Composers of Today: A Comprehensive Biographical and Critical Guide to Modern Composers of All Nations

By David Ewen | Go to book overview
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Michael Gniessin 1883-

MICHAEL FABIANOVICH GNIESSIN was born at Rostovon-Don on January 23, 1883. An uneventful life, his was, nevertheless, a life consecrated entirely to music. He was educated at the Petrograd Conservatory, under such outstanding teachers as Rimsky-Korsakoff and Glazunov. However, his early works such as After Shelley for orchestra which Alexander Siloti introduced in 1908 and the Vroubel which, in the same year, won the Belaiev "Glinka Prize," reveal remarkable originality and disclose none of the fingerprints of the teachers under whom he had studied. As MontaguNathan informs us: "His compositions do not . . . reveal any sign of being influenced by these masters; they are, in fact, singularly free from any suggestions of assimilated substance or manner. But they testify to a great depth of poetic feeling, and, further, to a technical mastery that is certainly not excelled by any other representative of young musical Russia. And he lacks nothing of the versatility of his contemporaries."

In 1911, Gniessin came to Berlin to study German music at first-hand. His German sojourn influenced Gniessin much more than it did his confrère Glière, for Gniessin's style began to acquire a greater polish and softness during his years at Berlin. Upon returning to Moscow, Gniessin became a professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory, and he has held this position with distinction and honor until today.

"Strangely, in spite of the fact that he has composed a great deal, Gniessin's works possess characteristic signs of groping," writes Leonid Sabaneyev in discussing such works as the Piano Quintet, and The Conqueror Worm, composed during the Berlin sojourn. "He produced experiments and essays more than complete compositions. It seemed as if he did not clearly know his own path. . . . Least of all was he the type of the inspired artist to whom musical visions come of themselves without effort. And, apparently endowed with a keen critical sense, he was himself dissatisfied with a great deal, and persistently sought the sphere in which he might and must manifest himself. This sphere he found considerably later in Jewish music."

It was when Gniessin associated himself with Alexander Kreyn in producing Jewish music, that he first reached full maturity. In such operas as the Youth of Abraham, the Maccabeans, he earned the title of "Jewish Glinka" for, here, he produced a vibrant music in which Russian and Hebrew influences blended. "There is fire and madness in this music; the rhythms rush in every direction, like winds in a hurricane. But there is a shimmering background to all this chaos; a poignant voice in all this outburst. One hears in this music the strange pathos of the Hebrews. The same pathos with which Isaiah warned his beloved race of a pending and inevitable doom, the same pathos with which Israel thinks about its long exile in unfriendly countries--that same pathos is to be found in Gniessin's operas."

Technically, these operas are marked by a new form of vocalism which Gniessin invented, a form which he called "musical reading" which, in his own words, is "not declamation . . . but reading with a precise observance of rhythm and pitch." With this form, Gniessin has gone one step forward in the march begun by Debussy to free opera of stilted arias and artificial mel

Gniessen : gnĕ'sĕn


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Composers of Today: A Comprehensive Biographical and Critical Guide to Modern Composers of All Nations
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