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Alexander Tcherepnin discusses his career ; part 1

BROADCAST: May. 21, 1962 | DURATION: 00:25:07


Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin discusses his early upbringing, training, and composing in Saint Petersburg, as well as the influence of his composer father, Benois family relatives, and associates of Ballet russes.


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Studs Terkel [content removed, see catalog record] A boy of eleven years old wrote that some years ago in Saint Petersburg, one of 10 bagatelles. His name, Alexander Tcherepnin, lived in, was in Saint Petersburg. The family, musical; family involved so much with the fine arts of the city, of the country, and the world, really. Our guest again for the third time, Mr. Tcherepnin, composer, performer. As you heard this first bagatelle, "Bagatelle No. 1," that you composed, let's go back to beginnings, Alexander.

Alexander Tcherepnin [unintelligible] Shall I tell you--

Studs Terkel It's in Saint Petersburg.

Alexander Tcherepnin Mm-hmm.

Studs Terkel Somewhere at the turn of the century.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes.

Studs Terkel Early part. How did you come to be a composer at the age of 11? How did this come about?

Alexander Tcherepnin Well, you see, since very young age when I remember myself, I already always wanted to be composer. And as a matter of fact, my mother taught me how to write music before I learned how to write alphabet. And I fooled around on piano and I immediately start to write down whatever would come to my head, what I would feel it would be okay to write down. And, of course, I was not so sure that I will become a composer but this was my greatest aim. So I believed that if I would pray to the icon that was hanging in my room it might help. So each day I start my day by praying to that icon, that was very [darkened?] and was supposed to be icon of my Saint, Alexander Nevsky, and I ask God to please arrange that I become a composer. Now, somehow it succeeded but there was a kind of a little thing, of misunderstanding. Some years later they wash that icon and it happened that it was not icon of my Saint but of some kind of another Saint. But still he was probably, he passed the information to my Saint, and my Saint passed the information to God so finally it came, turned all okay with me.

Studs Terkel And you did become a composer.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yeah.

Studs Terkel Your mother, you say, your mother taught you the musical alphabet before the alphabet of the word. Her background? Your mother's side of the family was a distinguished family in field of the arts in Russia.

Alexander Tcherepnin Oh, yes. Her father was an colorist, Albert Benois. That's the family Benois immigrated to Russia at the time of French Revolution. And since then they were always or else architects or else painters. One of my ancestors built all the station between Petersburg and Moscow and many buildings in Petersburg are produced by the Benois'. And what was quite interesting, that Benois family never intermarried with Russians. So one of the early Benois' married the daughter of the Italian composer Cavos, who came from Venice. The other Benois, my grandfather, married the German pianist, Maria Kind, who was a student of [Leschetizky?] and who came from, who was born in Leipzig and whose ancestor was the librettist of Carl Maria von Weber, you know. The opera "Freischütz," etcetera. So this family, this part of family was strictly artistic. I mean the Benois and the Kind, specifically the Benois.

Studs Terkel And in the field of painting, too? Painting primarily?

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. Primarily painting.

Studs Terkel But music.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes.

Studs Terkel And the field of theater, too, perhaps?

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. Alexander Benois was, as a matter of fact, with my father, with Diaghilev, and with Fokine. He was the founder of the movement of the Ballets Russes. And you know how it started--that Isidora Duncan came to dance in Russia and she did the sacrilege of dance exhibit Korvin symphony and I don't think this is absolutely different than ever was seen ballet. So some people criticized her very much, some other people became very enthusiastic, and [the?] Benois was among the enthusiastic. And Fokine also. And so they decided now to do similar dance that would be absolutely free; dance free from any classical conception. But with the material of dancers who were trained in classical way. So, of course, they could do any step with no difficulty and there was a virtuoso approach to thing, that Isadora Duncan did mostly from emotional side. Yes?

Studs Terkel You were raised then in a time of great artistic ferment and you, yourself, were right in the middle of it since your family members, your family were directly involved in these new changes and these changes taking place.

Alexander Tcherepnin Oh, yes. Of course. And what more, because I was the only son, my father always allowed me to attend any kind of meeting, and so did my uncle, Alexander Benois. So I, personally, was present at the beginning of meetings about Russian ballet and about--before the first Russian ballet season in Paris in 1909. And, of course, my father also have taken me to Paris. So I was there at the premiere of the Russian Ballet in 1909. When I read now in "Figaro," about two years ago, three years ago, when it was in 1959, I read an article about this. I felt, really, about a thousand times dead. Because of my, became already a legend.

Studs Terkel The truth is you are very, indeed, very much alive with the music you are writing today. I think we should point out there a biography of our guest written by Willi Reich, "Alexander Tcherepnin," that tells of the works you've written. And I didn't realize there were hundreds of works that you have composed.

Alexander Tcherepnin Oh, yes. There are many. All depends on how you will count them. If you count them by titles it will be several hundreds because, you know, if you write melodies or small piano piece you give them titles so that's endless number of battles. But if you really count those that I have counted as important composition I am actually on my Opus 94.

Studs Terkel 94. What about your father's side of the family, the Tcherepnin side? This, too, musical?

Alexander Tcherepnin No. My father was the first musician in the family, in his family. His father was a doctor. And, by the way, he was the doctor of Dostoevsky who was there when Dostoevsky died. So that was an entirely different atmosphere and my father had a great difficulty to persuade his father to let him to become a musician. But I must say, I also had it difficult to persuade my father to become a musician. Because my father felt that it's too nerve-wracking to be a musician. And I feel it's the most, the best thing one can do.

Studs Terkel The most exhilarating.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes.

Studs Terkel Was this after you prayed to the icon and your wishes came true? There was a baby grand piano I understand that figured early in your life, in your room?

Alexander Tcherepnin Oh, yes. That's when my father finally decided that I might become a musician. Then the baby grand was moved to my room and then I was free to make noise at any moment of the day to the great distress of my neighbors.

Studs Terkel So all these ten, these ten, we heard "Bagatelle No. 1" a moment ago.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes.

Studs Terkel We may hear now "Bagatelles 8, 9, and 10" as played by the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Berlin.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes.

Studs Terkel A word about these bagatelles and a boy composer?

Alexander Tcherepnin You see, the thing is that I compose them mostly as presents for my family for Christmas, or for Easter, or for whatever it is. And I composed about two hundred of them, of small, little piano pieces. And those pieces, sometime when I would bring this to my grandfather, I would just steal the [piece off the thing?] and bring this home. And when I left Russia I took them out of sentimental reasons with me. And then when the French publisher became interested in me I just furnished them with one set, with another set, with the third set, so I had about 10 different sets out of those pieces. And for reason absolutely unknown to me the bagatelles became the most popular of them. And just lately, about two years or three years ago, a Swiss pianist, Margrit Weber, asked me to orchestrate them. I mean not orchestrate the music, but to find an orchestral accompaniment for the pieces. Now this she recently recorded in Berlin with the conductor Fricsay. And now you will hear them; three of those bagatelles, three or four of them with the accompaniment of the orchestra.

Studs Terkel Just one word before we hear the three bagatelles, Alexander Tcherepnin. And looking at this book of Willi Reich, this biography of you, it's in German but I make out this phrase down below; and [I'm wondering about?] this phrase, "Tcherepnin [German]" as your 11-year old, there's a picture, you're 11-years old. [German] about the time of, [German]. What is meant by [German]?

Alexander Tcherepnin You see, my father was kind of, approached my, those little pieces with humor and he called them [German], what means in English, flies. You know, those flies that bite you and that you scratch?

Studs Terkel Little flies?

Alexander Tcherepnin Jumping flies. Yes.

Studs Terkel Oh, little gnats? Gnats.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes, this kind of thing. And so I was supposed to compose thousands of them and when I would have reached the number of thousand my father would compose an opera. That was his dream. But I did not reach the thousand that he composed this opera later on. But, at any rate, it was a production at any kind of anniversary, any kind of occasion.

Studs Terkel Here, then, are three of the [German], three of the bagatelles.

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right.

Studs Terkel 8, 9, 10, as played by Margrit Weber.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. By the way, there will be four because the fourth, the last one, is the one that you already heard but now orchestrated. [content removed, see catalog record]

Studs Terkel The last of the bagatelles, the last three of the ten bagatelles of Tcherepnin at the age of 11. Composer. I suppose memories, as you listen to the bagatelles, do thoughts come to you? The city, Saint Petersburg; this city at the time which you lived in it.

Alexander Tcherepnin Well, it smells to me like that city. And, you know, a special smell of [Russian]. I don't know what this, how it is in English. [Russian], you know, what they put on streets, you know? It smells [unintelligible]--

Studs Terkel Oh, the tar?

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. The tar.

Studs Terkel The tar.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. A very black one and very smell one. I thought the smell. I don't know, all kinds of other smells are coming and all kinds of street, street cries--somebody who would sell the cucumbers, somebody who would tidy knives, you know? They will go and each one--

Studs Terkel Scissors grinder?

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. Each one would have his kind of a [cry?], and also the town is just as familiar to me as now. Just lately the French have shown me [lenses?], of Petrograd, Leningrad it is called now. I would recognize every corner only that it became quite clean now. And it was not so clean in my time.

Studs Terkel It becomes very much alive to you now as you listen to the music? In your mind's eye it's clear?

Alexander Tcherepnin Oh, yes. You know, just when the Boston Symphony went to Russia and Mr. [Munch?], who is a very great friend of mine, he brought me back from Russia two things. First of all, he went to the cathedral that was opposite my house, and he brought some Russian earth. And he put this in a little thing and I keep this with me wherever I go. And then he photographed the house of my ancestors because the house in which I lived was the Benois house that was built by Benois and belonged to the Benois family. And then when I told this to my uncle, I wrote this to my uncle, Alexander Benois, who was at that time living in Paris, he sent me a big picture. And this picture represented exactly what I was seeing from my windows. And this cathedral, by the way, still working as a cathedral; it's not transformed to museum but they, how they say, they pray God in that cathedral.

Studs Terkel You, a moment ago, before we went on the air, during the playing the bagatelles, you referred to Saint Petersburg or Leningrad as a city, a museum city.

Alexander Tcherepnin That's what they--

Studs Terkel A city of the past.

Alexander Tcherepnin No. Because it's really represent an epoch in Russian history that started with Peter the Great who started Saint Petersburg, or now became Leningrad, and intended also with the [epoch?] but it's still the revolution was in Saint Petersburg, not in Moscow. So there are memories--

Studs Terkel Now as you open the windows-- To

Alexander Tcherepnin

Studs Terkel That's right. To the other parts of the world. And

Alexander Tcherepnin

Studs Terkel Oh, yes. And it was Saint Petersburg, rather than Moscow.

Alexander Tcherepnin And, so, I remember very clearly the moment of revolution and the tremendous enthusiasm that I had when the Tsarists regime fall. Because I really never believed in Tsarists regime and felt it was a great blessing for Russia to lose it.

Studs Terkel The city of Saint Petersburg, Leningrad today, I'm told this is still the number one city when it comes to the field--and I'm told this, I don't know whether it's so or not--do you know anything about this? That there's the head of Moscow, really, like the Kirov Ballet is there. The people seem more hip. I don't know. Is this true? Than the people of Moscow, say?

Alexander Tcherepnin Really, I was no more in Russia, I never returned since I left in 1918. So I do not know. I heard in Paris, Leningrad's Philharmonic under Mravinsky. It was a wonderful orchestra. Otherwise I have not seen any other production of Leningrad because mostly all production that we see here comes from Moscow. And most artists that are coming here are living in Moscow.

Studs Terkel Well, before your family left for other parts, for Paris, and before you spent time in Paris, and in Monte Carlo, and in Vienna--other parts of Russia you knew and traveled in? Georgia, for one, the province of Georgia.

Alexander Tcherepnin You see that, in 1918, when the revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution occurred, in that very moment my father received an invitation to become the director of the Conservatory in Georgia, in Tbilisi. And so this--

Studs Terkel Is this in Tbilisi?

Alexander Tcherepnin In Tbilisi, yes. So, in the summer of 1918 we, all the family, my mother, my father, and myself we went to Tbilisi and it was kind of a very hazardous traveling because the south of Russia was occupied by Austrian and Hungarian armies. And then it was also, the [police?] in Georgia was also occupied, I think, by Germans or by Turks or something like that. So, we had all the difficulty to get there. And then when we came there we stayed there for three years. And those three years I was then 19, from 19 till 22. Those are probably the years when one's character is formed very much. And I was very interested in Georgian art and in Georgian music. That is absolutely different from Russian music and that has this kind of a faculty, that it conserved the kind of medieval way of composing. It's always modal and the people, and street, and the folk songs are not monadic, but they are always sung in three voices. Just like approximately three equal voices, like it was done in Medieval ages. So I studied Georgian church music. I heard lots of Georgian music, and not only I have since then composed many things but Georgian material, but somehow Georgian music became a part of myself. So the Georgian people consider me to be a Georgian composer, just like Russian people consider me a Russian composer or Paris people consider me to be of [French] or lately I've had the honor to be considered as an American composer.

Studs Terkel So you become your music, then, whether it's a process of artistic osmosis or whatever it's called, you, yourself, become artistically part of the landscape of which you're part?

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right.

Studs Terkel So, is it that you, yourself, become part of the very culture where you are? And your music takes on these tones? Is that the idea?

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. That's right. It was just, it became a part of myself, that Georgian music. Perhaps it would be amusing for you to hear just a kind of, that I have done later but it's just the representative of Georgian dance, you know. Those people, Georgian people, Georgian men are supposed to be the most beautiful men of the world. And they love to dance those kind of fiery dances where they take daggers and they [swoop?] those daggers, and dance around [with shrieking?], etcetera. Now this little dance that you might hear--

Studs Terkel It's the Kartsuli?

Alexander Tcherepnin It's the Kartsuli. You have this--

Studs Terkel Is this primarily a male dance?

Alexander Tcherepnin Male dance. It's only male dance.

Studs Terkel This is full of leaps and wild bouncing?

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right. Exactly.

Studs Terkel The Kartsuli. This is your interpretation? Of Georgian dance.

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right. It's not even a Georgian popular theme but it's just the character of the Kartsuli dance. [content removed, see catalog record]

Studs Terkel Think of these wild, Georgian male dancers--they were in Chic--in American, in Chicago about a couple of years ago.

Alexander Tcherepnin Oh, I wasn't there.

Studs Terkel Oh, really? The Georgian Dance [school event?].

Alexander Tcherepnin Oh, they are fascinating, those Georgian dance--I mean, there is only one Georgian dance and that's Kartsuli or [unintelligible]. However, they call it according to the regions. But they are dancing this with so much excitement that everybody becomes just as excitement as here in Chicago near my home at wrestling, you know? Everybody has to shriek and everybody is delighted to see those men, the feeling.

Studs Terkel You were there, in Georgia, for about three years?

Alexander Tcherepnin For three years. That's right.

Studs Terkel This is what period? You were still quite young.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes.

Studs Terkel Your formative period, you say?

Alexander Tcherepnin This was from 19 till 22 when--of my age--from 19 till 22.

Studs Terkel So, during that period you caught the flavor of the music. As you said earlier, wherever you are that music is part, you used the phrase somewhere, in one of the biographical notes about you, "A composer--homesickness is unknown to a composer." That is, if he's really involved with the world, with life. As you apparently are, Alexander.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes. I mean, the composer has the world in himself because, unlike the other arts, the composer produce what he hears in himself and not what he receives from out--he receives from outside only the influence of the community in which he lives. But it's not the sound, it's ideological, let's say, receiving from outside. But as to the sounds they are coming from him. So, of course, it's exactly the same thing for me--wherever I compose, provide I have a desk and a piano at my disposal.

Studs Terkel As you compose today in Chicago--

Alexander Tcherepnin

Studs Terkel That's right. Yes. On the North Side where you live. Before we touch upon other facets of your composition and performance, another Georgia--another part of the "Georgian Suite," too, I want to return earlier to some of the comments about your very early boyhood and this world, this very rich world of the arts in which you lived. You knew Diaghilev, too?

Alexander Tcherepnin Oh, yes.

Studs Terkel Of course, [you and your people were close to him?].

Alexander Tcherepnin Because, as I told you, it was kind of a group [around?] my uncle, Alexander Benois, in which Diaghilev was one of the person. Then there were Nouvel, [Roerich?], those were two [kibitzers?],

Studs Terkel

Alexander Tcherepnin I must say-- [Kibitzers?] Yes. And then there was Fokine, the ballet master, then my father was the musician and Alexander Benois. And because I was a good friend of my cousin, Nicola Benois, he was approximate of age and he is now in Milan at La Scala, painter. Now, we always were admitted to those reunions so I remember all the discussion. Of course, Daghilev was just as familiar to me as Stravinsky is because when I go to Stravinsky, just like returning to my father, I think. He was a part of the picture.

Studs Terkel When you--

Alexander Tcherepnin But at that time he was not. He came later to the [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel But did you, you were a very small boy and you were taken to these apartments where this very vital, alive discussion was taking place. Do incidents come to mind? Do you remember any particular discussion or kind; what the subject was, or the manner in which it was carried on? I want to--of course, it's the mind of a boy, you know, how it is, how it's recreated? It's--

Alexander Tcherepnin I mean, it would be hard for me to think of one or other incident but I remember of, so clearly about this big dining room table that all those people will sit and they will discuss. But, perhaps, I can tell you a incident that I did not remember. But it was, that has happened was told to me, or else by my father, or else by Alexander Benois; at least by someone. It was the beginning of Diaghilev, because you asked about Diaghilev. Diaghilev, at the beginning, wanted to be a composer. And so he took his manuscripts and went to Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky-Korsakov listened to this composer and say, "You know, you better change. You do something [other?] because for composition you certainly never will succeed." Diaghilev was so furious that he banged the door and told Rimsky-Korsakov, "You will regret what you have said." But evidently, [returning home?], he considered himself under a different angle and so he became, instead of being a creator himself, he put all his creativity in making the other creators the best they could. Now, just lately, Cocteau spoke that when he first was commissioned for to work with Diaghilev, he had this kind of a trembling--will he be up to Diaghilev's expectation? So that man had this fantastic nose, this fantastic energy that pushed so many things further, that created the entire movement that really was blossoming. And that was not only typical Russian, because he served the, all the arts, I would say.

Studs Terkel So the man who could not become the composer, the creative spirit in that sense, became the great impresario?

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right. Exactly.

Studs Terkel [Became the?] one whose sense was such that even though he, himself, did not--

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes?

Studs Terkel Create, he became a creative spirit in some other way; of producing, of seeing that their works were [represented?].

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right. But you know, at that time it was the heroic period of the Russian ballet, or [Russe balles?], because after such a long preparation, well, the ballet was rather only occasion for people to dance, you know. But it came now where the composer was the boss, became the boss. With Diaghilev it was, first of all they would discuss, all together with the composer. I remember the discussion, for instance, for my father's ballet, "Narcisse," that they would sit there and they would discuss about how it will be, what will be the libretto. And then it will be left to the composer to write an absolutely free score approximately following the plot. And the composer would work on this one year. After this one year the score will be played for the choreographer and for the painter. And so they will come and they will compose, they will compose their choreography after the music and they will compose their--how to say it--compose their paintings, also after the music. Now this was only a cert--a comparatively short period that started in 1909 and it ended in the 30s. So just, you have heard this ballet, this dance from Georgia that we played here. Now this was a dance from a ballet that I have composed for [La Foire?], in 1946, that was based on a Georgian legend. And that was--legend--and that was such a long ballet--three hours--that he had to [attract?] three composer to compose the ballet because he was in a hurry. And still he was in such a hurry that he staged the ballet before the composer started to compose. So, instead of following the composer's [idea?], the composer had to fill out 64 time 4 measures or [unintelligible]--

Studs Terkel Follow the stager's idea?

Alexander Tcherepnin Thus, returning to the old style, to the old kind of a ballet. And, so, we were certainly [hard off?] to invent that kind of music that would absolutely fit into the already made dances.

Studs Terkel So this first movement of the "Georgiana Suite," we heard the fourth before, the "Kartsuli," the male Georgian dance.

Alexander Tcherepnin That's right.

Studs Terkel The "Ceremonial," the first movement then--

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes.

Studs Terkel Is reflective of the Georgian ballet music that you composed?

Alexander Tcherepnin No, it was more of Georgian ceremonial songs, I would say. And it is, this uses authentic Georgian themes. The previous one was a freely invented theme in the rhythm of a Georgian dance. But this one use a authentic Georgian theme.

Studs Terkel The "Ceremonial." This

Alexander Tcherepnin

Studs Terkel "Ceremonial," yes. This is, well, perhaps another word about the "Ceremonial"? What sort of ceremonial? Is this, again, the idea of a medieval court procession? Is this the idea? The picture of it?

Alexander Tcherepnin No. It is this way: that in this ballet it is at the ceremonial court of the reign of the Queen Tamar. And the Queen Tamar was a wonderful Queen that patronized the arts and whose love to the poet, Shota Rustaveli, became a legend. The ballet, by the way, was called "Chota Rostaveli," and [depicted?] the love of Shota to his queen. And, by the way, he was so, how do you say, he was so high-minded that when he felt that he fall in love with the Queen, he choose rather the way of exile rather than to stay with the Queen and to become a courtesan, how do you say.

Studs Terkel He would not do that.

Alexander Tcherepnin Yes.

Studs Terkel He did not become part of a court, rather he wanted to be the free, independent, creative spirit. The poet.

Alexander Tcherepnin Exactly. And so he went, I think, to Persia and wrote his most celebrated poem, that is a classical poem, just like Finnish "Kalevala" or like those very celebrated medieval poems. And in this poem, under different names, he described his love to the Queen Tamar. And that was the plot of the ballet.

Studs Terkel This is the plot of the ballet.

Alexander Tcherepnin And the "Ceremonial" is the introduction of Chota Rostaveli to the Queen Tamar.