Anton Arensky (1861-1906)
Suite No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7 (1885) Suite No. 2('Silhouettes'), Op. 23 (1892)
Suite No. 3 ('Variations in C major'), Op. 33 (1894)
Anton Stepanovich Arensky was one of the most lyricallygifted Russian composers of the nineteenth century. Today he is best rememberedfor his wonderful Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32 and the delightful Waltzfrom the two-piano suite, Opus 15. He also left his mark as professor ofharmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory. Among his students wereAlexander Scriabin, Sergey Rachmaninov and Reinhold Gliere.
Anton Arensky was born in 1861 in Novgorod. His father, adoctor, was a good amateur cellist, and his mother an excellent pianist whogave him his first music lessons. By the age of nine, he had already composedsome songs and piano pieces. When his family moved to St Petersburg his musicalopportunities expanded. Arensky attended the St Petersburg Conservatory. Hestudied with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and graduated with highest honours and thegold medal in 1882. Rimsky-Korsakov thought very highly of his gifted pupil andentrusted him with the preparation of the piano-vocal score of his opera TheSnowmaiden. In 1882 Arensky was appointed professor at the Moscow Conservatorywhere he came in contact with Tchaikovsky and Taneyev. For many years Arenskywas conductor of the Russian Choral Society and during the last years of hislife he travelled widely conducting and playing the piano. He died oftuberculosis in Finland in 1906.
Arensky composed three operas. He also wrote two pianotrios, two string quartets and a piano quintet. Among some of his bestcompositions are his choral works, piano pieces and songs. He wrote a violinconcerto, a piano concerto, the world famous Variations on a Theme ofTchaikovsky, Op. 35a, and two symphonies. According to the musicologist andcomposer Boris Asafyev: \Arensky succeeded in grasping everything that wasexpressively valuable in the chamber and solo pianism of Tchaikovsky and theEuropean romantics in developing a new intimate-lyrical style which containedthe prerequisites of the pianism of Rachmaninov, Medtner and, of course, earlyScriabin".
Arensky composed his Suite No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7, in 1885.The suite is cast in five distinct movements. The first movement, Variationssur un th?¿me russe, is the longest section of the suite. The theme, the Russianfolk-song Venichkom vzmakhnyot ('Having waved with a broom', sometimestranslated as 'She flips the besom'), is taken from a collection compiled in1875-6 by his teacher, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Arensky put the melody througha series of variations, eventually turning the theme into a fugue at the end.The second movement, Air de danse, is a refined waltz in 5/4 metre with aflirtatious theme and whimsical accentuation. The Scherzo which follows is fullof unexpected timbre contrasts. Its impetuous drive is interrupted twice bylyrical moments. The character of this third movement is very 'Russian',reminding one of similar movements from Borodin's symphonies. Russian epictraditions seem to loom over the fourth movement, simply entitled Bassoostinato. The invariable figure consisting of six crotchets treads heavilythroughout the entire piece (in the 5/4 metre the bar line 'cuts it off' at adifferent note every time). The dense orchestral sonorities give this piece atypically Russian bogatyr character. The fourth movement became so popular thatit was published separately from the suite as a piano piece in numerousinternational anthologies. In a letter to Sergey Taneyev, the famous pianist,Alexander Ziloti stated that "Arensky had become a well-known composer inEngland only through his Basso ostinato". The suite ends with a sonorous andceremonial Marche.
Suite No. 2,Op. 23, ('Silhouettes') was composed as a suite for two pianos by Arensky in1892, when the composer was at the apex of his creativity. His opera Son naVolge (A Dream on the Volga) had just been given its first performance at theBolshoy Theatre and he had just completed his Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.54. As piano-duet music this suite became one of Arensky's most popular works.The novelist Leo Tolstoy liked the Silhouettes very much. In a letter to afriend, Sergey Taneyev wrote: "Two days ago Alexander Goldenweiser and I playedthe Silhouettes by Anton Arensky on two pianos in my home. Everybody presentliked the work very much and it even reconciled Leo Tolstoy with the new music.He liked The Dancer (the last item of the Suite) most of all and mentioned thisa number of times". In its artistic concept, Arensky's Suite No. 2 resemblesRobert Schumann's Carnaval, Op. 9. As a superb pianist, Arensky was not unawareof Schumann's earlier piano work. He taught it to his students and in 1902 wasto collaborate with ten other Russian composers in orchestrating Schumann'sCarnaval for full orchestra. The musical portraits in Arensky's Silhouettes,like the celebrated carnival masks of Schumann, call to life a motleykaleidoscope of images, moods, colour contrasts, and witty characterizations.Like the first suite Silhouettes is made up of five movements. The suite openswith Le Savant (The Scholar). Arensky's notion of a scholar is an old man,sitting alone, bent over a vast heap of very large volumes. Being of theopinion that the archaic speech of old masters is especially apt here, Arenskycreates a piece based on polyphonic movement of voices mixed together withcharacteristic sonorities in imitation of musical models of the seventeenth andeighteenth centuries. La Coquette (The Coquette) is a musical representation ofthe coyness of a coquette in a delicate waltz. According to Arensky'sbiographer, Gennady Tsipin, "For an affected creature, who chatters with heradmirers about delightful trivialities, the waltz is really the best form, thebest creative solution". Polichinelle (The Buffoon) is a musical portrait ofPulcinella, the girl-chasing bachelor of the commedia dell'arte. This is avivacious and expansive piece, abounding in keen timbre contrasts. Impetuousfigurations, embellished with piquant chromatic sparklets, colour this musicwith an air of mystery. Le R?¬veur (The Dreamer) provides the suite with a muchneeded emotional contrast. The measured motion of crotchets and the tranquilmelody of this piece create a musical portrait of a person lost in languidmeditation. Silhouettes ends with a vivacious dance. La Danseuse (The Dancer)is written in the conventional rhythmic pattern of a Spanish dance. The melodicpattern here (triplets, grace-notes and specific accentuation) is alsocharacteristic of Iberian folk-music. Arensky creates a brilliant and colourfulstylization of what nineteenth-century Russians imagined to be Spanish dancemusic. This final dance crowns the entire set.
Suite No. 3 ('Variations in C major'), Op. 33, also beganlife as a suite for two pianos, four hands. Published in 1894, it is not somuch a suite as an eclectic set of nine variations on a short vivid theme. TheTheme (Andante) is introduced in the strings in Romantic choral style. In theDialogue, the first variation, which follows, the woodwind joins in, takingpossession of the theme, playing it in fragments which are answered by gracefulresponses of the strings, and eventually of the whole orchestra. The secondvariation, Valse, is an elegant and charming Russian waltz. The third is abombastic Marche triomphale. In the fourth variation, Menuet XVIII?¿me si?¿cle(Minuet from the Eighteeenth Century) and the fifth, Gavotte, Arensky evokesBaroque and Classical styles, complete with ornaments. The sixth, Scherzo, is avivacious and capricious scherzo followed by the sombre and ominous seventh,Marche fun?¿bre (Funeral March). In the eighth variation, Nocturne,