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Postcard photograph, published by Breitkopf & Härtel, London. c.1900.

Postcard photograph, published by Breitkopf & Härtel, London. c.1900.

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ARENSKY, Anton Stepanovich (b.Novgorod, Russia, 12 July 1861; d.Terioki, Finland, 25 February 1906)

It is difficult now to imagine the immense popularity of Arensky’s piano music during the decade or two preceding WWI. A fine pianist himself, this student of Rimsky-Korsakov had rejected Russian nationalism in favour of a more eclectic style deriving from Chopin, Schumann and Tchaikovsky, and the combination of grateful, often brilliant piano writing, fin-de-siècle sentiment and quirky rhythmic individuality quickly won him an international public.

Trained at the St Petersburg Conservatory, Arensky was immediately appointed Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory, where his pupils included Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Glier. He was active as a conductor (particularly of the Russian Choral Society) and for four years a member of the council of the Synodal School of Church Music before succeeding Balakirev as Director of the Imperial Chapel in St Petersburg in 1895. After retirement from the latter post in 1901 he devoted himself to composition and orchestral conducting. However an increasingly dissolute life-style, coupled with the onset of tuberculosis, led to his early death at the age of 44.

Arensky’s output includes three operas (A Dream on the Volga, performed 1888, Raphael 1894 and Nal and Damayanti 1904), two symphonies, concertos and five substantial chamber works, though the only major pieces still (occasionally) played today are the Piano Concerto, Op.2 and the D minor Piano Trio, Op.32. The latter, dedicated to the memory of the cellist Karl Davidov, stands in a line of elegiac trios and quartets started by Tchaikovsky (whose own A minor Trio, ‘À la mémoire d’un grand artiste’, commemorates Nikolay Rubinstein) and continued by Rachmaninov. Arensky’s 2nd String Quartet (1894) is itself a memorial to Tchaikovsky, with a slow movement consisting of variations on the latter’s famous Legend. (In the composer’s version for string orchestra these beautiful Variations also survive in the modern repertoire.)

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth, a selection of Arensky first editions is shown below. His seventy-five opus numbers also include sacred and secular choral works, more than 70 attractive songs and incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Early editions of the Six Piano Pieces, Op.5, first published in 1885.  The Basso Ostinato quickly became - and was to remain - Arensky’s most popular work.

[Suite for 2 pianos, Op.15]   Moscow, [1888?]. Trois morceaux, Op.19  Moscow, [1889]. Bigarrures, Op.20.  Moscow, [1889?].

Silhouettes (2me Suite) pour deux pianos, Op.23   Moscow, [1892]. Trois esquisses, Op.24   Moscow, [1889]. Trio (D moll), Op.32   Moscow, [1894].

Sechs Romanzen, Op.44   Moscow & Leipzig, [1899]. Fantaisie sur des chants épiques russes, Op.48   Moscow & Leipzig, [1900]. Nuit d’Egypte. Ballet en un acte, Op.50.  Piano score. Moscow & Leipzig, [1901].

Près de la Mer: six esquisses, Op.52.  Moscow & Leipzig, [1901]. Kinder-Suite (Kanons) for 2 pianos, Op.65.  Moscow & Leipzig, [1904]. [3 Melodeclamations for speaker and orchestra, Op.68.]   Full score.  Moscow & Leipzig, [1904].  These settings of prose-poems by Turgenev are dedicated to the great Russian actress Vera Komisarjevska.

Arensky’s last opera, Nal’ i Damayanti, to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky, was first performed at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in January 1904.  This programme is for a performance at the Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg on 25 January 1908, two years after the composer's death.