César Cui

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César Cui (1835-1918)

Russian composer, critic, and military engineer of French and Lithuanian descent (b. 6/18 January 1835 in Vilnius; d. 13/26 March 1918 in Petrograd), born Tsezar Antonovich Kyui (Цезарь Антонович Кюи).

The son of a French father, who had remained in Russian territory after the defeat of Napoleon's Grande Armée in 1812 and settled in Vilnius, and a Lithuanian mother, young César was sent to Saint Petersburg in 1850, to study at the Chief Engineering School. After graduating he began his military career in 1857 as a fortifications instructor at the Nikolayevsky Engineering Academy, becoming a professor in 1880 and eventually being promoted to the rank of general in 1906. Cui was the author of a number of textbooks on military fortifications, based on his direct experience of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, which were widely used and went into several editions.

Cui had shown an interest in music at a very early age, and before he was sent to Saint Petersburg in 1850 he had even had some lessons in music theory with the Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko. In 1856, whilst still a student, he met Mily Balakirev, who encouraged his musical talent and helped him with the orchestration of his first two operas. In 1864, he started contributing music review articles for the Saint Petersburg Register (Санкт-Петербургские ведомости), which he would sign with a cryptogram consisting of three asterisks (***). With his distinctively sarcastic style, however, his authorship did not remain a secret for long, and Cui achieved a certain notoriety for his dismissive comments on great composers of the past such as Bach and Mozart, as well as his attacks on the Conservatory teaching introduced into Russia by Anton Rubinstein. The novelist Ivan Turgenev once said in a private letter that Cui's "empty head ought to be smashed in with a dirty brick" for his "sacrilegious words" about Mozart [1].

Tchaikovsky and Cui

Tchaikovsky, too, was often dismayed by Cui's irreverent articles, and there was some ill-feeling between the two men, compounded by an open polemic in the press in 1873 after Tchaikovsky ironically insinuated that Cui had plagiarized one of his articles (see TH 265). The following year, Cui criticized Tchaikovsky's opera The Oprichnik very harshly, and he also wrote condescendingly of the Piano Concerto No. 1, after its first performance in Russia in 1875: "it has a lot of nice and agreeable things, but depth and power it has none whatsoever" [2]. Cui, whom Tchaikovsky probably first met in Balakirev's flat in Saint Petersburg in 1868, did praise a few works by the younger composer, notably the Manfred symphony (1885), but otherwise maintained a very hostile attitude towards him. Writing to Nadezhda von Meck from Frolovskoye on 26 December 1888/7 January 1889 (letter 3478), Tchaikovsky observed that whilst he felt great sympathy and respect for Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov, and Glazunov as representatives of the "new Russian school of music", Cui would always be "profoundly loathsome" to him.

As a critic (he wrote regular articles until 1900), Cui was the chief spokesman, alongside Vladimir Stasov, of the "Mighty Handful" (or "The Five"). But he also belonged to this group as a composer, and his first (and greatest) success in this respect was the opera William Ratcliffe (based on a Romantic tragedy by Heine), which took him several years to complete and was finally premièred at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg on 14/26 February 1869. This opera, whose musical diction was close to that of Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky (one of the idols of the "Mighty Handful"), did not go down well with the public and most critics, but it was thought highly of by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky (who mentioned it in TH 284).

Later operas by Cui include Angelo (based on Victor Hugo's drama and premièred in Saint Petersburg in 1876), Le filibustier (premièred in Paris in 1894), A Feast in Time of Plague (based on one of Pushkin's Little Tragedies and premièred in Moscow in 1901), and The Captain's Daughter (Saint Petersburg, 1911), a full-length setting of Pushkin's historical novel. Cui also composed many songs, a number of children's operas, and several works of chamber music, but his style was seen as too eclectic and (curiously, for someone who was so nationalistic in his articles!) as not sufficiently Russian in flavour, especially when compared to his fellow-composers in the "Mighty Handful". Very few of his works have actually survived in the repertoire. Cui also wrote an interesting, albeit partisan account in French of the development of music in Russia: La musique en Russie (Paris, 1880), a book which he dedicated to Liszt, another great idol of the "Mighty Handful".

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Notes and References

  1. Letter from Ivan Turgenev to Varvara Kartashevskaya, 16/28 February 1868. Quoted from И. С. Тургненв: Полное собрание сочинений и писем (Leningrad, 1961–68), Письма, том 7, p. 66.
  2. Quoted in Alexander Poznansky, Пётр Чайковский. Биография, том I (2009), p. 348.