Last week I mentioned the “Big Five” of Russian classical music in the Romantic era: the five composers who dominated musical culture in Russia in the latter half of the 19th century, with their influence and their desire to shape a Russian nationalistic school of composition not indebted to the Western European musical traditions. Four of those composers are well-known to this day, but the fifth, Cesar Cui, is not nearly so well known. Part of this is because he didn’t write much in the large orchestral forms of the day. He was not a symphonist, nor did he write concertos or large-scale orchestral works. Just to find a “tone poem” by him we have to turn to his operas, for one of the overtures. Cui’s output was more strongly oriented to works for smaller ensembles, and to art songs and other vocal works.
Cui’s influence was more as a critic and a writer, and as such he was able to position himself to wield considerable influence in shaping Russian musical life. His biggest impact on Sergei Rachmaninoff would come via a review he penned of the young composer’s Symphony No. 1…but we’ll get to that next month.
Cui left behind a very large body of work, and even though we don’t much hear Cui these days, that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to be heard. Here is the overture to The Mandarin’s Son, one of his operas. The opera is a comic opera, so the overture is likewise jaunty and cheerful–hardly what one might expect from a Russian Romantic.
Our focus on Rachmaninoff himself begins Saturday.