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Nikolai Tcherepnin was born on May 3 (18), 1873 in St. Petersburg. His father Nikolai was a distinguished physician and enjoyed entree to Russia's most distinguished artistic circles. The elder Nikolai was present at Dostoevsky's deathbed, and held Tuesday musicales at his home at which Mussorgsky sometimes played. In young Nikolai's infancy, his mother died, and the boy was brought up by an unsympathetic stepmother. His father's strict disciplinarian regime included beatings, and these domestic travails undoubtedly left their marks on his adult character, which was marked by shyness, chronic uncertainty about himself and the future, and an aloof demeanor.

Nikolai studied music throughout his childhood, composing steadily while earning a law degree at his father's behest. He received his advanced diploma from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1898, where he studied composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Over the years, their teacher-pupil relationship evolved into a friendship between equals. Tcherepnin later observed that his concept of professionalism owed much to the experience of writing and exhaustively rewriting his Prélude pour la Princesse Lointaine, Op. 4, under Rimsky's guidance. Already recognized as one of Russia's most promising young musicians before his graduation, Nikolai married Marie Benois in 1897.

Marie Benois and Nikolai Tcherepnin

After commencement in 1898, Tcherepnin joined St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater as a choral conductor, and eventually became one of the house's leading operaand ballet conductors. Productions at the theater became something of a family affair, as his wife's uncle Alexander Benois frequently designed the sets. In composition, Tcherepnin's late 1890s attempts at such generic works as a string quartet and a symphony provoked criticism, prompting him to concentrate on programmatic music that allowed a more freewheeling and impressionistic approach.

The early years of the new century saw Tcherepnin make steady progress on both fronts of his dual composing-conducting career. He began one of his important ballet scores, Le Pavillon d'Armide, Op. 29, although this did not emerge until later. He followed up Princesse with another successful programmatic piece, Le Royaume Enchanté (1904, but published belatedly with the misleading designation, Op. 39). At the same time Tcherepnin received increasingly prestigious assignments at the Maryinsky, where he was appointed conductor in 1906. By then, Rimsky-Korsakov had taken to requesting that Tcherepnin lead every important performance of his works. When the Paris Opéra Comique decided to mount Rimsky's The Snow Maiden in 1908, and wrote to him asking for a Russian conductor for the piece, he duly dispatched Tcherepnin to France.

Tcherepnin's experience with that production led to an important advance in his career. For when Serge Diaghilev elected to present a spring season of ballet in Paris in 1909, Tcherepnin was the natural choice to conduct. Diaghilev had also been impressed with the 1907 performances of a suite (Op. 29A) Tcherepnin had drawn from his Pavillon d' Armide, and so the impresario programmed the complete ballet as one of the company's three offerings in the initial season.

With the acclaimed Paris premiere of Le Pavillon d'Armide, it became clear that Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was offering the most profoundly important avant-garde theater to be seen anywhere in the world. The mimetic verity and emotional truth of the cast in interaction with the exquisite stage settings were something brand new to ballet, adding a dimension to the extraordinary balletic achievements of Karsavina and Nijinsky. The music was also a surprise to French connoisseurs. Where cynics had expected a half-witted provincial mish-mash warmed over from Rimsky and Tchaikovsky, Tcherepnin provided a beautifully crafted score that recognizably belonged to the same decade as Ravel and Debussy, yet, at the same time remained Russian and personal. When the Ballets Russes was invited to give a gala performance in London in 1911 commemorating the coronation of George V, Le Pavillon d'Armide was selected as the vehicle.

In between tours with Diaghilev, Tcherepnin continued his work at the Maryinsky, and fulfilled pedagogical duties as well, for he had joined the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1908, teaching composition and conducting. There his star pupil was the institution's "bad boy"--Serge Prokofiev. Tcherepnin was fascinated by the youth's modernistic experiments (which so enraged the Conservatory's Director Alexander Glazunov) and was able to criticize them constructively. Prokofiev dedicated some of his most important early compositions to Tcherepnin, including the Piano Concerto No. 1, which he performed at his Conservatory graduation ceremonies. Later, Prokofiev stated that the "seed" of his famous "Classical" Symphony had been planted by Tcherepnin's enthusiastic classroom analyses of scores by Haydn and Mozart.

In 1911, Tcherepnin enjoyed another musical success with his ballet Narcisse, Op. 40. Although the Monte Carlo premiere criticized Diaghilev for scenes of excessive, dance-less pool gazing by the great Nijinsky, Tcherepnin's score received high praise, and is considered by many to be his greatest score. However, as Diaghilev acquired the services of a younger composer--Igor Stravinsky--who proved a star of such extraordinary magnitude, Tcherepnin seemed dimmed to insignificance.

World War I brought privation to St. Petersburg, as well as a new, chauvinistic municipal name: Petrograd. There Tcherepnin managed to launch another major ballet in 1916, The Masque of the Red Death. A siege of the city during the Civil War that broke out with the Revolution reduced the food supply so drastically that Tcherepnin's son Alexander developed scurvy in the spring of 1918. Nikolai Tcherepnin now received an offer to become Director of the National Conservatory at far-off Tiflis, then at peace. He decided to pull up stakes and leave Petrograd behind him. The family rapidly disposed of possessions acquired over a lifetime and undertook an arduous summer journey to a new home in the Caucasus.

In Tiflis, Tcherepnin supplemented his teaching with work at the opera house, where he sometimes found it necessary to touch up scores by provincial composers. He also absorbed local culture, and Georgian folk melodies began to find their way into his compositions. After three years, however, the Revolution finally triumphed in the city, driving the "White Russian" to Batun--and at this point the Tcherepnins' days in Georgia became numbered.

The watershed event took place while Tcherepnin was rehearsing the opera orchestra. An errant horn passage showed no improvement after three repetitions, prompting Tcherepnin to observe, "Gentlemen, we will have to keep at it until we get it right." A young player leaped to his feet and jeered "The 'gentlemen' have all run away to Batun. Here, we are all COMRADES." Shocked and angered, Tcherepnin left the theater, and shortly after, managed to arrange the family's emigration. On June 16th, 1921, they took a steamer to Constantinople, where they waited for a French visa. Finally able to sail west on August 4th, they reached France nine days later.

In Paris, Tcherepnin found employment as Director of the Russian Conservatory, a post of no great prestige. Diaghilev presented Tcherepnin's Dionysus (1922) and Russian Fairy Tale (1923) but subsequently took more interest in younger composers. Pavlova, however, came through with a ballet commission, The Romance of the Mummy (1924). Tcherepnin's completion of the Mussorgsky operatic fragment Sorochinsky Fair was accepted by the Monte Carlo opera, where it was duly mounted under his direction in 1924; six years later it entered the repertory of New York's Metropolitan Opera. Meanwhile, Tcherepnin found sporadic conducting engagements, leading several Rimsky operas in Paris.

A high point in his post-Russian career was an engagement as guest conductor of Serge Koussevitzky's Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1932. The following year, Koussevitzky toured with a brand new Tcherepnin score, the Three Pieces for Orchestra after a Tale of Edgar Allan Poe, Op. 59. At this time, pianist Benno Moiseivitch gave considerable international exposure to Tcherepnin's Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, Op. 30 (a work from 1908 that today seems markedly inferior to his best ballets).

The experience of touching up other people's operas finally prompted Tcherepnin to write an opera of his own in 1930, based on the comedy Svat by Ostrovsky. Another opera, Vanka followed in 1933, introduced at the Belgrade Opera with Tcherepnin himself conducting. His most ambitious and finest work of the 1930s was an oratorio, The Descent of the Holy Virgin into Hell, written to his own text and premiered in Paris in 1937.

Tcherepnin continued composing for the rest of his life, although dogged by increasing ill health and growing deafness. To his last years belongs the charming memento Tàti-Tàti (Paraphrases sur un thème enfantin). This work incorporates his memories of what famous Russian composers did with an ancestor of the piece that children today know as Chopsticks.

In 1941, the Tcherepnin family again attempted to flee tyranny, but their car never reached free France and they found themselves trapped in Paris. There Nikolai died on June 26, 1945. The night before his death, Tcherepnin played an oratorio-in-progress to his son Alexander, who later used one of its most striking motifs as a "signal" in his own opera The Farmer and the Fairy.

Despite occasional later successes, Nikolai Tcherepnin's dual career never reacquired the momentum that had driven it during the pre-World War I years, when his new scores enjoyed a cachet as pioneering efforts in international modernism and he regularly took the podium in the world's leading theaters and concert halls. The loss of a national base was undoubtedly catastrophic for the reception of his art. Two inevitable results are, first, that Tcherepnin's best scores still suffer unjust neglect today; and second, that in his rather uneven output, the gold has yet to be separated from the dross. The sole sector of his output that receives regular public hearings--his liturgical works--earn him no fame because they are often presented anonymously at religious services, a touching irony that he himself would have probably savored. Among his secular scores, the early efforts, heavily influenced (as musicologist Enrique Arias notes) by Rimsky-Korsakov and Liszt, are unlikely to prove of much interest. However, when Tcherepnin encountered the impressionistic language of turn-of-the-century modernism he found the original and persuasive voice we hear in La Princesse Lointaine, Le Royaume Enchanté, Le Pavillon d'Armide and Narcisse. Among the later works, the lively overture to Swat makes one curious about the rest of the opera, while works such as the Poe pieces reveal--in traces of a hard-edged post-war modernism à la Stravinsky and Prokofiev--that Tcherepnin remained alive to new sounds and kept his style up to date.

The discovery of Nikolai Tcherepnin promises to be a journey fraught with surprise: sometimes disappointing, sometimes highly gratifying--never quite predictable.


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