments, Taneyev revised the overture, and it was performed in its new version on 18 December 1882 in St Petersburg. Rimsky-Korsakov, who was present, wrote of his amazement at its unusual contrapuntal intricacies. Taneyev’s Cantata on Pushkin’s ‘Exegi Monumentum’ is based on the first two verses of the poet’s Exegi Monumentum:

Ya pamyatnik sebe vozdvig nerukotvornïy,
K nemu ne zarastyot narodnaya tropa,
Voznyossya vïshe on glavoyu nepokornoy
Aleksandriyskogo stolpa.

Net, ves’ ya ne umru—dusha v zavetnoy lire
Moy prakh perezhivyot i tlen’ya ubezhit—
I slaven budu ya, dokol’ v podlunnom mire
Zhiv budet hot’ odin piit
I have built a monument to myself not with hands,
The people’s path to it will never overgrow;
It stands defiantly
Higher than Alexander’s column.

No, I will not die completely—in my sacred lyre
My soul will outlive my mortal remains,
And I will be famed so long as at least a single poet
Remains alive under the moon.

The 24-year-old Taneyev wrote this cantata for the opening of the Pushkin monument in Moscow. It had its première at the unveiling ceremony on 8 June 1880, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein, in the presence of some of Russia’s greatest writers, including Turgenev, Ostrovsky, Dostoyevsky, Grigorovich, Pleshcheev, Pisemsky and Vyazemsky, who all laid flowers by the monument, while Dostoyevsky delivered one of his famous speeches.

The cantata is only 64 bars long. Its harmonic language is simple, and Taneyev does not venture out of the main key of E flat major. The voices are arranged in four-part chordal texture, and only in a short middle section does some polyphonic writing appear. This is a celebratory work, in the traditional style of the Russian laudatory cantata.

All his life, Taneyev was interested in things that were considered old-fashioned in nineteenth-century Russia: early music, ancient literature, history, and counterpoint. Even his works were often written in early forms, such as suites, preludes and fugues, and madrigals. The Canzona for clarinet and strings is another example. One of his rare compositions for solo instrument and orchestra, it was composed some time before 1883, but in January that year Taneyev revised it and completed it for one of the concerts at the Moscow Conservatory. It had its first performance on 22 January 1883 by a student, Ivan Preobrazhensky, with the student orchestra. The Canzona opens with a sincere inquiry from the orchestra, which is answered by the clarinet. The music of this work is open, peaceful, measured, and lyrical, and the piece remains very popular in Russia, often appearing in concerts and studied in conservatories, colleges and schools.

Taneyev wrote his Overture in D minor as a graduation work in 1875, and it earned him a gold medal in composition. Although the piece was well received by the examiners and Taneyev’s colleagues, he refused to give it an opus number or publish it, and like so many of his works, it appeared only after his death, in 1955.

One of the main hallmarks of Taneyev’s mature style is monothematism. He often takes a main theme and relates others to it, developing them further, but always keeping the intervallic or harmonic relationship intact. Among the best examples of this technique are his Symphony No. 4 in C minor and many of his chamber works. The Overture, although an early composition, already shows this tendency to build a large-scale work on this principle. All its main themes are related to each other. Still a student, Taneyev already displays the skills of a budding symphonist, with masterful orchestration and a rich harmonic language. The full orchestral sound, heroic mood, and wide-spanning lyrical melodies all display the influence of Tchaikovsky, under whose guidance Taneyev completed the work.

Anastasia Belina

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