Friday, November 06, 2009

Cui the Cuitic

“If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a programme symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff's, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.”

When I heard the recording of the performance we gave the other night of Cui's violin sonata, I instantly realized that the first and last movements of the piece were not worth forcing my family or my closest friends to listen to. The second movement, however, being an imitation of Tchaikovsky, is really quite nice.

Anyway, had I known that Cui was such a nasty "Cuitic," I would have thought twice before putting so much effort into playing his sonata. Perhaps I was wrong to put so much stock in Cui (hoping that by working on his piece diligently enough I could make it worthwhile), but I certainly know that Cui was wrong about Rachmaninoff.


Anonymous said...

One of the fascinating things about known "names" of composers is that i does not always correspond to the quality of work. A somtimes more obscure composer might well write the better work, and the value of names would obscure that.

As to Cui, I'd sung some of his choral work in university and thought I would rather be "somewhere else." But not the Hell he imagined, unhappy man that he must have been.

Elaine Fine said...

He was living in a time and place where he was surrounded by truly forward-looking musicians who had serious talent (consider the other "four" and the younger Russians like Glazunov, Prokofieff, and, of course, Rachmaninoff).

Sometimes the great is the enemy of the good (or in the case of Cui, the competent), but this lashing out at Rachmaninoff in print, and sending him into a depression because of it, is something I find truly disturbing.

Luckily with composers the proof is in the pudding. There are excellent composers who have fallen into obscurity (for whatever reasons), but their music still stands on its own, and people who have access to it still respond to it, both as performing musicians and as listeners.

Cui was a social member of an elite class of Russian musicians in his time. I think, in retrospect, that he was the least talented of the "five," and, clearly, from this review of Rachmaninoff's Symphony, he had a problem with younger people who actually had a great deal of talent.

I also imagine that he was a very unhappy man.