Cesar Cui – The Russian Nationalists (5)


This is one story I did not think I would write.  Why?  Well my aim, as you know, is to write about the composers’ lives, not to evaluate their music, but it helps a good deal to know something of their output. In the case of César Cui, I have to lay myself bare and confess that when I started out on this I knew absolutely zilch. My only face saver is that I have yet to meet anybody who is more familiar with Cui’s music than I. Yet how can I omit him in a study of the Five of which, Lord knows why, he was one.

Before we examine his credentials let us get down to the pronunciation of that name.  First of all, it is not like Dame Edna Everage or someone out of the bush calling to his Sheila, “Coo-eeee”. The best I can manage in writing is to liken it to bird song when written in French which is “cui-cui” and which sounds to our ears as “Kwee”.

César Cui has the somewhat dubious honour of being the least known of the Five.  There always has to be one.  Take Les Six formed in France in the 1920’s. You will find scarcely anyone who has heard anything either by Louis Durey who could be called the César Cui of the Six. Cui was born in Vilnius, Lithuania then forming part of the Russian Empire, the youngest of five children. His father, was French and had been a lieutenant in Napoleon’s invading army of Russia in 1812. He dropped out in Lithuania on the way home and settled there. He married a local girl and they had five children. He adapted the old French family name from Queuille to Cui. Each of his four sons was named after a great military leader, César, Alexander, Napoléon – they present no problem. The other son was named Boleslav which is a bit more problematic.  Boleslav was a tenth century king of Bohemia who murdered his brother, good King Wenceslas; but not on the Feast of Stephen.

The young César was born in 1835 and I can tell you was no prodigy.  He had lessons to play music but not to compose.  He was educated at the Gymnasium (a kind of grammar school) and in 1850 was sent to Saint Petersburg to prepare to enter the Chief Engineering School with a view to a military career. In 1855 he switched to the Military engineering academy and began his military career in 1857 as an instructor in fortifications. This would be his undoubted forte just as chemistry and medicine had been for Borodin. More of that later. Despite his achievements as a professional military academic, Cui is best known as the Unknown Soldier of The Five. His piano playing extended to works by Chopin and he had begun composing little pieces at fourteen years of age. Shortly before being sent to St. Petersburg, he managed to obtain some lessons in music theory from a Polish composer, residing in Vilnius at the time. It was at St. Petersburg that he met Balakirev, and eventually the other lads. At engineering school, he got to know one Viktor Krylov, who wrote Cui’s first few opera libretti and song texts. Like the others in the group Cui was writing his music under the tutelage of Balakirev.

His public debut as a composer took place in 1859 with the performance of his orchestral Scherzo, Op. 1, played at the Russian Musical Society with Anton Rubinstein conducting.  He dedicated this to Mal’vina Rafailovna Bamberg. They had met at the home of the composer, Dargomyzhsky from whom she was taking singing lessons. César and Mal’vina married in 1856 and had two children.

As to Cui the composer, it has been said that some people have to work hard to be mediocre. Compared to Balakirev, Borodin, and Mussorgsky he was a prolific composer He completed some 14 operas, including 4 children’s operas and several one-act “adult”, I suppose, operas. Despite having as a critic panned Boris Godunov, Cui would complete Mussorgsky’s opera, Fair at Sorochinsk, but much later in 1917.

The first opera by any of the Five to be performed was Cui’s William Ratcliff in 1869 based on a translation of a tragedy by Heine. The other members of the group praised it  –  well they had to didn’t they, but it never got anywhere and was not revived until around 1900. The same happened with the next opera, Angelo which took all of five hours.  But unless we hear these for ourselves we don’t know what we may be missing. These operas used Russian text but the general criticism is that they have no Russianness, per se, and that Cui’s style has more in common with Auber and Meyerbeer, with maybe a little dash of Gounod and Schumann. For the most part the operas are not based on Russian sources but French ones, Victor Hugo,  Dumas (père)  and Maupassant.  One assessment which I have read which is not probably first hand is that the operas lack drama but are lyrical. Four of his operas are written for children with “Puss In Boots” being successful in Germany.

Unlike Balakirev, Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui did not write any symphonies or symphonic poems and a list of his works shows no concertos.  His orchestral output seems limited to a couple of suites and an overture or two. Yet he has a large catalogue mainly of miniatures, lullabies, songs, polonaises, pieces, serenades and marches.  There are choruses written at the time of the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War and he was happy despite being a Catholic himself to write liturgical music for the Russian Orthodox Church.  There are three string quartets which for my part is the only conventional music I might be possibly interested to be looking for.  That he doesn’t fit the normal bill does not indicate a lack of proficiency.  I could name you a composer who did not write a conventionally numbered symphony, wrote many operas including children’s operas and numerous song cycles.  His name is Benjamin Britten and he was a genius.  So we simply cannot rush to judgment upon Cui because of the paucity of his chosen genres.

His main aim from the start was to devote himself to promoting the works of his fellow kuchkists, the other four.  His own music does not appear to have matched theirs and the received wisdom is that he was just not the talented composer he aspired to be.

One cannot overlook however his activities in the field of musical criticism.  He was to contribute almost 800 articles between 1864 and 1900 (and he continued on till 1918) to various newspapers and other publications in Russia and further afield. His coverage included operas, concerts, recitals, musical life, new publications of music, and personalities. As an army officer he had to write under a pseudonym, which consisted of three asterisks (***).  One wonders if he ever might have needed to do a write up on Elgar’s Enigma Variations where there is a variation marked *** to indicate an anonymous friend. Anyway everybody who was anybody in St Petersburg knew who *** was without having to go to Bletchley Park to find out. He particularly expressed disdain for any music pre-Beethoven. Sarcasm was a regular aspect from his pen and he was known for his particularly vinegary and vitriolic reviews. His primary object was to promote the music of contemporary Russian composers, especially the works of his fellow members of The Five. Even they, however, were not spared from his blistering remarks now and then and Mussorgsky especially got it in the neck after the first performance of Boris Godunov in 1874. Russian composers outside of The Five, however, were more often likely to receive a viperous critique. Cui lambasted Tchaikovsky, a man of very delicate sensitivities. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.1 received a disastrous first performance after being massacred by Glazunov who conducted and then receiving a poisoned dart from Cui which resulted in the work never being played again in Rachmaninoff’s life time.  As a result, Cui had plenty of enemies of his own and one cartoon depicted him under a caption written in Latin “Hail, César Cui, we who are about to die salute you.”

Like other members of the five; Cui had a particular admiration for Liszt and Berlioz whom he regarded as progressives. Of Wagner he liked what he was trying to do but not the way he was doing it (leitmotifs). Liszt was highly complementary of Cui’s opera, William Ratcliff.  Cui also had accompanied Borodin on his trips to Belgium where Cui was introduced to the Comtesse de Mercy-Argenteau to whom Cui seems to have dedicated a number of works whilst she was instrumental in arranging the staging of one of his operas. Then there were foreign musical institutions which conferred honours upon him including his being made a correspondent member of the Académie française and being awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

As to his music and his reputation, we know little.  The general comments I had found were that his music was light, lyrical but no of no great weight or originality.  The only reason for our quest of discovery is because he is the one member of the Five even if he is taken to be of no great shakes.  There is a problem with that assumption.  Frequently assessments of composers are built on hearsay and prejudice. The survival into posterity of a composer’s standing is treated as if derived from the Darwin theory of natural selection.  Those who don’t make it can’t be any good. I disagree. Darwin clearly was unfamiliar with the principle of the concert promoter under which a composer gets selected and plugged.  This creates the potboilers and the audiences. The rest become unknowns and the audiences, unlike in Beethoven’s day, don’t go in for incognitos.  I cannot tell you the pleasure I have derived from unearthing the music of for instance, Ferdinand Ries, secretary and biographer of Beethoven; Georges Onslow, contemporary of Berlioz, the French Beethoven, whose quartets and quintets should be in the repertoire of every chamber group; Charlies Villiers Stanford who preceded Elgar and whose symphonies, magical as they are, have been obliterated; and Hummel, famous in his day, who is making a comeback.  Just try his masses.    None of these four might make the top premiership but nor should they have been condemned to the oblivion of the non-leaguers. 

I did state at the outset that my first-hand knowledge of the music of Cui was zilch. I have though, whilst writing this article, now had the opportunity to listen to a very few sample extracts only from downloads which contained music by Cui.    I had entertained some hopes of excavating some sixth city of Troy.  Alas I have neither struck gold nor a wooden horse.  From what I have heard there is not going to be any resurrection.

Nevertheless, let us not forget that Cui was, like the majority of the Five, an amateur with a principal career.  He was a military man to the last. His speciality was in the field of engineering and the building of fortifications.  Cui eventually ended up teaching at three of the military academies in Saint Petersburg. His students over the decades included several members of the Imperial family, including Tsar Nicolas II, the last of the Romanovs. His own study of fortifications was gained from frontline experience during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. As an expert on military fortifications, he eventually attained the status of professor in 1880 and the military rank of general in 1906. His writings on the subject of fortifications included textbooks that were widely used, in several successive editions.  So let me eat my words.  A nonentity he might have been as a composer, as opposed to an unknown genius. We have to listen to much more of his music to judge but there is no doubt that César Cui was at the very top of the tree in his chosen profession. In his photographs he does not look like the model of a modern major general but with his rounded lorgnettes more like one of the officers out of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Still, how many other top generals might there have been who were also able to write a note of music, I ask.  Wellington? Rommel? Montgomery? Eisenhower? Julius Caesar?

The fortresses which Cui built were not penetrated during the First World War. They held despite their having been built to face north/south and not east/west, reflecting Turkey as the perceived enemy and not Germany.   It was revolution and mass desertions in the army which brought Russia down.  Whatever doubts one has about his place in musical history Cui has earned a position in military history. Let’s face it, he did a somewhat better job for Russian defences than André Maginot would do for the French.

In 1916, Cui became blind, but was able to continue to compose by dictation. César Cui died on 26 March 1918 of cerebral apoplexy. Little wonder as first it was only five months after the October Revolution and just a mere three weeks following the signing of the treaty of Brest Litovsk between the newly formed Soviet Union and the Kaiser’s Germany and for Russia to exit the First World War. That would have been the nail in the coffin for General Cui.