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Music from the Silver Age – NIKOLAY and ALEXANDER CHEREPNIN

by Gregor Tassie

Forgotten in their homeland, the Cherepnin family proudly assumed the mantle of guardians of the rich, melodious stream in Russian nationalist music, preserving the bond with folk music and carrying on that unique tradition into the 20th century. Father and son characterized a long-lost epoch of Imperial majesty and great art.

Nikolay Nikolayevich Cherepnin was born in May 1873 the son of a village doctor at Izborsk near Pskov. The aristocratic family were poor yet could claim an affluent connection; a distant relative Friedrich Kinde wrote the libretto for Weber’s Der Freischütz. On his mother’s side of the family was the French artist Albert Benois whose brother Alexander collaborated with Diaghilev’s Saisons Russes. One other relation was Cavos who conducted Glinka’s The Life of a Tsar in 1842 and another were the Ustinovs whose offspring Peter became a famous actor. Nikolay’s mother died within a year of his birth and the family moved to St Petersburg where his father’s love of art gave him entrée to the salons of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Serov and Modest Mussorgsky. The little Nikolay’s musical education began with his aunt Olympia teaching him piano and was further advanced at the No. 6 Gymnasium where a choir and orchestra was run by the Mariinsky’s Bohemian conductors Voyacek and Zike.

It was Zike who strongly influenced Cherepnin’s leaning towards Wagner and Liszt and whose ‘precise, disciplined ‘kapellmeister’ style unlocked the beauties of Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and St Elizabeth’. The 1889 visit of Karl Muck’s company performing the Ring cycle had a great and lasting effect. Nikolay Yelachich, a cousin of Igor Stravinsky, was a fellow student and it was at the Stravinskys’ flat that Cherepnin became acquainted with the music of Rimsky-Korsakov. Music was his earliest love but his father intended him for a career in law and in 1891, Nikolay Cherepnin entered the law faculty at the University. Nevertheless, music retained its power and he entered the Conservatoire two years later studying piano with Professor Fan-Arkh with whom Anna Esipova and Lev Shteinberg studied.

Cherepnin quickly grasped that his rightful passion was composition not the piano and, ‘after much hesitation and worry, I decided to audition before Rimsky-Korsakov taking my compositions to him. ... Nikolay Andreyevich listened with great attention, discussing musical ideas and agreed to accept me into his class.’ This was a decisive moment as the great Russian composer continued to follow the aspiring composer with curiosity: ‘He is both capable and diligent; works quickly and well. He grasps the subject and I think that he has a true compositional talent. ... I predict a composer’s gift – there is very significant progress.’ A further influence upon Cherepnin were the concerts under the direction of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazounov. There he heard the young Rachmaninov’s Aleko. Together with friends such as Spendiarov and Davydov, Cherepnin often performed at the Academy of Arts. It was there that he made his debut conducting Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings with the orchestra of the Mariinsky. This was quickly followed by his direction of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Weber’s Der Freischütz.

It was at the Academy that Cherepnin became acquainted with the distinguished Benois family and with his future wife, Mariya, daughter of Albert Benois. The family dacha in Oranienbaum was next-door to Cesar Cui’s country-home. It was through Cui’s contacts that he met Balakirev. ‘Cesar Antonovich often sang arias from William Ratcliffe to us and we played together with Lidiya Cui excerpts from Angelo and dances from The Caucasian Prisoner.’ Balakirev welcomed the young composer’s first major piece Princess of Tears at its first hearing at the Kursaal in Oranienbaum in 1896. Following this early triumph the foremost publisher Belyaev invited Cherepnin to send him his compositions.

In 1898, Nikolay Cherepnin completed his conservatoire studies, offering his cantata Sardanapal (based on a text by Byron) as his graduation piece. Sergey Tanayev was the judge. He praised Cherepnin conferring on him the honour of ‘free artist’. Cherepnin returned the honour by conducting Taneyev’s Apollon and Delphia from the opera Orestiya. Through his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov and the Belayev publishing house there now opened up before the young musician a wealth of good fortune, enjoying friendships with Lyadov, Glazounov, Vitols, Stassov, Scriabin and the Blumenfelds. He often performed at the famed Friday musical soirées. Already in his armoury were two symphonies, a string quartet, a sextet, two choruses and numerous romances. His well orchestrated pieces bear the distinct influences of Rimsky, Lyadov and Wagner yet announce a discrete individuality all within the framework of the fairy-tale expression and colour of the nationalist school.

Cherepnin’s First Symphony was performed under Rimsky-Korsakov’s direction in February 1899: ‘a wonderful talent and it promises much. The Scherzo and Andante are a trite ineffectual ... but the 1st and 4th movements are simply exquisite. Put side by side with the latest Lyadov and Glazounov, these are magnificent.’ In his romances Cherepnin was drawn to the poets of the Silver Age: Balmont, Fofanov, Alexey Tolstoy, Tyutchev; their lyricism and beautiful imagery of nature and mood. The most significant early work was the orchestral prelude Princess of Tears op. 4 based on the lyric drama by Rostand. This follows the ancient tale of the troubadour ‘Geoffrey and the maiden Melissande’ (DG 447084-2). Here he uses a lyrical wealth of colour and ecstatic melody in a picturesque and harmonic style of musical impressionism.

The following decade represented the acme of Cherepnin’s career as composer, pianist, conductor and teacher laying down his identifiable and unambiguous standing. While embracing the nationalist school, Cherepnin also bore fresh influences derived from the artistic values of the symbolists and impressionists. New pieces in Zuliki and Almanzor, Macbeth and Dramatic Fantasy espoused a programmatic approach. However it was the romances that earned the composer a special place in Russian music. Their colourful impressionism and vivid pictorial qualities made an idyllic complement to the lyricism and character of the verse. The musical poems, the Leaves are Falling, Snowflakes, The Light has Extinquished, and his most wonderful Last Love all evince a fascination and relationship with the voice that epitomises the Silver Age of Russian song.

Cherepnin’s conducting career followed upon study with Anton Arensky who enlisted his protégé as head of the orchestral class at the Capella in 1898. Following direction of several seasons of the Russian Music Society, Cherepnin studied with Sergey Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov wrote: ‘You have undoubted gifts as a conductor. You lack only theatrical experience.’ His eminence developed to a point where Nikolay Cherepnin was conducting premieres of works by Lyadov, Gliere and Spendiarov. Following the premiere of Vassilenko’s Epic Poem, he was invited to undertake symphonic concerts in Moscow in 1904. Trouble arrived in the following year with the premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kaschey Bessmertny at the Kommisarzhevsky Theatre. This was abandoned following demonstrations against the composer’s sacking from the Conservatoire. Nevertheless Cherepnin was not afraid to defend his mentor by staging other works which were banned by the Tsarist police.

The events of 1905 are reflected in Cherepnin’s one-movement Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Lisztian in style and bearing an influence which would become more prevalent in Scriabin’s works. The piano writing was ‘devilishly difficult ‘ and the work was awarded the Glinka Prize for 1909 (CDM). In 1905 Cherepnin began teaching at the Conservatoire, initially in interpretation and then, within a year, he began teaching opera and orchestral conducting. Cherepnin’s teaching was interrupted by the 1917 Revolution. However in that time he brought up a new generation of distinguished musicians including Asafyev, Gauk, Dranishnikov, Malko, Prokofiev, Shaporin and Yudina. Now under Alexander Glazounov, the Conservatoire possessed its own students’ orchestra which would frequently be conducted by Cherepnin and his apprentices. Cherepnin’s guidance of the Conservatoire orchestra and his introduction of discipline and ensemble uniformity led to a new advanced school of orchestral performance in Russia (the professional orchestras being dominated by Czechs, Italians and German musicians). A mark of the standards attained by the students orchestra was Artur Nikisch’s agreement to work with them. Gauk recalled Cherepnin’s achievement: ‘he was the first to awake one’s facility to originally evaluate music. In his class, one could hear the new French school of Debussy, Ravel, Dukas; to study the scores of the then unfashionable Richard Strauss. In his system, he constantly searched for the novel, unknown works. He was a progressive.’Asafyev wrote that in him there, ‘breathed freshness and calm ... that everyone tried to get into his classes’.

Shaporin said that Cherepnin ‘was always for innovation in composition, in particular fighting for Prokofiev to be heard ...’ Cherepnin said of Prokofiev, his new protégé: ‘believe me - he will conquer a new world.’ The championing of Prokofiev by Cherepnin found its reciprocation in the young musician dedicating to his teacher the First Piano Concerto as well as the Sinfonietta and Scherzo. Prokofiev wrote: ‘He seemed to me such an innovator that one’s head was spinning. ... Once Cherepnin whispered to me – listen to how wonderful the bassoon sounds! Gradually I turned to Haydn and Mozart and my interest in the oboe, played at staccato, and the flute playing at two octaves higher than the bassoon ... It was thus that I developed my ideas for the Classical Symphony.’

In 1906 Cherepnin, by then widely respected as a conductor of opera, was invited by Felix Blumenfeld to become a second conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre. Cherepnin’s first work there was Rubinstein’s Nero given without a single rehearsal. Emotional due to the lack of preparation, Mariya Cherepnin was almost in tears backstage and was only consoled by Rimsky-Korsakov. Nevertheless this debut was a triumph. Premieres awaited amongst which were Rimsky’s Legend of Kitezh in 1907 and at the Paris Opéra Comique in 1908 The Snowmaiden. Other works he restored to the theatre were Cui’s The Caucasian Prisoner and Bizet’s Carmen. The greatest event however was that of Rimsky’s The Golden Cockerel in 1909 (given not at the Mariinsky but at the Conservatoire).

The highlight of this period was Cherepnin’s ballet Le pavillon d’Armide - a contribution for the World of Art group with Alexander Benois and Mikhail Fokine. Some years before, Benois had been influenced by Gautier's work. He conceived a mystical work drawing on the age of Louis XIV; a romantic, magnificent and enigmatic ballet that would mesh the style of French court dance with 19th century ballet. ‘I dreamed of creating something astounding - the rebirth of my beloved traditional ballet.’ Having written the libretto, Benois asked Cherepnin to compose the music. ‘In our circle, Cherepnin was the most promising of young composers and the only important musician in the World of Art.’ Benois found in Cherepnin’s first sketches a Hoffmanesque fantasy describing it as ‘fresh and charming.’ The score was completed in 1903 and was first heard in excerpts performed at the Hall of Nobility under its composer. It quickly attained popularity being given the Glinka Prize for 1906. Ossovsky wrote that it showed: ‘the creation of a new form of symphonic ballet; a fruitful evolutionary progression from those of Delibes, Tchaikovsky and Glazounov. One can express one’s surprise at the novel and unusual technical perfection of the composer.’ It was hoped that it ballet could be staged at the Mariinsky. However despite the theatre having purchased the ballet nothing happened due to the management’s lack of sympathy for the ideals of the World of Art. It was four years before the fate of the ballet was resolved when Fokine took scenes from the work and renamed it for a production entitled The Restored Tapestry achieving great success. It was then that the Mariinsky resolved to invite Fokine to stage the ballet complete yet without Benois which the balletmaster refused to comply with. Still reluctant to have Diaghilev at the Mariinsky, a scandal was let loose when Ksheshinskaya and Gerdt refused to perform. Following some changes it was Anna Pavlova who assumed the leading part of Armida and Nijinsky as the Slave.

Nevertheless, the premiere was part of a double-bill along with a staging of the three-act Swan Lake (it was hoped by the Mariinsky directors that the audience would drift away allowing the premiere to be a failure). Benois himself wrote afterwards: ‘it was a magnificent success ... the theatre was packed .... After each scene, the audience applauded and encored the end the theatre simply was in uproar.’ Diaghilev who managed to get into the theatre embraced Benois shouting, ‘we have to take this abroad.’ (LYS)

It was Diaghilev’s enthusiasm for the ballet that led to Cherepnin being appointed resident composer and conductor for the Saisons Russes. On 19 May 1909 Cherepnin’s ballet was premiered at the Théâtre du Chatelet with Nijinsky, Caralli and Karsavina. Pavlova was contracted to another company nevertheless the production was sensational. Benois wrote: ‘I was personally convinced that something new - a fresh era in French and Western art would begin – and it really happened.’

Following the Paris triumph, Cherepnin’s ballet was staged in Monaco in 1911, in London (during George V's coronation) and in Rome, all to acclaim. Cherepnin was rewarded with a special award for the premiere on French soil in 1909 together with Benois and Fokine. Regardless of the conquest, Benois wished a new ballet to encompass the world of French ballet, however Fokine and Diaghilev preferred a Russian theme to follow upon Le pavillon d’ Armide. From this arose the idea of The Firebird. Cherepnin was overlooked and the first choice fell upon Lyadov who in his turn declined. Diaghilev then offered the ballet to Stravinsky. Meanwhile, unabashed, Cherepnin began writing a ballet based on the ancient folk legend: ‘I was enchanted by the score of Stravinsky’s Firebird, it is the last word in orchestration.’

Returning to Russia after witnessing the premiere of The Firebird in Paris, Cherepnin wrote The Enchanted Kingdom as a symphonic poem premiered in March 1910. It follows the impressionism of Lyadov’s The Enchanted Lake and contains the most delicious charming musical melody. The score is perfectly orchestrated with all the colour of the Mighty Handful yet long-breathed in melody not failing to retain the listener’s attention (DG 447084-2).

The second ballet written for Diaghilev was Narcisse et Echo based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Once again Fokine took charge of the choreography with Nijinsky and Karsavina as principals. The world premiere took place in Monte Carlo in April 1911 with the composer conducting (CHAN 9670). Once again the ballet embraced all the qualities of the Ballets Russes with vibrant colours, exoticism and richness of musical imagery. Once more Cherepnin rose to the challenge producing one of his finest creations. He discarded the pattern of original separate numbers instead writing the piece as a unified symphonic synthesis of briskly transforming episodes portraying the Greek legend . Before its audiences there was unleashed a spectacular fresco of colours and melody embodied by the movement on stage. Benois described the sensation as being mostly due to the composer: ‘we are indebted to Cherepnin who has so identified with his subject in discovering a special musical colour.’ Asafyev christened the ballet an ‘affectionate harmonious elegy to love.’

The Diaghilev ballets apart, Cherepnin worked on a multitude of pieces in a variety of different genres: vocal ballads and romances, based on Balmont, several based on children’s poetry which earned him his third Glinka Prize, another was awarded for Narcisse et Echo. The world of childhood was enshrined in The Russian ABC in Pictures and illustrated by Benois in 1911. Here Cherepnin created a wide palette of musical imagery of which the finest episodes were his Forest, Egypt and Baba Yaga tales. The characterizations evoked the most brilliant Russian orchestral compositions conjuring parallels with Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Lyadov’s Baba Yaga. Asafyev found a ‘range of wonderful, entertaining illustrations in sound with harmonic and rhythmic patterns combining into a magical world of imagery alive in children’s imagination.’

Cherepnin was drawn to the stage hoping to write music for Meyerhold’s theatre and in particular for Byron’s Marino Faliero and Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci. However these ambitions were not to be rewarded. Diaghilev did however commission a third ballet, on this occasion based on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Ill fortune seemed to beset the new project as Fokine disliked the subject matter and Benois had fallen out with the impresario. Cherepnin’s new work was rejected and he resolved to approach the Mariinsky and the Moscow Free Ballet. The Mariinsky found it unacceptable and with the outbreak of war the Moscow company was dissolved. The ballet was only staged in 1956 in Brussels under the title of Fate (OCD). Good fortune smiled again in 1916 from the ballet was performed in St Petersburg as part of Siloti’s concert series. Nevertheless it was not as well received. Asafyev wrote: ‘he didn’t manage to convincingly evoke the dark imagery of Poe’s novella.’ Certainly its programming with Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite made for an unfavourable comparison. The most penetrating criticism was from Timofeyev: ‘Cherepnin is more suited to musical chronicler than that of a musical-psychologist.’ As events revealed, Cherepnin could not adapt to the new bold age - hostage to a world rapidly out of tune with the present. Cherepnin the innovator was now being overtaken by his own students.

As the world gave itself up to the embrace of the Great War, Cherepnin remained true to folk-lore and produced another two ballets Mariya Morevna and The Tale of Tsarevna Ulyba. Despite the Mariinsky planning the latter for production in 1917, this was cancelled as the October Revolution and the ensuing Civil War brought normal artistic life to a halt. The winter of 1917-18 was one of the worst for a century and with chronic food shortages; dogmeat was now being sold on Nevsky Prospekt. For the animal-lover in Cherepnin enough was enough and he resolved to leave by whatever means possible. Cherepnin accepted the position of chief conductor of the Tbilisi Opera and Director of the Conservatoire. He took his family south in July 1918.

Tbilisi occupied a unique position between 1918 and 1921 as capital of the independent republic of Georgia. Here there existed a wealth of artistic freedom in which many émigré Russians revelled. In Tbilisi there were Heinrich Neuhaus, Saradzhev, Zakhari Paliashvili and Samuil Samosud. Georgia enjoyed a wealthy musical tradition. Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Spendiarov, Ippolitov-Ivanov had all lived and worked there. During his sojourn in Georgia, Nikolay began playing with his son Alexander in chamber recitals, among which were vocal recitals with the young Nina Koshetz. Entire cycles of pieces for voice, violin and piano were undertaken during a remarkable period of interregnum. It was there, in 1921, that Cherepnin received an invitation from Anna Pavlova to come to Paris to conduct her ballet company. In July 1921 he and his family departed on the Italian boat ‘Mongibello’ for Istanbul en route for Paris.

Cherepnin’s final work at the Tbilisi Opera was after the occupation of the city by the Red Army. Finding his musicians reluctant to play the ‘correct’ notes, he stormed out upset at the remark that ‘everyone is leaving for Batumi – only the ‘comrades’ staying behind.’ Leave for Batumi was however precisely what the Cherepnins did, booking on a small steamer with their last money. Georgia had one last insult to impart: the confiscation of his letters from Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev together with the treasured programme of his first Ballets Russes production. Waiting for the boat’s departure, Alexander picked up a stray dog on the beach which accompanied them all the way through to the French capital. Met by no-one at Lyonnaise station in Paris, the family found a little hotel nearby and began to find their feet, making ends meet by selling their most recent music to a local publishing house. An object of concern for the Cherepnins was that if the French welcomed the Russians as temporary guests, a quite different reception met the now large Russian émigré community. Yet Cherepnin had no intention of making a permanent home there. He firmly believed that the Bolsheviks would not be granted recognition and that Lenin’s government would fall; a year or two more and Cherepnin foresaw a return to St Petersburg.

Anna Pavlova commissioned from Nikolay a new ballet Dionysus for Covent Garden and he conducted it with excerpts from Le pavillon d’Armide in September 1922. Before the turn of the year, Cherepnin went to Madrid to direct Prince Igor and Boris and heard his own Princess of Tears performed there. The compositions continued to pour forth. There were spirituals and Japanese poems after Balmont. A major task was orchestrating Mussorgsky’s Sorochinsky Fair for the Monte Carlo Opera in 1923. Under Cherepnin’s conducting, the main part was performed by John McCormack. With a more stable income, the family moved to a flat near the Luxembourg Gardens where there was solitude and peace to find new ideas for work. This quiet was frequently broken by his former pupil Prokofiev. Another request from Pavlova saw the ballet The Enchanted Bird again premiered at Covent Garden under the composer’s direction. The work based on folk-lore comprised several excerpts from the forsaken Enchanted Kingdom suite.

In Paris, Nikolay Cherepnin was enlisted to head the Russian Conservatoire where, for no fee, he taught for twenty years and upheld the standards of the Russian system. Cherepnin’s directorship attracted many brilliant teachers: Conius, Leschitskaya, Cherkasskaya and Galamyan. Rachmaninov and Koussevitsky rendered much needed help in funding the institution. The Belayev publishing house in Leipzig continued to issue his new works. In 1924 Albert Coates directed Cherepnin’s Suite in memory of Rimsky-Korsakov in London yet it received negative response from the press and was withdrawn. Fewer and fewer commissions arrived and the publishers became less generous. Against this came the good news that his ballet Le pavillon d’Armide was at long last staged at the former Mariinsky in Leningrad in 1925. In the following season, Vitols invited him to conduct in Latvia. However the continuing exile led to a gradual eclipse in Cherepnin’s imagination. If in the pre-war years his name was exalted with Fokine and Diaghilev, now he was a memory from the past against a new era lit up by the heirs to Rimsky-Korsakov. His friendship with Ravel, Ansermet and Monteux dissolved with only Gabriel Pierné sustaining ties with him. As the years passed, only the strong émigré community wanted to know the old musician. Among musicians this included Vyshnegradsky and the visiting Szymanowski. In 1928, the Glazounov arrived and despite an absence of mutual ground a friendship slowly developed. In 1928 Benois proposed Cherepnin write a ballet for the Grand Opera - Nocturne. Later Gabriel Pierné directed a concert of the Colonne Orchestra wholly of his works including a new piece based on Pushkin’s The Fisherman and the Fish. At the end of the twenties, Cherepnin wrote two operas. One was based on Ostrovsky’s comedy The Matchmaker. This had its first performance in from amateur forces in 1930 and gained the approval of Glazounov and Shalyapin who wept upon hearing it (OCD). Cherepnin wrote another opera Vanka the Keeper based on a fantastic tale by Sologub. During its writing the composer toured the USA for the premiere of his orchestration of Sorochinsky Fair at the Metropolitan under Tullio Serafin. This visit was repeated in 1932 when Koussevitsky invited him to conduct at the Boston Symphony including the Russian ABC in Pictures, The Red Mask suite and Tati-Tati based on themes by Borodin. Other tours included that for the production of his ballets at Belgrade State Theatre in 1933 and conducting for local radio. With the accelerating burden of weakening health and partial deafness this marked his last conducting assignment abroad. The final meeting between Cherepnin and Fokine took place in 1937 in the latter’s project to stage a ballet based on the Golden Cockerel. With the outbreak of war, Cherepnin’s income sharply decreased and the small Georgian community assisted the old man materially. Among the last pieces composed by him was a setting of Georgian Funeral Laments. The premiere of this work marked his last concert in the Pleyel Salle in 1944. In his last years, the composer enjoyed walking to the fruit market and to Russian shop where he could still buy Russian rye-bread and sausage. He would spend his afternoon hours dozing off following lessons. He loved nothing more than to sip some cheap French wine at a neighbouring café and read a Russian newspaper. On 26 July 1945 Cherepnin died of a sudden heart attack and was buried at the Saint-Genève graveyard near Paris with a headstone bearing the image of small Pskov church bells.

Alexander Cherepnin’s childhood was spent in a household where such personalities as Rimsky-Korsakov, Shalyapin, Anna Pavlova and Serge Diaghilev would regularly visit. By the time he presented himself at the Petrograd Conservatoire Alexander had already written several operas, symphonies, sonatas and quartets. He was au fait with Prokofiev and burned with an ambition to make his own mark on the musical stage. His formal education was interrupted by the Revolution and his father became his greatest mentor. Nikolai helped launch his son’s career as soon as they were free of Bolshevik Petrograd. The young Alexander found a new freedom when they arrived in the Caucasus in July 1918. Here he was first among equals at the State Conservatoire and revealed a great enthusiasm to be part of everything around him, attending three or four concerts, he wrote musical criticism and opinion in several different newspapers. His diaries reveal a surprising world of artistic freedom in the Georgia of this period. Thousands of young students and music lovers thirsted for new ideas and thoughts unfolding around them.

Alexander’s own compositions were performed by himself allowing him to gain the necessary confidence in his own gifts. This and musical relationships with singers such as Nina Koshetz and artists from the theatre helped develop his creative maturity. This presented him with the appropriate degree of talent enabling him to further his career in Paris. The capital was the world centre for the arts drawing Europe’s finest young talent: Bartók, Szymanowski, Martinů, Stravinsky, Honegger, Prokofiev. There the French school of Saint-Saëns, D’Indy, Pierné and Ravel prevailed amongst the new wave of Les Six who offered a fresh, unwritten page in world music. There too were gathered Cocteau, Hemingway, Picasso and Chagall. This was the brave new world that Alexander was destined to inhabit.

Alexander associated with a group of young European composers: Alexander Tansman, Bohuslav Martinů and Marcel Mihalovic and to a degree, Arthur Honegger. Whilst holding to different outlooks they shared an outgoing disposition all hailing from Eastern Europe. Upon his arrival in Paris, Alexander was asked to write a ballet for Pavlova’s touring company – the one-act ballet Azhanta Frescos. This was premiered at Covent Garden in September 1922. Azhanta Frescos won such praise that it was launched later in the USA. The London visit marked a solo recital of Cherepnin’s Bagatelles (NEWPORT).

The young émigré’s career flourished with his Concerto da camera for flute, violin and chamber ensemble winning a competition arranged by Schotts Publishers in 1925 (OCD) . Now Cherepnin was realising his unfettered career and fresh tests were opening up in the dynamic, yet tough world of music. A fresh epoch summoned musicians to the lists. Cherepnin absorbed influences yet held to his own course evolving a theory of music based on a nine-tonal system. He made a decisive break from the past yet did not forsake the heritage of Mussorgsky and Prokofiev as his ‘primitive’ roots. A veritable flood of new works issued forth all finding an audience and publishing houses. As an indicator of the brand new crowd in which he was moving, in 1926 Alexander married the American socialite Louise Weeks. The next years would witness the Cherepnins settling in the USA in New Jersey. It was here in this rustic setting that the First Symphony was composed in which he laid out his distinctive ideas. It was this work which established Alexander Cherepnin as a significant composer and of the most important symphonic works of the era. (BISCD) There issued forth a host of pieces in different genres. There was an orchestral piece Magna Mater (BISCD), a new opera Ol-Ol, based on Russian folk-lore, two string quartets, several chamber pieces and another opera based on Hoffmansthal’s Die Hochzeit der Zobeida.

America did not wholly capture Cherepnin’s enthusiasm finding there so many aspects of culture and a way of life not to his liking. For the sophisticated Cherepnin, fresh terrain summoned and he made the crossing from San Francisco to Japan, China, India, Singapore and Palestine. This journey of discovery led to new sound-worlds and an imagery which captured his imagination finding its natural outlet in his music. The supreme influence upon Cherepnin was from China. There existed a small Russian colony in Peking and Shanghai boasting Professor Zakharov – an old acquaintance from St Petersburg. Cherepnin was chiefly fascinated by Chinese folk-lore performed on traditional classical instruments. In China Cherepnin met his second wife – Ming - and she became his most loyal supporter.

Returning to America, Cherepnin found a teaching appointment at DePaul’s in Chicago. Commissions continued to arrive together with concert engagements from Paul Sacher in Switzerland. Many of his concerts and lectures were under the auspices of the ISCM. His internationalism allowed his talks to be given in four different languages and these would be presented one week in Chicago, then in Nice, Salzburg or Paris. In later years he found a home on the banks of the Thames at Marlow. Whilst in Switzerland he would stay with Margrit Weber, for whom he wrote the Sixth Piano Concerto (OCD and DG). Radio broadcasting became a frequent event for Cherepnin. In the late sixties he received a BBC commission to write a piece based on Tolstoy’s Tale of Ivan the Fool. The role of Ivan was given to Cherepnin’s cousin Sir Peter Ustinov. The new piece used electronic music composed by Cherepnin’s son Sergey. It was a fine and fitting programme which went out on Christmas Eve on Radio Three.

In the improving relations between East and West, it became possible for correspondence to be restored with friends in Russia. His roots were as ever close to him. Charles Munch was asked on a visit to Leningrad to bring a sample of Russian earth back to him. Munch picked soil from the Cherepnins’ former flat on Glinka Street and from the Nikolsky Church where his family had worshipped. Following Stravinsky’s visit in 1962, it became an ambition to return home and this he managed to bring to fulfilment in 1967 under the auspices of the Union of Composers. Despite embracing many cultures through fifty years and attaining an audience world-wide, Cherepnin always remained true to his roots. Alexander Cherepnin, nevertheless represented Exiled Russia and was hence forever subject to diverse cultures: French, Georgian, American and Chinese. He always claimed to have sought his own way of development, deriving colour from contrasting traditions yet always finding something common with his Slavic roots.

In 1928, Cherepnin visited the Baltic and there wandered through the countryside, meeting Russian peasants in the villages. At Pechora on the border, Cherepnin could gaze across the Great Lake of Pskov and perceive in the far distance the white-domed churches and homes in Pskov. Here it was only 300 kilometres from St Petersburg! Back in Chicago Cherepnin acquired a Russian typewriter but with the new slavonic script. He returned it to the shop asking them to restore the old pre-1917 letters! How proud he was just to be able to type out the words in ancient Slavonic: Nest, Star, Peace, Jesus, Man, Russia. ‘I never thought how full of dear joy these letters would prove to be to me.’

Among Cherepnin’s finest stage works was the ballet Trepak, based on folk-lore. The work is utterly nostalgic and suffused with melancholia for distant Russia. A foremost undertaking was his completion of Mussorgsky’s The Wedding, although Ippolitov-Ivanov had already finished the opera some ten years before. Cherepnin’s Wedding was heard first in Shanghai and broadcast on Radio Berne years later. Cherepnin frequently conducted rare works by Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers whose repertoire was lesser-known to Western audiences. Recording was important in his mission, accompanying Boris Christoff in songs by Mussorgsky (EMI CD). It was the symphonic idiom which he believed to be his metier; each opus being a further development of his vision.

In 1947 the Second Symphony looked back to his earlier inspirations. Another orchestral canvas emerged in the shape of the Divertimento of 1957 (OCD). The Third Symphony was conducted by Rafael Kubelik at the Chicago Symphony in 1952. Charles Munch premiered the Fourth with the Boston Symphony and this received a Glinka Prize and remains his most prevalent piece. His Fourth is also the most Russian - bearing the traditions of Lyadov, Glazounov and Rachmaninov and marrying the styles of Moscow and Petersburg schools. (BISCD)

There are three operas, fifteen ballets, six piano concertos and a huge number of chamber and piano pieces. The evolution of the nine-tone mode was the single greatest advance made by Cherepnin, It is a system used in his First Symphony although it was first apparent in works dating as far back as 1918. This and the theory of counterpoint together with his musical enlightenment in the Far East placed Alexander Cherepnin among the leading musicians of the 20th century. Whilst his music has not proved as fashionable and memorable as that of his compatriots, his heritage is of great consequence.

Following his death in 1977, the family’s musical journey was extended through two sons, Ivan and Sergey. Born in occupied Paris, Ivan learnt violin and cello, studied with Boulanger and became attracted to electronic music. Sergey followed a similar path writing music for cinema and film studios mostly in Europe. Few families can boast such a dynasty and one which has encompassed such a long time-span across a wide diversity of musical cultures. Despite this variety the music always remained true to its roots and achieved this fidelity against the backdrop of the most trying period in human history. The achievement of these musicians stands as eloquent testimony to great art as an instrument of peace and humanity.

Gregor Tassie

Block capital initials in brackets in the text refer to recordings some of which may no longer be available:-
CDM ... Chant du Monde
CHAN ... Chandos
DG ... Deutsche Grammophon
EMI ... EMI Classics
LYS ... Lys
NEWPORT ... Newport
OCD ... Olympia


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