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by Phillip Ramey

Ivan and Alexander

September 29, 1983, was a pleasant, sunny day in Paris. The morning saw unusual activity in the Rue Furstenberg, that picturesque Left-Bank passage graced by a tiny, tree-shaded place containing the Atelier Delacroix, lying almost in the shadow of the medieval belltower of the St. Germain-des-Près Church. Municipal workers arrived early to sweep and wash the street, and as the morning wore on, police began to cordon the area with barricades. A wooden lectern had been positioned at No. 2 Rue Furstenberg and above and left of the doorway a cloth covering hung from the building. Later in the afternoon a crowd began to gather, consisting of notable figures in Parisian musical life. Speeches were given--by a high government official (Maurice Fleuret), by two eminent musicologists (Jacques Chailley, Vladimir Jankelevitch), by two well-known composers (Marcel Mihalovici, Alexandre Tansman). Then, with a flourish, the cloth came down, unveiling a marble plaque inscribed with gold lettering: "Le compositeur Alexandre Tchérepnine--1899-1977--habitâ cette maison" ("The composer Alexander Tcherepnin--1899-1977--lived in this house").

At the time of this ceremony on the fifth anniversary of Tcherepnin's death, there were signs that his reputation was beginning to be affected by the posthumous eclipse normally suffered by composers. Few records of his of major scores appeared during the 1980s. The last decade, however, has seen a steadily growing enthusiasm that has yet to reach its peak. A new generation of virtuoso performers is embracing his music, led by cellists Yo-Yo Ma, Alexander Rudin and Ivan Ivashkin, pianists Murray McLachlan, Geoffrey Tozer and Norika Ogawa, and conductor Lan Shui, among others. The first Russian-language biography of the composer reached print in 1999, published in Moscow--Ludmila Korabelnikova's Alexander Tcherepnin: A Long Journey--and during the last decade recordings have mounted in geometric progression.

All four of Tcherepnin's symphonies and most of his major orchestral scores are now available on CD, with such landmarks as the Fourth Symphony and even a relative curiosity like the early Rhapsodie géorgienne treated to multiple recordings. His major piano works have returned en masse, while collectors will shortly be able to choose between two complete traversals of the six Tcherepnin piano concertos, opting either for the eloquent solidity of Murray McLachlan (Olympia) or the scintillating alacrity of Norika Ogawa (BIS). Today, as in his lifetime, his music is likely to crop up in concerts around the globe, from Boston, New York and Chicago to London, Moscow, Singapore and Mexico City.

In his biography of Alexander Tcherepnin, Willi Reich pronounced him a "musical citizen of the world," and it was no exaggeration. Although Tcherepnin maintained a home in Paris for more than half a century and was resident in the United States for much of his last thirty years, his background and culture were Russian. He was an almost constant traveler during a long career, composing and concertizing as a pianist not only in the major European and American capitals, but in less familiar places like the Soviet Caucasus region, China, Japan and Egypt. The international cosmopolitan aspect of Tcherepnin's life and career rightly informs much of the commentary on him by critics and colleagues. Yehudi Menuhin, for instance, termed Tcherepnin "this distinguished composer, original in concept and expression, whose works reflect a synthesis of many cultures."

Tcherepnin was born into an old and cultured family on January 21, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Tcherepnin name was already well known in Russian musical circles because of Nicolas Tcherepnin, Alexander's father, a distinguished composer, conductor and pedagogue. Alexander's mother, Maria, was also musical, gifted with a fine mezzo-soprano voice and given to singing Russian, German and French songs in the parlor.

Alexander's maternal grandfather was the French painter Albert Benois, pioneering watercolorist in Russia and brother of the stage designer Alexander Benois. Nicolas Tcherepnin was conductor of Serge Diaghilev's famed Ballet Russe, and thanks to him young Alexander met most of the great figures of Russian music and dance, among them Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, Glazunov, Stravinsky, Chaliapin, Diaghilev, Pavlova and Fokine. Sergei Prokofiev, a conducting student of Nicolas Tcherepnin, frequently played his latest compositions for Alexander when he visited the apartment for a lesson.

"In our home," remembered Tcherepnin, "music was religion," and one of his earliest recollections was that of praying to an icon to become a composer. His mother taught him the fundamentals of music when he was five years old, predating his knowledge of the alphabet. Alexander soon began to improvise at one of the family's two pianos, but, as he said, "I never dared to touch a piano in the presence of my father for fear of disturbing him." His mother, however, encouraged his initial efforts at composition. "At first, my father did not approve of my plans to be a composer, insisting that it would be a hard and nerve-wracking life. He wanted me to become a gentleman-farmer but, when he saw the seriousness of my intent, he gave in and even embraced the idea."

By age 15, Alexander was a prolific composer, with several symphonies, piano concertos and operas, dozens of piano pieces, and at least seven piano sonatas behind him. Some of this music was later published, notably a set of Bagatelles that became as renowned in its way as Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp Minor and that is to this day part of the experience of most student pianists.

In his 18th year Alexander enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where his father taught. His long-standing preoccupation as a composer with what he called the "major-minor triad " or "major-minor tetrachord " began about this time. Despite the harmonic ambiguity of that alluring entity, young Tcherepnin heard it as a fundamental and stable chord. "I used it as a final consonance [and] the acceptance of the major-minor triad resulted in further acceptance of many other unorthodox chords." The practical result was that in many of Tcherepnin's earliest compositions the function of dissonance as requiring resolution was lost. In his works until about 1921 is found a hybrid style successfully linking the Romantic impetuosity (but not the Romantic textures) of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin with the grotesquerie of early Prokofiev. The result was fresh, imaginative music, such as the Bagatelles and Sonatine Romantique, that quickly made a reputation for the young composer. Tcherepnin's fascination with the major-minor triad and its modal possibilities would cause him to devise a nine-tone scale, which he would use to greater or lesser degree in much of his mature music. This, which in fact became known as the "Tcherepnin Scale," reads, from C: C, Db, Eb, E, F, G, Ab, A, B, [C], and contains six such triads: on C, Db, E, F, Ab and A. [For more details, click Basic Elements: I. Nine-step scale.] He subsequently made the interesting discovery that his instinctively composed music "did not just lean toward this nine-step synthetic scale, it was actually based on it and could be explained by it. From then on, what had previously been done instinctively was done through theory and conscious application." Further, "The devices of melodic, free, chromatic scale formation, of serial writing, of using the early medieval polyphonic devices for the formation of chromatic, linear writing were all found and elaborated while isolated from any contact with Western music [because of] the First World War and Russian Revolution...three years ahead of the serial conception of tropes of [Josef Mathias] Hauer and Schoenberg."

Late in 1918, the Tcherepnin family fled famine and cholera in St. Petersburg (which had recently been renamed Petrograd) for the relative peace of the still-independent republic of Georgia in the Caucasus, where Nicolas had been appointed director of the Tbilisi Conservatory. In that city, Alexander came under the spell of Georgian folk music, another lifelong influence, and, continuing to compose, began to practice the piano diligently. In 1921 the Red Army brought the civil war that had been raging elsewhere in Russia to Tbilisi, and not long afterward the Tcherepnins were again on the move, this time out of Russia for good, to France, where they settled in Paris.

Alexander finished his studies in Paris (composition with Paul Vidal, piano with Isidore Philipp), saw a sizable number of his early pieces published, and began an international career as a composer- pianist. His Western debut came in London in 1922, and the following year his ballet Ajanta's Frescoes, inspired by ancient Indian cave painting and imbued, said Tcherepnin, with "the idea of integrating Eastern and Western musical conceptions," was presented at Covent Garden by the immortal Anna Pavlova.

Tcherepnin came to the United States in 1926, and in 1927 gained notoriety through a succès de scandale at age 28 when his First Symphony nearly provoked a riot at its premiere, police being summoned to the Paris Théâtre du Châtelet to quell an audience aroused by the work's scherzo for unpitched percussion and stringed instruments tapped with the bow as if they were wooden drums. In his book Music Since 1900, Nicolas Slonimsky cited this as "the earliest known example of an integral percussive movement in a symphony," and here, as in portions of the orchestral work Magna Mater (1926-27) and the piano piece Message (1926), which ends with tappings on the wood of the piano, Tcherepnin indulged in pure rhythm for its own sake.

Perhaps stimulated by the near-volcanic musical climate of the 1920s Paris, where he found himself "mingling with such people as Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Honegger, Milhaud and Martinu and hearing their music," the young composer began producing work of more distinctive character than before. Tcherepnin once observed, "Interestingly, the influence of Paris has generally had on foreign composers has been to make them find and to be themselves. Chopin didn't develop a French style because he lived in Paris, but became, if anything, more Polish. The same thing happened to composers like Albeniz and Copland." Tcherepnin joined a group of composers known as the École de Paris (the other members, Arthur Honegger, Bohuslav Martinu, Marcel Mihalovici, Tibor Harsányi, Conrad Beck).

At first, Tcherepnin followed "the road of simplification" in lyric, mordantly witty works of neo-Classic bent, sometimes based on motor rhythms, often on variation techniques, such as the Rhapsodie géorgienne for cello and orchestra (1922) and Piano Concerto No. 2 (1923). This process culminated in what became one of his most often-played chamber works, the tiny Piano Trio, and Tcherepnin then realized that if simplification continued "nothing will be left." As a consequence, he began to move in the opposite direction by introducing complications, especially increasingly complex polyphonic structures. "Interpoint" was the name he gave to a system of often-dissonant polyphony wherein rhythmic units were employed thematically. [For more details, click Basic Elements: II. Interpoint.] "Meditating about progress in music," he wrote, "and rejecting traditionalism and the vagueness associated with it from my early youth, I found that, to my mind, progress would be achieved via clear part-writing and, therefore, by polyphony." Tcherepnin's works of the late 1920s and early 1930s tend toward larger forms, clear textures (here, the influence of neo-Classic Stravinsky was significant, as was Tcherepnin's rejection of Impressionism) and highly active part-writing. The Piano Quintet (1927), Piano Concerto No. 3 (1931-32) and Symphony No. 1 (1927) illustrate this trend.

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