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Anton Arensky and the Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky

arensky
Anton Stepanovich Arensky (July 12,1861–February 25, 1906), was a Russian composer of Romantic classical music, a pianist and a professor of music who was born at Novgorod, Russia, in 1861 to a pair of devoted amateur musicians under whose guidance he began his training. He was musically precocious and had composed a number of songs and piano pieces by the age of nine. With his mother and father, he moved to Saint Petersburg in 1879. After private studies in piano and composition with Zikke in St. Petersburg, Arensky entered that city’s conservatory in 1879, where he studied composition taking lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov.

Arensky scored consistently high marks with conservatory faculty during his three years as a student, eventually graduating with a gold medal. Upon the completion of his studies and graduating from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1882, Arensky became became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, one of the youngest professors ever hired by the Conservatory. Among his students there were such future luminaries as Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Gretchaninov. His influence as a teacher has earned him a place of distinction in the history of Russian music.

Arensky’s years at Moscow were fruitful. Between 1882 and his resignation from the Conservatory’s faculty in 1895 he completed most of his larger works, including the early Piano Concerto of 1882 and both Symphonies: B minor 1883; A major 1889. In 1891 his first opera, Son na Volge (A Dream on the Volga) — which he had worked on intermittently since his student days — was successfully premiered in Moscow. His next operatic endeavor, however, fared rather worse than the first; Rafael was an immediate failure at its 1894 premiere.

Having served as director of the Russian Choral Society from 1888 to 1895 during his Moscow days, Arensky returned to his home city of Saint Petersburg in 1895 as the director of the Imperial Chapel Choir, a post for which he had been recommended by his predecessor there, composer Mily Balakirev. Save for occasional national and international tours, he remained there for the rest of his life. By the mid-1890s Arensky’s somewhat diminished stature as a composer was replaced by an increased public awareness of his gifts at the keyboard and on the podium. Arensky retired in 1901 from his position at the imperial chapel to pursue a fuller schedule of conducting and performing appearances, spending his remaining time as a pianist, conductor, and composer.

Little known today, Anton Arensky was one of the brightest stars of the late nineteenth century Russian music scene. He was essentially a miniaturist, and his finest music is to be found in the shorter works for solo piano and his melodious songs (which seem to have influenced Rachmaninov’s conception of Russian song). Arensky was perhaps at his best in chamber music, in which he wrote two string quartets, two piano trios, and a piano quintet.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was the greatest influence on Arensky’s musical compositions. Especially popular are the Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky for string orchestra, Op. 35a, based on one of Tchaikovsky’s Songs for Children, Op. 54. Save for this, little of Arensky’s substantial output has maintained a place on contemporary concert programs. After decades of hard living and overindulgence, Arensky succumbed to tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium in Perkjärvi, Finland. It is alleged that drinking and gambling undermined his health and brought about his untimely death in 1906 at Terioki, Russia.

My collection contains one work by Arensky:

Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, op. 35a.

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