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An engineer, military officer, and self-taught composer, César Cui was also a perceptive critic. As a member of the Mighty Handful of composers, he did much to help shape Russian nationalism in the nineteenth century.
Born in Poland, he was the son of a Lithuanian woman and a French officer who had been trapped in Russia following Napoleon's rout in 1812. Cui displayed precocious musical talent and was taught the pianoforte at an early age. He also received instruction in musical theory, but upon his graduation from school in Wilno, he chose to enter the School of Military Engineering in Saint Petersburg. He became a sub-professor at the Artillery School and Staff College and was recognized as an authority on fortification, even instructing Emperor Nicholas II. He ascended to the rank of lieutenant general and, as a collateral activity, took the post of president of the Imperial Russian Musical Society.
In 1857, Cui encountered Mily Balakirev and not only was his musical enthusiasm fired, he became a disciple of Balakirev and an ardent devotee of his Russian nationalist beliefs. As he did with most everyone else he met, Balakirev bullied Cui and made continual, insistent demands with regard to his compositional efforts. Cui began to compose in earnest and in 1859 produced his first operetta, The Mandarin's Son. It was an early and lackluster effort, but Cui pressed on, winning the prize of the Imperial Russian Music Society in 1860 for a work which combined chorus and orchestra. He had also composed his first three orchestral works: a pair of scherzos and an early tarantella.
Ten years elapsed before Cui produced another opera; it was an ambitious work, a drama in three acts based upon Heine's romantic tragedy William Ratcliff. It was premiered in Saint Petersburg in 1869, was well-received, and established Cui's reputation as a composer of Russian opera. He followed this in 1875 with another large-scale dramatic work based upon the play Angelo by Victor Hugo. Posterity has come to view this as possibly the finest work of Cui's maturity, but it did not receive the adulation nor the popular acceptance of the earlier work.
In the meantime, Cui began to write reviews and essays on musical subjects and became a frequent and respected critic and contributor to many leading Russian papers. As a critic, Cui was perceptive and witty. His articles also appeared in both French and Belgian publications and he used these to call attention outside Russia to the growing nationalism of Russian music.
Though he produced many songs and other larger-scale vocal works, another 13 years passed before Cui produced another opera. This was Le Flibustier, based upon a play by Jean Richepin. Finally presented five years later, in 1894, it was enthusiastically received but did not endure. Between 1899 and 1903, he wrote more operas, continued to produce a few orchestral works, larger numbers of vocal pieces, and solo works for pianoforte during these years. As he finished his career, he generated three more operatic works, the last of which, Puss-in-Boots, was unfinished and unperformed at his death.
Cui produced effective and interesting works, and was at his best smaller forms, such as vocal solos, duets and works for piano.
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