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Aaron Copland and Alexander


After 1933, coincident with concert tours to the Middle East and the Orient, Tcherepnin began to look for a way to escape what he called "my own self-imposed technical formulas," and he soon found it in folklore. He reinvestigated Russian, Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijan and Persian music, later becoming especially intrigued by Chinese and Japanese folk melodies. Results were immediate: the 1933 Russian Dances for orchestra, a lightweight though effective melange (which, in a graph-like appraisal of his output he himself made in the late 1950s, found only recently in his papers, he classed rather harshly as one of his low points); the Five "Chinese" Concert Etudes for piano of 1934-36, brilliant yet delicate and lyrical; the Suite géorgienne for piano and string orchestra of 1938, subtle, refined, emotionally restrained.

Lee Hsien Ming and Alexander

Throughout his visits to the Far East between 1934 and 1937, Tcherepnin taught composers in China and Japan and, with the receipts from his concerts, generously established in Tokyo a press, Collection Tcherepnine, for the publication of his pupils' works. (The prominent Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu once told the author that many in his country consider Tcherepnin a father-figure of Japanese serious music.) It was in the Orient, in Shanghai, that he met a talented young Chinese pianist Lee Hsien Ming, who later became his second wife. Ming had won a scholarship to study in Brussels, so Tcherepnin was able to continue his courtship back in Europe.

During World War II, Alexander and Ming and the composer's father and mother had no choice but to remain in Nazi-occupied Paris, having tried unsuccessfully to escape. Tcherepnin supported the family on his meager earnings from composition lessons and what he called "utility music." He noted that there was a great decline in the quality of his work during the war. "To live through the Occupation was not easy, and I had to compose lots of trash--for dancers, for music halls, and so on, which had to be signed by another name because I was Russian." Little of Tcherepnin's wartime music has survived, which is perhaps just as well, for on his aforementioned graph the year 1944 ranks as the nadir of his entire career.

Alexander and Ming with Ivan and Serge

"Immediately after the end of the Occupation, even before the end of the war," he wrote, "my fertility returned." Once again he began to compose worthwhile music and to resume traveling and concertizing. After he toured America in 1948, he and Ming accepted teaching positions at DePaul University in Chicago, and he later wrote that coming to the United States in 1949 was "the great change in my life." In 1950 his children arrived, and the family stayed in Chicago for 15 years, becoming U. S. citizens in 1958. Tcherepnin resigned from DePaul in 1964 and settled in New York, in order to devote himself entirely to composition and to performing in American and Europe. The Tcherepnins had three sons, Peter, Serge and Ivan, the last two of whom became the family's third generation of composers.

Tcherepnin himself quite accurately labeled his music from 1950 on as "synthesis." He was involved in a conscious effort to consolidate and develop all the previous elements of his style, the instinctive, the simplified, the systematic and synthetic, the folkloristic. "I was looking," he said, "for pure creation, broader forms, rhythmic development and free application of everything I had obtained and experienced."

Ivan and Alexander

There is no question but that the synthesis process made possible some of Tcherepnin's most imposing works, scores replete with melody so wide-ranging as to suggest atonality, dramatic contrasts between simple and complex part writing, polytonal chords so complex and dense as to form tone clusters, and free, invented forms--all constituting an emotionally cool, impressively balanced neo-Romanticism. Among the masterpieces of this last period are the 1959 Symphonic Prayer for orchestra, with its powerfully discordant nine-tone opening and its stunning, perhaps unique, alleluia climax, and the dramatic, intensely lyrical Symphony No. 4 (1957--premiered by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra), tightly argued yet expansive, full of invention and contrast, culminating in a majestic, dissonant polyphonic finale based on a medieval Russian church chant. Also notable in this regard are the Symphony No. 2 (1947-51--premiered by Rafael Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony), Twelve Preludes for Piano (1952- 53), Eight Pieces for Piano (1954-55), Divertimento for Orchestra (1955-57--premiered by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony), Serenade for string orchestra (1964) and Piano Concertos Nos. 5 (1963) and 6 (1965--premiered by Margrit Weber).

In 1967, Tcherepnin became the second White Russian émigré composer officially invited back to the U. S. S. R. for concerts, the first having been Igor Stravinsky five years earlier. In Moscow, Tcherepnin was soloist in his Second Piano Concerto, and many of the Soviet Union's finest musicians, among them Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, came to honor him; he then went on to play in Leningrad and Tbilisi, the cities of his childhood and youth.

Being on his native soil after nearly half a century and finding his music enthusiastically accepted was a heady experience. In a letter to the author from Moscow dated May 15, 1967, Tcherepnin described the previous two weeks as "an uninterrupted going," with concerts, broadcasts, "meeting old friends, making new ones, extravagant hospitality...wonderful, attentive, warm audiences. Altogether unique experience, seems to me so natural, so familiar, to be here as if I had never left." In another letter: "Most important and stimulating for me is the 'open door' to the country of my origin--for me and my music--which certainly will mark the rest of my life and is a sort of guarantee that after my death I will not be forgotten."

That Tcherepnin will be forgotten, either in Russia or in the West, is unlikely. He left, at his death, too much of genuine worth. He thought of composing as a duty, "I feel that the process of composition is for the professional composer (at least for me) not a pleasure but a heavy responsibility, a continuous effort resulting from the urge to create. Pleasure comes only when the composition is completed." He himself had rigorous standards, and he once gently but firmly admonished an aspiring student, "Remember Stravinsky's advice: the most important utensil of the composer is the eraser. More you erase, better will be what stays."

Tcherepnin, of course, heeded Stravinsky's counsel the greater part of the time, but, as with all fecund artists, there were occasional lapses. His art, as he frankly acknowledged in his graph appraisal, had its peaks and plateaus--and canyons. As an example, only one opus number from the towering Fourth Symphony is an orchestral suite called Georgiana, a treacly confection gummed together with Georgian folk tunes. (Tcherepnin seemed to me to be less than delighted when Leopold Stokowski programmed Georgiana in the 1960s.) But it should be noted that this was a composer who thought it necessary to write not only works that might stand the test of time but also to provide more accessible, useful scores. Tcherepnin was not a believer in another Stravinsky dictum that every piece should be a masterpiece; and, partly as a rest from his more serious efforts, he took pleasure in creating occasional crowd- pleasers--like the rousing Symphonic March of 1951 and the genial Harmonica Concerto of 1953.

To sum up, Tcherepnin was a major figure, a fact well known in Europe if not entirely appreciated here in his adopted country. At this writing, more than five years after Tcherepnin's death and not long after the 85th anniversary of his birth, there are increasing indications across the United States that his music is enjoying a revival. One anticipates his major works being performed more often by American orchestras and instrumentalists. After all, as Virgil Thomson put it, Tcherepnin's art "has at all periods been filled with poetry and bravura"-- qualities too often at a premium in 20th-century music.

Alexander Tcherepnin was a "compleat" composer, an elegant pianist, a discerning, sympathetic teacher, an extraordinarily civilized man. Those who knew him suspect they will not see his like again.

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