Influential People: Anton Arensky

So this article comes along far more because of who the man taught than any other influence his compositions had.

Oh, Scriabin, why must you write this music?
Oh, Scriabin, why must you write this music? (He kinda looks like him, though, am I right?)

We’ve talked about Anton Arensky only once before, with regards to his piano concerto. It was a work unabashedly modeled after his (and everyone else’s) professor’s piano concerto, who modeled his piano concerto after Liszt’s first piano concerto. Well, maybe not ‘modeled after,’ but at least ‘influenced by’…

There isn’t a ton of information on Arensky, especially as he he died unfortunately at the age of only 44. He was musically gifted and his family moved to St. Petersburg when he was only 18 so he could go to the conservatory there, where he studied under Rimsky-Korsakov. After studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he began teaching at the Moscow conservatory, where he taught, among others, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin, and refused, as we shall later learn, to sign Scriabin’s graduation certificate. Those are the two big names that got him his place here. There were obviously more students of his, but those two are the names that jump out, and they will shortly be making appearances, as will tuberculosis, having also made much shorter the life of another very promising composer we shall discuss next week.

An AllMusic article (which one I forget) states that Arensky died when he was 35, but that’s wrong, or at least not in agreement with Wikipedia. One of them is wrong. Wiki says he was 44 and died in Finland from tuberculosis, his health problems apparently exacerbated by drinking and gambling.

I’d suggest then, that as a teacher of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, Arensky’s influence was probably more pedagogical than compositional. He retired from teaching at the age of 41 and spent his time “as a pianist, conductor, and composer,” says Wikipedia.

That being said, it seems there are a few sentiments to consider when evaluating a composer’s merits. For one, the works we have and will be discussing are opus numbers 2 and 4. I don’t know of many composers who have outrageously successful opus numbers that low. At least they’re (hopefully) not career high points. So that’s one thing: get to know his more mature things.

And secondly is that he was apparently far more adept at or well-known for or comfortable with smaller ensembles. Wikipedia says “Arensky was perhaps at his best in chamber music, in which genre he wrote two string quartets, two piano trios, and a piano quintet.” Those are works I’d be interested to hear, but I apparently haven’t been motivated enough to check them out yet. He also wrote three operas, some vocal stuff, and a handful of music for solo piano. I’d be interested to check out his other works and see what he as a composer was really like.

I can see the association between him and his own teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, but I do wonder about Arensky’s influence on his two star pupils. Did they become such because of Arensky’s talents as a teacher, or were they just destined to be great? As we shall see in Scriabin’s case, their opinions or approaches differed greatly, so I can’t imagine he was greatly indebted to Arensky for some life-altering insight he passed down. But I could be wrong. Maybe the greater star pupil was Rachmaninoff, although I’m not sure what their relationship was like. He, like Arensky, also wrote chamber works, trios, and other stuff that Scriabin didn’t.

No matter how much I write about what I think about this guy, today’s post is a short one. He has a really solid place in the genealogy of Russian music, as a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, admirer of Tchaikovsky and student/professor at two big-name conservatories, as well as having taught who would become even bigger names. All that being said, as we shall see on Thursday, even his own teacher opined that Arensky was destined to be forgotten. C’est la vie, no?


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