Rethinking Russian Music

Rethinking Russian Music

When you think of Russian music you might instantly think of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev or the Mighty Five, but there's a name that hardly ever springs to mind: Anton Arensky. While he seems to be a lesser known composer in the grand scheme of Russian music, his own style (dubbed by his counterparts as unoriginal) might actually be the closest to sounding Russian, making him an interesting character in music history. 

When Arensky was  active as a musician, there were two schools of thought regarding Russian Music. The Moscow School thought that Russian music should be more akin to the Romantic tradition that was flourishing throughout Europe. Tchaikovsky's music, for example, fits this description. On the other hand,  Mighty Handful (The Five) felt that Russian music should represent the nation through a Nationalistic approach by incorporating folk melodies into the classical music of Russia, giving it a distinct sound palette. 

Arensky stands out from both of the schools and by taking elements distinct to each he demonstrated that Russian music could be both Russian and as Cosmopolitan as the music that was being composed around Europe.  As Rimsky-Korsakov said, “In his youth Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later the influence came from Tchaikovsky. He will quickly be forgotten.”  

Arensky's musical abilities are most highlighted through his chamber music, particularly his Piano Trio No.1 in D Minor (which is be being performed in our next concert, Ravel Impressions).  While this trio doesn't seem to have a distinct personal voice that you could immediately identity, it does contain qualities of richness and subtlety which demonstrate the mark of a true craftsman. Filled with Lisztian virtuosity. Musically, Arensky seems to be a bridge who connects the music of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff (who Arensky was the teacher of the latter). Arensky wrote a theme and variations based on a theme of Tchaikovsky and it is filled with lush harmonies and delicate melodic ideas that come from the pen of a true Romantic.  


Recently, there has been a re-thinking of the sounds of Russian music and Aresnky's music is beginning to be examined for its unique qualities, rather than being cast aside as somewhat derivative and unoriginal for its time. For instance, take the Waltz from Arensky's Suite for Two Pianos, Op.23 No.2, which captures the imagination and purity of a miniaturist composer, there is at once both the European 'sound' with tinges of the Russian 'sound', and depending on how you hear this, a balance is struck between the two. 



Little is known about Arensky's personal character, yet some have indicated that he was an alcoholic and not very functional. Whatever the case of his personal attributes, his music presents a unique portrait of Russian music that is often overlooked by the two distinct musical styles that emerged from Russia as a result of the polar opposite thinking from the Moscow School and the Mighty Five. Arensky was also a teacher and had much influence on those he taught, including Scriabin, and this put him in a position to influence emerging composers through his composition classes. 

There's also an interesting argument to made in looking at Arensky's music through his influence of the Orthodox Church as a the director of a choir. Through this influence Arensky was able to take age-old traditions, mix them with new ones and foreshadow the changing style that was to come. Even though his music seemed of the 'older style' as Tchaikovsky once told him to spice up and use 'new' rhythms, it is within the looking back to older forms that Arensky asserts his charm. 

For instance, his Piano Trio No.1 in D Minor offers audiences and musicians the opportunity to hear what is perhaps a more accurate picture of someone who took the best of both worlds and forged a more accurate picture of Russian music's distinct sound world. Within this one piano trio we can hear the sound world that Aresnky occupied and get a glimpse of his musical thinking, particularly in the contrasting movements that shift between energetic and introspective. 

By Samuel Cottell

Omega  Ensemble conclude their 2017 program with a series of delightful miniatures that represent the best of chamber music. There's Mozart's charming and delightful Kegelstatt Trio, Ravel's buoyant and bluesy String Quartet as well as Gabriel Faure's second last work in a version for clarinet, piano, and cello (the original combination that the composer intended to have for this work).

Don't forget you can also explore our 2018 season which is packed with intriguing music and experiences.