Preludophilia: César Cui's Op. 64

Quite often the pendulum of musicological favor swings to the other side. That's my general impression of the image of Cui - one of the "Mighty Five" no one remembers. I confess that I would have nothing much to do with him if he had not written one of the few Russian prelude sets before the Revolution. A prelude set is a prelude set and this one is peculiar.

César Antonovich Cui (1835-1918) wrote Twenty-five Preludes, Op. 64 in 1903. Although a military engineer by profession, Cui became associated with the “kuchka” and made a reputation as both a composer and a critic. His preludes display several features of overt Russian nationalistic writing including tonic pedal point, irregular phrase lengths, orchestral textures, and modality, while also using mid-century, Schumannesque harmonies and textures. The style of writing as well as dedications of individual pieces to specific patrons or artists suggest an emphasis on showmanship in the stylish French salon tradition. Specifically, Cui dedicated Preludes 1-7 to Maria Semyonova Kerzin, the founder of and driving force behind the “Kerzin Circle” or “Russian Music Lovers’s Circle,” a society in which Cui acted as an informal advisor.

Cui’s order of keys is unique for tracing a circle of fifths where each major key is followed by its minor mediant and includes a twenty-fifth prelude in C Major to complete the cycle:

C e G b D f# A c# E g# B eb F# bb Db f Ab c Eb g Bb d F a C

The opening C Major prelude is in grand, chordal canon style, where imitative entrances are made intimidating and exciting by thick, stomping chords. It's a style later used by Erkki Melartin and Valery Zhelobinsky. Prelude 7 in A Major is also a canon, in a more gentle and playful vein.

My big favorite is Prelude 13 in F-sharp Major. Every now and then you have to embrace a little bit of gooey Romanticism. It has such langor in the chromatic melody and a Chopinesque shifting harmonic sequence. After a very short moment in D Major it explodes in cadenza-like passion before melting into silence. The ladies will swoon!

Overall I find a lot of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words in the melodies and their accompaniments, along with a big emphasis on showy variations replete with running octaves, leaps, and sixteenth-note filagree. They are a lot of fun. Don't be so avant-guarde that you can't find something to enjoy!

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