César Antonovich Cui (1835 - 1918) is unique in the annals of music.
He was the son of one of the few surviving officers of Napoleon's Grand Army
which had marched into Russia in 1812 campaign with high hopes. He stayed
in Russia and married a lady of the Lithuanian aristocracy, and taught French
César showed his musical talent at an early age, teaching himself
to read music by copying out Chopin's mazurkas, but hardly received any formal
musical training so that he must be regarded as being mostly self-taught.
In 1851 he was enrolled in the Engineering School in St. Petersburg and then
in the Academy of Military Engineering. He taught there as a professor, writing
several text books on field fortification. After graduation, he became an
expert on military fortification and took part in the Russo-Turkish war of
1877 - 1878 as an army engineer.
In 1878 he joined the Academy as a professor and wrote several books on field
fortification. But he never gave up his love for music, and started to compose
for the piano as early as 1850.
After his marriage to Malvina Bamberg in 1858 he published his first opus,
a piano duet on the theme BABEG (for the letters in her name!). He joined
Balakirev's circle of musicians and was one of the members of the 5 composers
regarded as the "Mogoochaya Koochka" or the "Mighty Handful" consisiting
of Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Being fluently
bilingual in French and Russian, Cui was a welcome guest in France, spending
quite some time with the the Comte and Comtesse de Mercy-Argenteau in Argenteau.
It was there in 1887 that he composed his very effective Piano Suite Op.
40, "À Argenteau", containing the unique study "Causerie", requiring
dexterous crossing of the hands which I have recorded on CD-13. In turn Louise
Mercy-Argenteau wrote a flattering review of the composer.
The only large scale work he wrote for the piano was his Suite Op. 21 dedicated
to Franz Liszt which contains 4 virtuosic pieces: Impromptu, Ténèbres
et lueurs, Intermezzo, Alla Polacca which I have recorded on CD-13 and CD-14.
The rest of his output for the piano consists mostly of miniatures, such
as "Kaleidoscope" Op. 50 (24 numbers), or the 25 Preludes Op.64. One of the
most successful of such works is the "Trois Valses", Op. 31 (CD-13), where
the first valse again requires some interesting hand crossings. But Cui was
very busy throughout his long life, composing 6 operas, chamber music, orchestral
suites, a violin sonata, more than 250 songs, all very melodious compositions
which one can easily and unjustly dismiss with faint praise as being "charming".
Even so, I always enjoy playing his piano pieces.
Being a member of the "Mightly Handful", he wrote numerous articles on music,
criticising not only Wagner, Strauss, Reger, but also Tchaikovsky. He adored
Chopin and could never accept the "modernism" that emerged in Russian music
during 1900 to 1911, though towards the end of his life he sympathetically
edited Moussorgsky's opera "Sorochnitskaya Yarmarka" (Sorochnitsky Fair").
He died in Petrograd in 1918.
Asafyev, B. "Russkaya Muzyka", Leningrad, 1968.
Mercy-Argenteau, L. "Cesar Cui, Esquisse critique, Paris, 1888.
Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entsiklopedia. (various editions)
© Bhagwan Thadani