Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev – Oresteya (The Oresteia)
(b. Vladimir-na-Klyaz’me, 13 [Gregorian Calendar: 25] November 1856 — d. Dyud’kovo nr. Moscow, 7  June 1915)
with German / French / Russian libretto
Opera in three acts (1887–1894)
Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev was one of the most interesting and influential of all Russian musicians, and yet his life remains an enigma for the majority of the public and music scholars alike. Much remains to be done to bring his name to a wider audience, and his works to concert halls and the operatic stage. An accomplished pianist, theorist, composer, and a pedagogue, Taneyev is still considered a pillar of Russian music-education. He was a close friend of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rubinstein, Anton Arensky, and Hermann Laroche; he knew Anton Rubinstein, Ivan Turgenev, Émile Zola, César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, Henri Duparc, Vincent d’Indy, and the Viardot family; he was close to the families of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and Lev Tolstoy, and immensely respected by Alexander Glazunov and the later generation of Russian musicians. Igor Stravinsky valued his treatise on counterpoint highly, respected him as a composer of Oresteya, much admired him as a pianist. Taneyev studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Nikolay Rubinstein, and was asked to remain there as a teacher after his graduation in 1875. He held the post of the Director between 1885 and 1889, and after stepping down continued to teach there until his resignation in 1905. Taneyev’s influence on Russian composers is far-reaching. He recognised musical talent in the young Prokofiev and recommended that his parents hire Reinhold Glière (then Taneyev’s student) as a teacher of music theory and composition. Other students, such as Nikolay Zhilyaev and Alexander Goldenweiser, became respected teachers at the Moscow Conservatoire and taught such composers as Vissarion Shebalin, Aram Khachaturian and Dmitry Kabalevsky. Taneyev’s most famous students include Sergey Rachmaninov, Nikolay Medtner and Alexander Scriabin. His influences can be heard in the harmonic language of Scriabin’s early piano pieces, in the complex contrapuntal textures of Glazunov’s and Medtner’s piano concertos, in the well-crafted chamber compositions of Shebalin, and in the world-famous string quartets of Dmitry Shostakovich.
Among the many works composed by Taneyev one stands out from the rest: his musical trilogy Oresteya (composed between 1882 and 1894, revised in 1900), written after the eponymous drama by Aeschylus. At a time when Russian composers based their operas predominantly on Russian sources – literary, folk, or historical –, Taneyev’s choice of antique tragedy immediately placed him outside the areas explored by his colleagues. Only Modest Musorgsky attempted to write incidental music to a Greek tragedy, choosing Sophocles’ King Oedipus, but he did not complete it, and reused the musical material for his later project Salammbô (also incomplete). Taneyev worked on the libretto of his opera with Aleksey Alekseyevich Venkstern (?–1909), a writer, poet, translator, literary historian and a graduate of Moscow University. In order to produce a good libretto, Taneyev read and studied various interpretations of the tragedy so as to improve his understanding of the myth and create a text that would narrate the tragedy in the clearest possible way for people who had not read it before. He provided Venkstern with a plan of the scenes, with the precise instruction of what stage action was necessary, and Venkstern then supplied a text that fitted that structure. …
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