Cesar Cui

Cui was a 19th century Russian composer and critic of French-Lithuanian descent. He was closely associated with Balakirev and The Five and composed many operas and many more miniature works for chamber ensembles and piano.

Cui was born in Vilnius in 1835. His French father was an officer in the French Army, and remained in Russia after Napoleon retreated from Moscow in 1812; he later married Julia Gucewicz and they settled in Vilnius. Cui’s father taught French at the local gymnasium, where he also received his early education. He also began studying piano and had harmony and counterpoint lessons from Moniuszko. In 1851, he entered the Engineering School at St Petersburg, later studying at the Academy of the Military Engineering. He was appointed a lecturer upon his graduation and became a professor in 1879. Cui’s writings on the subject of fortifications were highly acclaimed.

In 1856, Cui decided to pursue a career in music in St Petersburg in 1856, after meeting Balakirev. Shortly after, he also became familiar with the music of Dargomïzhsky and all the members of The Five. Balakirev aided Cui with his orchestration and quite possibly mentored him in the orchestration of his piano scherzos of 1857, his two earliest numbered works. The first of the scherzos references the surname of Cui’s wife, Mal′vina Rafailovna Bamberg, using the note sequence B-A-B-E-G, which the second features the inscription ‘à la Schumann’.

Balakirev also helped Cui score the overture to his first opera Kavkazskiy plennik (A Prisoner in the Caucasus). The opera is based on a libretto of a fellow student from the military academy, Viktor Krïlov, derived from Pushkin. The initial version of the opera (1857-8) only featured two acts and was poorly orchestrated, leading to the cancellation of its premiere. After composing a central act (1881-2), the opera was performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1883.

Cui’s music attracted the attention of the Belgian Countess Louisse de Mercy-Argenteau, who later became his earliest biographer and arranged for the international premiere of the opera in Liège in 1886.

Cui’s second work for the stage, Sïn mandarina (The Mandarin’s Son) (1859) also used a libretto from Krïlov and was partly orchestrated by Balakirev.

Cui’s next opera, Vil′yam Ratklif (William Ratcliff) (1861-8) became his finest large-scale composition and was adapted from the verse translation of Heine’s play, by Pleshcheyev. The opera was premiered in 1869, again at the Mariinsky.

As was expected, the reviews were quite mixed due to the split musical climate in Russia. While Cui’s friends were quite supportive and appreciative, Laroche and Serov were hostile. Of his friends, Rimsky-Korsakov mentioned not only the impact of the narratives, but also the lengthy numbers having a poor effect on the theatrics. He wrote this in the Sanktpeterburgskiye vedomosti, where he was substituting for Cui.

More positive criticism came from Balakirev, though he had filled the score with sarcastic comments. Stasov and Mussorgsky were also very upbeat, declaring it as ‘one of the most important compositions of our time’ and stating that ‘not once has it disappointed our expectations’, respectively. Even among his friends though, his lack of expertise regarding orchestration was commented upon. Rimsky-Korsakov even offered to re-orchestrate the entire work.

Despite the opera’s success and a subsequent revival in Moscow in 1900, it has not yet gained a place in the standard opera repertory.Cui continued on his quest to compose more operas and completed The Stone Guest (1869) shortly after, at the request of Dargomïzhsky just before his death.

In 1972, Cui completed the first act for an opera-ballet Mlada that was to be written by a group of composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Minkus. He was also occupied with the opera Andzhelo (1871-5), a four-act opera after Hugo, with a text by Burenin. His next two operas also featured a French flair, Le filibustier (1888-9) with a libretto by Jean Richepin and Saratsin (1896-8) after Dumas’ Chales VII chez ses grands vassaux.

Later operas include the one-act Pir vo vremya chumï (A Feast in Time of Plague) (1900) and the full-length opera Kapitanskaya dochka (The Captain’s Daughter) (1907-9), both based on Pushkin stories, and several more operas on French works. He also wrote four children’s operas.

Despite his great number of operas and stage works, Cui composed even more vocal and instrumental works, mostly miniatures.

For nearly 40 years, Cui worked as a music critic, contributing to many different journals and newspapers including the Sanktpeterburgskiye vedomosti (1864–77), Novoye vremya (1876–80, 1917), Nedelya (1884–89, 1895), Novosti i birzhevaya gazeta (1896–1900), and the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris (1878–80). He also authored the book La musique en Russie (1880), which, along with his vast number of reviews, supported the ideals of The Five. Works of a different nature were often overlooked by Cui, and he found the music of Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein to be particularly distasteful. He once coined Rachmaninov’s First Symphony ‘a programme symphony of the Seven Plagues of Egypt’. Not even his friends were safe from his sometimes snarky reviews. One particularly unfriendly review was aimed as the first complete performance of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, though Cui later championed Mussorgsky’s works.

Cui’s stage music reflects influences from Auber and Meyerbeer, and has been deeply criticized for its extensive use of solo song and lack of dramatic depth. Some of his works, most notably William Ratcliff, feature musical realism and melodic recitative, which are balanced by lyrical melodies.

Cui’s output includes many songs and short chamber and piano pieces, inspired by Chopin. He also composed a sonata and three string quartets.

Cui received many awards and honours throughout his life including being named a member of the Institut de France in 1894 and receiving celebrations for the 25th anniversary of William Ratcliff and to celebrate his 50th year as a composer. Cui also served in the Russian Music Society.

Cui’s music has experienced a small revival since the 20th century, and stagings of several of his operas have taken place throughout Europe, including Puss-in-Boots, The Mandarin’s Son and Feast in Time of Plague.

Mily Balakirev

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