1861 — 1906
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The late 19th-century Russian composer Anton Arensky was also a pianist, conductor and teacher. He is best known for his chamber music and lyrical songs and as the composition teacher of composers such asRachmaninov, Glière and Scriabin. Though he was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky’s music bears much more resemblance to Tchaikovsky and Chopin.
Arensky was born in the summer of 1861 in Novgorod, Russia to two enthusiastic amateur musicians. His father was a doctor by profession, but also an active cellist and his mother a wonderful pianist. They gave young Anton his first music lessons, leading him to compose his first songs and piano pieces by the age of nine.
The Arensky family moved to St Petersburg, allowing Anton to study piano privately with Zikke before entering the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1879. At the conservatory, Anton Arensky studied composition withNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov <> and counterpoint and fugue with Johannsen. During his three years at the conservatory, Arensky earned consistently high marks, eventually winning the gold medal in 1882 upon his graduation. While still a student, Arensky was entrusted with the preparation of the vocal score to Rimsky-Korsakov’sThe Snow Maiden, displaying Rimsky-Korsakov’s confidence in his student.
After finishing his studies, Arensky was promptly appointed professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory, becoming one of the youngest professors to ever teach there. While in Moscow, Arensky became closely acquainted withTaneyev and Tchaikovsky, who would have much more influence on Arensky than Rimsky-Korsakov did. Tchaikovsky often encouraged Arensky and gave him advice. Among his students in Moscow were Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Glière.
In addition to his teaching duties, Arensky directed the concerts of the Russian Choral Society from 1888 to 1895 and conducted symphony concerts. He was appointed as a member of the council of the Synodal School of Church Music in Moscow in 1889, remaining until 1893.
Arensky’s greatest success as a composer was with his first opera Son na Volge (‘A Dream on the Volga’, 1891), which he had been working on since his student years under the guidance of Rimsky-Korsakov. The opera is based on a play by Ostrovsky, the same one used by Tchaikovsky in his operaVoyevoda.
On Balakirev’s recommendation in 1894, Arensky was to become his successor as the director of the imperial chapel in St Petersburg. Arensky accepted the position and moved to St Petersburg in 1895 after resigning from the Moscow Conservatory. It was during this period that he composed his second opera, Rafaėl′(‘Raphael’, 1894), for the First Congress of Russian Artists. Unfortunately, this opera was an immediate failure.
After leaving the imperial chapel in 1901 with a pension, Arensky devoted the remainder of his life to composition and performing as a pianist and conductor, successfully touring throughout Russia and abroad. Within just a few short years, Arensky’s, alcohol and gambling addictions caught up to him and his health took drastic turn for the worse. Rimsky-Korsakov described Arensky’s life as having become increasingly disordered in these final years before contracting tuberculosis and dying in February 1906 in what is now known as Zelenogorsk, Russia.
With the exception of his Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky (based on Legend ) for string orchestra, Arensky’s works are relatively unknown today, which is quite unfortunate as his short works for piano and lyrical songs are very enjoyable. The songs, in particular, seem to have had much influence on Rachmaninov’s Russian songs. Among his chamber works, the Piano Trio in D minor and the String Quartet in A minor are the most impressive.
Arensky’s largest works come from his Moscow years and include the Piano Concert (1882) and both of his symphonies (B minor, 1883; A minor, 1889). His style at this time was quite ambiguous and indecisive, patching together stylistic influences from various composers, especially Chopin and Tchaikovsky.
The Piano Concerto’s first two movements are clearly influenced by Chopin, though the third movement is quite ordinary and possessed a generalized Russian sound. His interest in unusual rhythmic metres is already present in this concerto, which features many five-beat bars. It is interesting to note that though Arensky greatly admired Tchaikovsky, he was not persuaded to abandon these odd metres despite Tchaikovsky’s disapproval.
It is Arensky’s Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor that best represents his large-scale works today. Explicit evidence of Mendelssohn’s influence can be heard including references to his own Piano Trio in D minor. The trio was composed in memory of cellist Davïdov, and an elegiac third movement is used to remember him. This elegiac stylistic feature appears often in Arensky’s music.
Arensky composed more than 100 works for piano, many of them miniatures. While his largest work for piano is the Piano Concerto, his most adventurous work for the instrument is certainly his set of pieces entitlesEssais sur les rythmes oubliésop. 28, which explores many of the odd metres encountered in archaic poetry. While the result is not spectacular, it is certainly interesting. His only piano work that still maintains a solid place in the modern repertory is the waltz from the first of his four suites for two pianos.
Rimsky-Korsakov once predicated that Arensky would be “soon forgotten”, though his legacy certainly lives on in his own miniatures and songs and in the music of a number of great Russian composers.