Program Six: The Piano in Russia
About the Program
Today it is impossible to imagine the piano repertoire, or indeed the entire landscape of professional piano playing, without thinking of Russian contributions. From Vladimir Putin’s impromptu piano performance in 2017 while waiting to meet his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Beijing—an instantly viral video clip—to the “World Cup” of piano competitions held in Moscow every four years, the piano stands as an inseparable part of Russian identity.
But the fathers of the Russian piano tradition came from the West. Irish pianist-composer John Field (1782–1837), who spent most of his last 35 years in Russia, and German-born Daniel Steibelt (1765–1823), who was invited by Tsar Alexander I to St. Petersburg in 1808 and remained there until his death, sowed the seeds of professional piano performance in the country. Before them, the harpsichord had been known in Russian courts, but keyboard music had not come close to the popularity of vocal genres (which were accompanied mainly on a zitherlike plucked instrument, the gusli). Near the end of the 18th century, collections of folk tunes provided composers with material for small-scale instrumental compositions, generally in the form of variations. There was nothing to compare, however, with the outpouring of keyboard repertoire centered in Vienna, Paris, and London.
The post-Napoleonic years saw an opening of channels of communication between East and West, including not only composers and musicians but also piano manufacturers. Between 1810 and 1830 more than a dozen piano workshops appeared across Russia, and thereafter manufacturers enjoyed imperial patronage and endorsement from prominent touring virtuosos—above all Franz Liszt, who took audiences by storm in the 1840s.
Meanwhile, the relatively undeveloped nature of Russian musical life meant that foreign visitors such as Field and Steibelt could enjoy unrivaled opportunities for teaching, composing, and performing. Field’s nocturne style in particular, with its graceful proto-Chopinesque embellishments, resonated with the Russian predilection for vocal music. His cantabile technique and rich sonorous tone—inherited from his own teacher, Muzio Clementi (called “the father of the piano”)—soon became a hallmark of Russian piano playing. Mikhail Glinka, who studied with Field, famously said of the Irishman’s playing that “his fingers fell on [the keys] as large drops of rain scattered like pearls on velvet.” Another famous pupil of Field’s was Alexandre Dubuque, a French expatriate who also taught Mily Balakirev and Nikolai Zverev. Balakirev only had 10 lessons with Dubuque, but felt indebted to him for his technical skills and went on to compose an Everest of piano virtuosity in the shape of the oriental fantasy Islamey, which we heard in Program One. Zverev, along with Dubuque’s other famous pupil, Alexander Villoing, the Russian-born son of another French émigré, became spearheads for the late-Romantic piano school, which included such luminous pianist-composers as Anton Rubinstein, Vasily Safonov, Nikolai Medtner, Alexander Scriabin, and Alexander Siloti, who in turn taught Sergei Rachmaninoff.
A momentous stage in the professionalization of Russian music and piano playing came with the establishment of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories: the former in 1862 by Anton Rubinstein, the latter four years later by his brother Nikolai. Theirs were by no means the only initiatives of their kind. Pyotr Shostakovsky, for instance, the dedicatee of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Four Pieces, Op. 11, was a pianist and conductor who left the Moscow Conservatory after falling out with Nikolai Rubinstein and opened his own music school in Moscow in 1878.
Anton Rubinstein was widely considered to be the finest pianist of his generation, alongside Liszt, and frequently toured Europe, coming into close contact with most of the important musical figures of the time. The influence of German music, in particular Schumann, became fundamental to his work, but his own compositions, though great in quantity, were not always as distinguished in quality. Nevertheless, Rubinstein enjoyed the patronage of such a highly placed figure as the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, who invited him to spend the summer of 1852 in her palace of Kamennïy Ostrov (Rocky Island) outside St. Petersburg. Following his stay, Rubinstein began work on his grand collection of 24 music portraits of the women he had met during the visit.
A musical portrait of a very different stamp is Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, Pictures at an Exhibition, which testifies to the effect on him of the death of artist, architect, and designer Viktor Hartmann. Vladimir Stasov, the prominent critic and writer who in May 1867 had baptized Mussorgsky and four fellow composers as the Mighty Five, introduced Hartmann to Russian writers and artists in the late 1860s and mounted a memorial exhibition of the artist’s works after his untimely death, apparently from an aneurysm. This occasion inspired Mussorgsky to compose his greatest contribution to piano music in a concentrated burst of inspiration during the first three weeks of June 1874. Of the 11 Hartmann artworks he represented, only six are preserved. However, Stasov’s preface to the first publication of the composition in 1886 provides a useful description of each one. This edition became the basis for Maurice Ravel’s orchestration in 1922. The 10 musical “pictures” (No. 6 is based on two paintings, both of which were owned by Mussorgsky) are linked by a series of “promenades” that depict the visitor walking from one object to another.
Such representational works had distant descendants in a number of Sergei Prokofiev’s piano cycles (his Visions fugitives and Sarcasms, for example). But they are far from the only speciality of the Russian piano tradition. Even when Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote his delectable series of 12 miniatures entitled The Seasons (one for each month of the calendar), his priority was evidently mood and expression rather than pictorialism. So it was, too, with Scriabin, Medtner, and Rachmaninoff.
Scriabin’s early piano style was as indebted to Chopin as Chopin’s was to Field. This is certainly true of the Second Sonata, also titled Sonata-Fantasy, which took Scriabin five years to complete (it was eventually published in 1898). Soon thereafter, he cast off all residues of his Chopin inheritance and gave full flight to the visionary elation that would eventually bring him to the brink of messianic megalomania.
Medtner, whom Rachmaninoff once described as “the greatest composer of our time,” was a star pupil (alongside Scriabin) of the legendary Moscow Conservatory teacher Safonov, himself a disciple of Villoing. Medtner renounced the career of performing pianist and instead, with the help of Sergei Taneyev, devoted his energies to composition. His career continued in parallel with the rising reputations of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff and was destined to stay in their shadows. The piano is present in every one of his works. The three cycles of piano pieces, Forgotten Melodies, were composed from 1919, after the turmoil of war and revolution. The first cycle opens with the Sonata reminiscenza, while the second closes with the Sonata tragica.
Hyperimagination and an unfulfilled career come together in the figure of Alexei Stanchinsky, who in his short life produced a varied collection of piano music that testifies not only to the influence of his greatest contemporaries, from Scriabin to Stravinsky, but also to the mental instability that led to his early death. A pupil of Ziloti’s disciple Konstantin Igumnov, Stanchinsky studied composition with Taneyev. He was found dead at the age of 26 beside a stream. A selection from 12 Sketches, Op. 1, was the only music of his to be published during his lifetime; nevertheless, by the time of his death, he had become a cult figure.
At the apex of the Russian tradition stand Rachmaninoff’s four piano concertos, two sonatas, and two suites (for two pianos). The Second Suite, composed just before his Second Piano Concerto, marks his return to composition after a period of depression due to the failure of his First Symphony, and it shares with the concerto signs of newfound exuberance and confidence. On hearing the composer and Vladimir Horowitz playing the piece, Sergei Bertensson wrote: “‘Power’ and ‘joy’ are the two words that come first to mind: expressive power and joy experienced by the two players, each fully aware of the other’s greatness.” Indeed, power and joy are two salient features of the continuation of the Russian piano tradition into the Soviet era, through Shostakovich and Prokofiev to Rodion Shchedrin and Sergei Slonimsky and beyond.
—Michelle Assay, Université Paris-Sorbonne