Prisoner of the Caucasus overture
César Cui – A Prisoner in the Caucasus, Overture
(b. Vilnius , 18 January 1835 – d. Petrograd , 26 March 1918)
‘God grant that our Slav guests may never forget today’s concert; God grant that they may forever preserve the memory of how much poetry, feeling, talent, and intelligence are possessed by the small but already mighty handful [moguchaya kuchka] of Russian musicians.’
So wrote the eminent critic Vladimir Stasov after a concert in 1867 that had been performed for visiting Slav delegations at the ‘All-Russian Ethnographical Exhibition’ in Moscow. Cui is nowadays certainly the least known of the five ‘mighty handful’ composers; he had met the group’s leader, Mily Balakirev, ten years earlier in St Petersburg, when any thought of a loosely knit ‘school’ of nationalist composers was still premature. Cui subsequently became friends with Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky and Borodin, and they explored a shared concern for using Russian melodies – or, at least, newly composed themes influenced by traditional folk and religious music – in an ‘authentic’ manner that would contrast with the ‘conservatoire’ ethos of composers like Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein. Cui’s meeting with Balakirev in 1857 happened at about the same time that he was embarking upon his first opera, A Prisoner in the Caucasus, with a libretto by Viktor Krylov from the narrative poem by Pushkin. There is certainly some Russian shading in the opera’s first act, but from then on – and indeed in most of Cui’s subsequent stage music – the influences are those of Auber and Meyerbeer. Cui made general observations on this topic in a letter to Felipe Pedrell: ‘Rather than being Russian, I am half French and half Lithuanian, and I lack the feeling of Russian music in my veins. That’s why, with the exception of my first opera, A Prisoner in the Caucasus, all subjects of my operas are – and will be – from abroad.’1
Cui was born in Vilnius; his father was an officer in Napoleon’s army who had stayed in Russia after the French retreat from Moscow in 1812, his mother was a Lithuanian. Young César received his early education in Vilnius, also studying the piano and receiving some lessons in harmony and counterpoint from Moniuszko. In 1851 he started his training as an engineer in St Petersburg and graduated from Academy of Military Engineering in 1857. Immediately upon graduation he was appointed to the teaching staff, and in 1878 he became a professor, with a special interest in fortifications. His students over the years included members of the Imperial family, notably Nicholas II. By 1906 he had been promoted to the military rank of general.
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