Program Notes

BORN: November 25, 1856. Vladimir-na-Klyazme, Russia
DIED: June 19, 1915. Dyudkovo

COMPOSED: 1889. The work is dedicated to composer Anton Arensky

WORLD PREMIERE: November 9, 1889. Composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducted a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow


INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo (doubling flute), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, piano, harp (multiple harps near the end), and strings

DURATION: About 18 mins

THE BACKSTORY Sergei Taneyev was not quite ten years old when he enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory. After several interruptions, he graduated in May 1875, the first recipient of the school’s Great Gold Medal. Four months earlier, he had made his official debut as a concert pianist (playing Brahms’s D minor Concerto), and seven months later he would be the soloist for the first Moscow performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Tchaikovsky was one of his principal composition teachers at the Conservatory, and Taneyev served as soloist for the Russian premieres of every one of Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra. The two remained close friends until Tchaikovsky’s death, with the student serving as a critical but trusted sounding-board for the sometimes unconfident teacher. When Tchaikovsky resigned from the Conservatory’s faculty in 1878, Taneyev replaced him as teacher of harmony and orchestration. He later added counterpoint, fugue, musical form, and piano to his teaching duties and served as the Conservatory’s director from 1885 to 1889. The list of his pupils includes many future notables of Russian music, such as Reinhold Glière, Alexander Grechaninov, Sergei Rachmaninoff (the third recipient of the Great Gold Medal), and Alexander Scriabin. Igor Stravinsky was not among them, being pledged to the competing Rimsky-Korsakov camp, but Taneyev did provide advice and encouragement to the young Sergei Prokofiev, although he stopped short of taking him on as a private pupil.

Like Tchaikovsky, Taneyev was drawn to the Germanic mainstream of music more than to the overt nationalism of Rimsky-Korsakov and the other members of the Russian Five (composers César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Mily Balakirev, and Modest Mussorgsky). In fact, he was sometimes referred to as “the Russian Brahms.” He is widely viewed as a musical conservative. He was obsessed with early music, particularly with the counterpoint of the Netherlandish masters of the Renaissance. In his symphonic works, he usually employed a modestly scaled orchestra of Mozartian makeup. For much of his career, his greatest devotion was to chamber music (atypical for Russian composers at that time), and he enriched the chamber catalogue with a dozen string quartets (counting some incomplete works) as well as important entries for string quintet, piano trio, piano quartet, and piano quintet.

When he stepped down from the directorship of the Moscow Conservatory in 1889, it was because his responsibilities were preventing him from concentrating on the opera he was trying to write: The Oresteia, which he subtitled a musical trilogy. He had begun pondering it in 1878, commenced composition in 1882, discarded much of what he had written before he started re-writing it in 1887, and finally brought it to completion in 1894, a year before it was premiered. At a time when most Russian operas were either fairy-tale fantasies or nationalistic epics, Taneyev developed a work based on episodes from the classic Oresteia, penned by the Greek author Aeschylus, who lived from 525 to around 456 BCE. The opera’s nine scenes wend through the tragic tale of King Agamemnon and his profoundly disturbed family (wife Clytemnestra, daughter Elektra, son Orestes), and the retribution and guilt that haunts families when the kids go murdering the parents.

In 1889, Taneyev wrote what he intended to be the opera’s overture, based on a number of the opera’s principal musical themes. (Conflicting chronology was given in an 1895 article by Nikolay Findeyzen in the Russkaya muzïkalnaya gazeta, which said the Overture was premiered in 1880. In any case, the Overture was completed before the opera itself.) By the time he finished the stage work, he felt the overture revealed too much, musically, of what was to come, encompassing themes related to Wrongdoing, the Furies, Apollo, and the relationship between Aegysthus and Clytemnestra. He composed a more concise prelude and spun off the original Overture of Oresteia, Trilogy of Aeschylus as a standalone concert piece, in which form it had already been performed in public. The complete opera—with the replacement prelude—was premiered on October 29, 1895, at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, but it was withdrawn after eight performances due to Taneyev’s resistance to authorizing cuts in the score.

THE MUSIC  The episodic structure of the Oresteia Overture becomes logical in light of the purpose Taneyev originally intended it to fulfill. Much of the piece is tense and dramatic. César Cui wrote in a review: “Wild sounds of the cymbals, harsh trills of the woodwinds, exclamations of the trombones, and fateful muted sounds of horns are the background against which typical, characteristic phrases quickly flash and change, or are incessantly repeated, as an inconsolable cry of the heart.” Toward the end, the piece reaches a plane of transcendent majesty where the composer indicates that “here the number of harps should be multiplied.” A report from the premiere suggests that four harps played together at that point, adding to an orchestral sound far removed from Taneyev’s usual “Mozart-scale” forces.

Taneyev’s compositions often display his affection for the music of Tchaikovsky, but there are places in the Oresteia Overture that owe a debt to a composer of a very different stripe: Richard Wagner. Taneyev had begun as a Wagner skeptic. When his friend Anton Arensky joined the Wagner Society of Moscow in 1886, Taneyev wrote to him, “When there is Mozart, how is it possible to pay attention to Wagner?” He changed his tune before long. In 1889, he attended the Russian premiere of the Ring cycle; in 1890, he included Wagner transcriptions in his piano recitals; and in 1891, he wrote to Tchaikovsky that “Mozart and Wagner interest me above all else.” The next year he reported that during his vacation he was dedicating every day to composing Oresteia and reading the score of Siegfried; in the mid 1890s, he hosted soirées devoted to playing through and discussing Wagner’s operas; in 1896, he attended Siegfried with his friend Leo Tolstoy, who was not a fan; and in 1903, he was a delegate to the unveiling of a Wagner statue in Berlin. Observers had trouble reconciling his Wagnerian propensities with his reputation as a disciplined Classicist. Reviewing the premiere of the Oresteia Overture, the critic Semyon Krugilov wrote: “Mr. Taneyev the Mozartean and the author of Oresteia are two completely different persons. I cannot say whether temporarily, or forever, but Mr. Taneyev has completely changed: he is in his new overture already not a Mozartean, he is a Wagnerian.” Krugilov further found that the work’s ethos had something in common with “Lohengrin and his swans.”

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 


Recordings: Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic (Ondine)  |  Thomas Sanderling conducting the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra (Naxos)  |  Neeme Järvi conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Chandos)  |  Recordings of the complete opera Oresteia, once available on Deutsche Grammophon (as LPs) as well as Olympia and Melodiya (as CDs), are no longer in print, but may be located through Internet sources

Reading: An English-language monograph on Taneyev would be most welcome. A Critical Re-Evaluation of Taneyev’s Oresteia, by Anastasia Belina (University of Leeds)  |  Masters of Russian Music, by Gerald Abraham (Knopf)  |  Relevant background can be found in Wagner in Russia, Poland, and the Czech Lands: Musical, Literary, and Cultural Perspectives, edited by Stephen Muir and Anastasia Belina-Johnson (Ashgate) 

(May 2018)

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