Tone Poem Tuesday

Expect a lot of Rachmaninoff on this site this year, as it’s the great composer’s 150th birth year. Today doesn’t quite see Rachmaninoff directly…but a piece by a teacher of his.

Sergei Taneyev succeeded Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, teaching harmony and counterpoint. Among his students was a young Sergei Rachmaninoff. Even though Taneyev is better known for being a teacher of some of Russia’s great musicians, his music is still interesting in its own right. Taneyev’s approach was apparently more academic and classically-oriented than, say, a Tchaikovsky or a Rimsky-Korsakov would have liked; but his ideas lived on in the works of many of his students.

This work is a cantata that sets a Russian poem by Alexei Tolstoy (cousin to the more famous Leo Tolstoy). Sometimes called The Russian Requiem, Taneyev’s work marries a muted lyricism with a carefully-considered mode of vocal writing, including a fascinating fugue in the last section. The work was written in 1884, when Rachmaninoff himself was just eleven years old. Nevertheless, I have to assume that Rachmaninoff heard this work at some point in his impressionable youth, and that its influence would be reflected in later works of his like Vespers.


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