Alexander Nikolayevich Tcherepnin

1899 1977

Alexander Nikolayevich Tcherepnin

Composer • Piano


Alexander Tcherepnin was a 20th century Russian composer. He was deeply influenced by the musical life of Paris, though his music follows in the Russian tradition. More specifically, his music fuses different cultures, including his Russian upbringing with his time in Europe, Asia, and the USA. His range of music was comprehensive and full of clarity.

Tcherepnin was born in St Petersburg, Russia in 1899 and received informal training at home, where his family received many well-known visitors such as Lyadov,Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

His mother taught him the basics of music, which predated his knowledge of the alphabet. He also began improvising at the piano though he stated later, “I never dared to touch a piano in the presence of my father for fear of disturbing him.” His interest in composition also developed at a young age, and by the age of 14, he had already composed many pieces for piano, which were later combined to form sonatas and cycles of music. Tcherepnin’s most famous work, theBagetelles Op. 5 (1922) comes from a combination of these early works. Some of his compositions from this time already show his interest in expanded harmony in the form of bitonality and dissonance; he also employed irregular rhythms. His father, who initially disapproved of the idea of Alexander becoming a composer eventually “gave in and even embraced the idea” after he realized how talented his son was.

In 1918, after the Russian Revolution, the family moved to Tbilisi, Georgia, which prompted new ideas for scales and harmonies in his works. The family moved again in 1921, when the communists took over the area. They found themselves in Paris, where Alexander had the opportunity to study piano with Isidore Philipp, who greatly encouraged him and promoted his music, and composition with Paul Vidal.

While in Paris, Tcherepnin was considered among the elite group of composers such asRavel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Honegger, Milhaud and Martinü, in addition to coming to know their music. He also composed many large-scale works while in Paris, including his First Symphony (1927) which is filed with dissonance and contrapuntal lines. It also features much percussion. The work gained him notoriety as it nearly provoked a riot. The police were even summoned to the premiere at the Paris Théâtre du Châtelet as the audience was outraged by the Scherzo which used unpitched percussion and featured the use of the wooden side of the bow tapping against the string instruments, to create a wooden drum sound. This was cited by Nicolas Slonimsky as “the earliest known example of an integral percussive movement in a symphony.” He used also employed the use of pure rhythm is his orchestral workMagna Mater (1926-7) and the piano pieceMessage (1926).

During the German occupation of Paris in World War II he continued to make arrangements of pieces. Later, in 1948, he moved to Chicago to teach composition, analysis and music history at DePaul University. The following year his family joined him in Chicago. It was there that he composed the Second Symphony (1946-51) which was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik in 1951. The work expresses the pain of the war and successfully synthesizes all of his earlier styles. He also wrote many other significant orchestral pieces including theDivertimento (1955-7), the Fourth Symphony (1956-7) and theSymphonic Prayer (1959). The ending of the Fourth Symphony, based on a Russian chant for the dead, is especially noteworthy and moving.

Some of his later works in Chicago include his Piano Concerto No. 5 (1963) and the Serenade for Strings (1964) which explore new directions in style.

After becoming a citizen of the United States in 1958, Tcherepnin retired from DePaul and moved to New York in 1964. In New York he turned his focus from teaching to composing, conducting and performing as a pianist.

In 1967 he was invited by the Soviet government to perform a concert tour throughout Russia, allowing him the opportunity to revisit places from his childhood.

Tcherepnin died in Paris in 1977 from a heart attack. He left two symphonies unfinished at the time of his death, including one for percussion.

In 1962 he wrote a book on his compositional techniques titled Basic Elements of My Musical Language (1962), but the book has never been published. In the book he explains that some of his harmonies are the result of a 9-step scale comprised of both major and minor hexachords, as introduced in hisSonatine romantiquefor piano (1918). Another scale he uses is the 8-step scale which is formed from the Greek chromatic tetrachord. This is found often in his later works such as the Piano Sonata No. 2 (1961). Used together with the major and minor pentatonic scales, Russian liturgical modality and Gregorian harmonies, a new and unique tonality is formed. Tcherepnin’s music is also filled with the his own technique of Interpoint, the “interpenetration of melodic lines in the manner of medieval hocket”. This element is found in abundance in the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1931-2). Though he considered himself a ‘Eurasian’ composer, Tcherepnin’s style of composition belonged to the Russian tradition.

Header image courtesy of Toccata Classics Other images courtesy of Pst Daily and Toccata Classics

In 1925 he won the Schott prize, furthering his career, with his Concerto da camerafor violin, flute and chamber orchestra (1924). He also wrote several ballets and operas during this period such as01-01 (1924-30) and Die Hochzeit der Sobeide(1930), which is based on a story by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Much of his music around this time has many primitive and expressionistic qualities, shown best in works such as theMagna Mater for orchestra (1926-7) and Message for solo piano (1926). Eastern influences are noticeable in his music after from the late 1930s, after travels to the East and China. Between 1934 and 1938, Tcherepnin lived primarily in China and Japan and studied Chinese classical music, resulting in an interest in pentatonic colors, as seen in his educationalTechnical Studies on the Pentatonic Scale (1936). During this time he also composed theCinq études de concert (1934-6) and the colourful Hommage à la Chine.

After marrying pianist Lee Hsien Ming in 1938, they moved to Paris. It was there that Tcherepnin completed hisAnthology of Russian Music (1938) and wrote a series of works for solo instruments, including theSonatine sportive (1939) for solo saxophone and piano.