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Past Images of the Month - March 2018

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CUI, Cesar (b.Vilnius, 6 January 1835; d.Petrograd [St Petersburg], 26 March 1918)


Cui, centenary of whose death falls on 26 March, is a puzzling figure in Russian music. Important as co-founder with Balakirev of 'The Five ' - and through his long career as critic and writer perhaps the group's main publicist - he has a much less defined personality as a composer.

This he was at pains to explain himself: "Although born a Russian, I am half French, half Lithuanian and have not a drop of Russian blood in my veins."  His father had been an officer in Napoleon's army, who remained in Russia after 1812, married a Lithuanian girl and settled in Vilnius.  Here Cesar attended school at the gymnasium, where his father taught French, and additionally studied harmony and counterpoint with the distinguished composer Moniuszko. He entered the Engineering School at St Petersburg in 1851 and graduated at the Academy of Military Engineering in 1857. Here he was appointed lecturer in 1877 and Professor of Fortifications in 1878. Until the end of his life he held the rank of Lieutenant General.

An introduction to Balakirev in 1856 and to Dargomizhky the following year quickly drew him into the musical life of St Petersburg and to the cause of musical nationalism in which he became their vigorous collaborator. Although strongly influenced by Dargomizhky however (whose masterpiece The Stone Guest  he was to complete), he himself essayed a Russian subject in only the first of his ten substantial operas: The Prisoner in the Caucasus after Pushkin, St Petersburg, 16 February 1883.  The rest show a sophisticated range of literary sources, from the most successful William Ratcliff after Heine, St Petersburg, 26 February 1869 to others based on Hugot, Dumas and de Maupassant. Le Flibustier, on a play by Jean Richepin, was actually written for the Paris Opéra Comique.

Some of these, especially William Ratcliff received warm support from among Cui's colleagues but certain technical failings (awkward orchestration, etc.) were thought to reveal his inadequate technique, and none maintained a permanent place in the repertoire. Apart from a handful of orchestral suites, the rest of Cui's vast output consists of miniatures, songs and instrumental pieces largely written for children or amateurs and achieving great popularity during his lifetime.  These he probably considered his main legacy to posterity and some of them continue to receive occasional performance today. Fascinatingly his last four operas were children's fairy tales.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Vignettes Musicales. 13 Mélodies pour chant et piano, [Op.15]. Paris, 1891.  This first set of children's songs by Cui appeared first at St Petersburg  in 1878 and is here shown in a French edition of 1891.

Petite Suite pour piano et violon. Hamburg & St Petersburg, [1879]. Douze Miniatures pour piano, [Op.20]. Moscow, [1882]. Suite concertante pour le violon avec accompagnement d'orchestre ou de piano,Op.25 [Piano score.] Leipzig, 1886.

Le Flibustier. Comédie lyrique en trios actes. Poème de Jean Richepin. [Vocal score.] Paris, 1893. Premiered at the Théâtre National de l'Opéra Comique, Paris, 22 January 1894. The opera was never performed in Russia. The Royal Academy of Music, London.

Vier Sonette von A. Mickiewicz, Op.48. Berlin, [1893]. Cui set the four poems in the original Polish, adding German and Russian translations to this first edition. The songs carry individual dedications - to, among others, the great Polish-American soprano Marcella Sembrich, Glazunov and the painter Il'ya Repin. 5 petits Duos pour flute et violon avec accompagnement de piano, Op.56. Leipzig, [1897].  One of the most lavish of all Mitrofan Belaieff's title page designs, this extraordinary image heralds a modest but charming suite for amateur players. Kaleidoscope. 24 Morceaux pour Violon avec accompagnement de piano, Op.50. Berlin, 1894.

Mademuazel' Fifi [Mam'zelle Fifi]. Opera in one act. Libretto by Cui, after G. de Maupassant. Postcard photograph of the original production, Moscow, Hermitage Theatre, 4 November 1903.

Margarita Georgievna Gukova (1884–1965), soprano, in the role of Fatima in The Prisoner of the Caucasus.



Andzhelo (Angelo) was the second of Cui's operas to reach the stage.  A 4-act work to a libretto by V. P. Burenin after Victor Hugo's play Angelo, tyran de Padoue, it was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, on 1 February 1876.

Leonid Vital'yevich Sobinov, tenor (1872-1934).

'I live only for you' from Cui's opera Angelo sung by the great tenor Leonid Vital'yevich Sobinov (1872-1934). The Colin B Oxenforth Collection.