Mikhail F. Gnessin: The Jewish Glinka
Mikhail Fabionovich Gnessin (Gnesin) was born in Rostov-on-Don on January 3, 1883 and died in Moscow on February 2, 1957. This composer, educator, and teacher studied at the Petrograd ( St. Petersburg) Conservatoire ( 1901-1909) with such luminaries as Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov, after preliminary studies at the Rostov Technical Institute ( 1892-1899), and with O. O. Fritch. In 1905 he was expelled for taking part in a revolutionary student strike, but was reinstated the following year. Gnessin was generally active in musico-socialist work, lecturing on music at workmen's clubs. His early works such as "Prometheus Unbound, After Shelley" and "Vrubel'" already show an orchestral originality, and the latter won the Glinka prize in 1908. Siloti and Casals performed his Cello Sonata, and he had a brilliant start for a young composer.
In 1911, Gnessin went to Berlin and Paris to study. In 1912-1913 he worked in Meyerhold's St. Petersburg studio and simultaneously taught in the Rostov region until 1923. From 1925 to 1936 he was Professor of Composition at the Moscow Conservatoire and beginning in 1923, he also taught at the now famous Gnessin Institute, founded by his sisters. He was a Professor at the Leningrad Conservatoire between 1935 and 1944; during World War II he was evacuated to Yoshkar-Ola and Tashkent. After the war he became principal of the Gnessin State Institute for Musical Education.
His earlier works are more experimental and interesting than the later ones, although to present-day ears, all of Gnessin's music sounds fairly conventional. In its day, however, and for a short time, Gnessin was as a modernist; so much so that Sabaneev, in his book, accused the composer of "producing experiments and essays more than complete compositions." In common with most composers of the time, Gnessin went through a symbolist period. His interests also included poets such as Poe and Shelley, and the Greek dramatists Sophocles and Euripides. Artists such as Vrubel', Bal'mont, and Ivanov fueled the above tendencies and added a pantheistic outlook.
This experimental phase, if indeed there was ever such a phase, soon gave way to a period devoted to the creation of a peculiarly Jewish music. From 1914 on, Gnessin became interested in the use of Jewish folk materials in his compositions. This interest eventually widened (no doubt due to political pressure and anti-Semitism) to include other ethnic cultures. He even went to Palestine in 1914 and 1921 to gather original impressions at the cradle of Jewish music. Together with Aleksandr Krein, Veprik,