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Past Images of the Month - August 2013

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Felix Blumenfeld and Jazeps Vitols, St Petersburg, c.1910.

Felix Blumenfeld and Jazeps Vitols, St Petersburg, c.1910.

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BLUMENFELD, Felix Mikhailovich (b.Kovalyovka, Ukraine,  19 April 1863; d.Moscow, 21 January 1931) and VITOLS, Jazeps [WIHTOL, Joseph] (b.Valmiera, Latvia, 26 July 1863; d.Lübeck, 24 April 1948)

Both born 150 years ago in territories adjacent to Russia, Blumenfeld and Vitols deserve reassessment in the West in this anniversary year.  The two men were contemporaries at the St Petersburg Conservatory, studying composition with Rimsky-Korsakov (and in Blumenfeld's case, piano with Theodor Stein).   Both were appointed to the staff on graduation in 1885/6, Blumenfeld as teacher of piano and Vitols of composition, becoming Professors in 1897 and 1901and each serving the institution for a span of 32 years.  On Rimsky's death in 1908 Vitols took over his former teacher's class in Musical Form and subsequently that in Special Composition - his pupils including Prokofiev and Myaskovsky.

As piano teacher (later in Kiev and Moscow as well as St Petersburg) and as a brilliant performer himself Blumenfeld had a wide influence, his pupils including Horowitz and Simon Barère.  He was also conductor at the Maryinsky Theatre from 1895 to 1911, giving first performances of operas by Anton Rubinstein and Rimsky-Korsakov and the Russian premières of Tristan und Isolde and parts of the Ring.  In symphonic repertoire he introduced Scriabin's Divine Poem and Poem of Ecstasy and as a pianist premièred numerous works by all his friends and contemporaries from Lyadov to Rachmaninov.

Blumenfeld was uncle to the distinguished piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus and a cousin of the composer Szymanowski.  His works include symphonies, string quartets and songs, together with a preponderance of brilliant and attractive piano pieces.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Blumenfeld: Deux Nocturnes, Op.6. Leipzig, 1887. Blumenfeld: Mazurka, Op.11. Leipzig, 1890. Blumenfeld: Quatre Préludes, Op.12. Leipzig, 1890.

Blumenfeld: Allegro de Concert, Op.7. Full score. Leipzig, 1888.

Blumenfeld: 2 Impromptus, Op.13. Leipzig, 1890. Blumenfeld: Sur Mer, étude, Op.14. Leipzig, 1890. Blumenfeld: Nocturne-Fantasie, Op.20. Leipzig, 1895.

Vitols was a close friend of Glazunov and Lyadov and like them a member of the elite circle which gathered round the patron and publisher M.P.Belaieff.  He played 2nd violin at the latter's famous Friday gatherings and as 'Joseph Wihtol' was one of the first composers to be published by the firm.  From 1897 to 1914 he was music critic of the St Petersburger Zeitung.  (Like most of his compatriots, he had been brought up speaking German.)  Described by a recent historian as 'the most brilliant of all the expatriate musicians living in Russia at that time', Vitols left after the Revolution to embark on a yet more significant career in independent Latvia.  In Riga he founded and directed the Latvian Opera (1918) and established the Latvian Conservatory (1919), where he served as rector and taught most of the new generation of Latvian composers.  For his services to native musical development he was awarded a substantial country estate (Gaujiena, in north-eastern Latvia) in 1922.  However in 1944 he fled before the advancing Soviet army and ended his life in exile ('physically and morally broken') in Germany.

His works include the first Latvian examples of symphony, string quartet and piano sonata, orchestral and chamber works, and impressively virtuosic piano compositions.  Now regarded as the father-figure of Latvian music, Vitols is particularly honoured in his native country for his vocal and choral output.  He had conducted choirs in Russia from 1892 to 1918 and he married one of his singing pupils in 1921.  Since 1988 an annual choir festival has celebrated his birthday at Gaujiena (where a museum had been opened in his centenary year) and every four years a great Song Festival in Riga brings together 30,000 singers and features his cantata The Castle of Light.

Vitols at the piano, early 1930s.  Latvian Academic Library of Literature, Theatre and Music.

Vitols: Spriditis, Op.37. Full score. Leipzig, 1909. Royal College of Music, London. Vitols: Ouverture dramatique, Op.21. Full score. Leipzig, 1896. From Richard Beattie Davis: The Beauty of Belaieff (2008). [http://www.gclefpublishing.comClick here for G Clef Publishing] Vitols: Fantaisie sur des chants populaires lettons, Op.42. Full score. Leipzig, 1910.

Gaujiena.  Photographs by Dr Julie Anne Sadie.

We are grateful to Mrs Gillian Davis, Mrs Natasha Dissanayake, Dr Julie Anne Sadie and Dr Olga Sobolev for contributing material and information to this display.