For Peter Roy Cook
Dr. David C.F. Wright
Some of the most attractive and well-written piano music is that of the Russian, Felix Mikhailovich Blumenfeld. His 24 Preludes, Op 17, of 1892 are as good, if not better, than those of Chopin and certainly superior to those of Scriabin. Blumenfeld’s preludes have thematic material and a purpose whereas those of Scriabin are often merely brief mood pictures.
Blumenfeld’s first prelude is in C and is marked Andante religoso and has a theme which is varied, with an excellent contrast of tone and it successfully evokes the intended character. The second, in A minor, is an impressive allegro agitato, again with thematic material. The third, in G, is a scherzo with a recurring them. The fourth, in E minor, is a very fine piece with a running bass and a melody. It has a terrific build up and it is a very satisfying piece The fifth, in D, starts with a theme in a flowing graceful style with rich chords and convincing pianism. Number 6 in B minor is a powerful allegro again with a clear theme. Seven, in A, is another concertante work often of a wistful nature calling for reliable fingerwork. It is a lovely piece. The eighth in F sharp minor has a non-stop right hand part which might recall The Flight of the Bumble Bee. Number 9 in E is a stately but non-pompous quick march. This next is a mysterious piece which may suggest rain but more effectively than Chopin’s Raindrop prelude. The real gem is number 11 in B with a brief middle section in six flats. It is one of the most beautiful melodies you will ever hear and has an excellent accompaniment. The twelfth is a subdued presto first in single notes and then octaves, a sparkling and dramatic piece. Number 13 is in F sharp and is an andantino with a charming melody in which both hands remain in the treble clef. The next prelude is lugubrious and in E flat full of contrast and interest with some rich harmonies. This is followed by a prelude teeming with a gorgeous melody, colour and an onward drive. Number 16 in B flat minor is an adagio with an expressive melody in the left hand and contains a big climax. This is followed by a piece which is a cascading torrent of sound and has a very effective modulation into G sharp minor. Number 18 tends to meander and is subtitled memento mori. It is richly chromatic and introspective whereas number 19 is a peaceful andante with a glowing melody of almost unbearable beauty. The poet Lenau is the inspiration behind number 20, a furious allegro with an initial fascinating bass line. The next prelude has a luscious theme in the left hand and number 22 in G minor is also memorable. The 23rd has another left hand melody with a rapid non-stop set of semiquavers in the right hand. The final prelude is a presto intended to be played forcibly.
However, not all his music is of this high quality. His Allegro de Concert, Op 7, for piano and orchestra does not work. Most of the music is not allegro. The parts that are merry, quick and lively are in the predictable pianistic features and cliches, but most of the music is pedestrian. The orchestral writing is poor and lacks independence. The music lacks originality and becomes tedious.
Felix Blumenfeld was born of Polish descent in Kovalovica, Ukraine on 19 April 1863. He came from a musical family. Both his brothers, Stanislaus (1850–1897) and Sigismund (1859–1920) were gifted musicians. Sigismund was a talented singer, accompanist and composer of songs. Vladimir Rebikov dedicated his Valse Op 2 no. 4 to Stanislaus and, incidentally, his Etude Op 2 no 2 was dedicated to Pachulski. Felix also had a sister, Olga.
Blumenfeld entered the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1881 and studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov and piano with Alexander Stein. He also attended Balaieff’s Friday evening soirees. He graduated in 1885 and immediately taught at the Conservatory and was made a senior professor in 1897. He resigned in 1905 in support of Rimsky-Korsakov who had been sacked for his upholding of students with “new ideas” and who were considered revolutionaries and who were taking part in the 1905 uprising.
Blumenfeld became the conductor of the Marvinsky Theatre in St Petersburg but returned to the Conservatory in 1912 to teach. He was a highly competent pianist but his career as a virtuoso came to an end when he contracted syphilis. He had been a good-looking man and a serial womaniser. This sexually-transmitted disease left him partially paralysed. Syphilis killed Schubert who was a regular frequenter of brothels. However, by the time Blumenfeld was composing his Opus 8 in 1888 he was married as the work is dedication “to my wife”.
He became professor of piano at Kiev Conservatory teaching there until 1922. Among his pupils was Vladimir Horowitz who was born in Kiev in 1903. This pupil achieved great fame which was not afforded to his teacher who dedicated his Episodes dans la vie d’une danseuse Op 52 to him. But it does not appear that Horowitz ever played these pieces. He was a somewhat arrogant young man.
Blumenfeld moved from Kiev to the Moscow Conservatory as a professor in 1922 until his death on 21 January 1931.
While most of his works are for the piano he gave the premiere, as conductor of Scriabin’s Symphony no. 3 known as The Divine Poem and also conducted the Poem of Ecstasy in 1907 although he had strong misgivings about it. He also conducted operas by Rimsky-Korsakov. Blumenfeld also wrote a symphony entitled A la memoire des chers defuncte, Op 39. There is a also a string quartet, Op 26.
We are left with a great question. Why is his music rarely played and, in many quarters, completely unknown?
His piano music may not have the scope and originality of Liszt but a great part of it is of a high quality and not contaminated by the popular salon music of its time with umpteen valses and mazurkas. Much of the music for the salon was popularised by Chopin being music for the reception or drawing rooms of grand houses and is of a showy superficiality. Most of it was played to impressionable women while the men smoked their cigars in another room. Hence the music is often effeminate, predictable and designed for the male-composer-pianist to show off to the fairer sex. There is much music by Blumenfeld which is devoid of this insincere nonsense.
The Etudes fantaisies, Op 25 were published by Balaieff in 1898 and are dedicated to Josef Hofmann the greatest Russian pianist of his time of whom Scriabin was “criminally jealous” as his contemporaries reported. Blumenfeld’s Ballade in the form of variations Op 34 is worthy of pianists attention. The theme, set in five flats but ending in F minor is marked andante lugubre of some imagination. The variations are not numbered and the music plays continuously employing pianistic devices and contrast of moods leading to an exciting Presto non troppo finale.
The Sonata-Fantasie Op 46 appeared in 1913 and dedicated to his friend, Nicolas Terechtchenko. The first movement, allegro non tanto, begins in B minor and ends in B major. The suggested leisurely speed means that the music is held back, but it has thematic material as well as the usual pianistic gymnastics. The slow movement contains a fine melody and is poetic The third movement has a slow introduction and a powerful allegro con fuoco but it loses both its way and continuity in the middle, but eventually regains its purpose and ends furiously.
But it must not be said that Blumenfeld was merely a pianist-composer. He had an excellent working relationship with his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. He assisted the master in preparing for a concert in December 1893 which included Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 and Francesca da Rimini an amazing piece. Felix played the accompaniments on the piano at the house of the master of his opera Snyegoorochka . He was also the accompanist for “Mozart and Salieri”, the opera based on the Pushkin nonsense that Salieri had poisoned Mozart although Blumenfeld was not in sympathy with this work of his teacher. When the master gave up conducting the Russian Symphony Orchestra he was succeeded by Lyadov and Glazunov and then by Blumenfeld and Nicolay Cherepin.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera the Tsar’s Bride was conducted by Napravnik who was rather surly at this task and the baton passed to Blumenfeld who also conducted the rehearsals of Pan Voyovoda. In 1906 he gave eleven performances of Snyegoorochka and, in the 1906–7 season, conducted the operas Cherevichski and Snyegoorochka.
In May 1907, Blumenfeld, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Glazunov, Josef Hofmann and the composer Alexander Scriabin met together to study and discuss Scriabin’s new work Poem of Ecstasy and some of his piano music. Apart from the composer, the verdict was that Scriabin was “out of his mind, if he had a mind at all.”
In February 1908 Blumenfeld conducted excerpts of Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky and Glazunov’s The Sea, Stravinsky’s The Faun and the Shepherdess and Borodin’s Symphony no. 2 in B minor. Blumenfeld also performed orchestral works by his illustrious teacher in Paris in 1908.
Clearly Blumenfeld was a very accomplished musician.
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