ALEXANDER TCHEREPNIN (Continued)
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
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
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
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
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.
Click here to return to Part 1.