Friday, March 4, 2011

Tcherepnin Station: Symphony No. 1 in E

In 1927, the Russian-born Alexander Tcherepnin (son of the composer Nikolai) joined an elite group of musical minds — including such greats as Richard Wagner, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Igor Stravinsky, and Guns and Roses: his music caused a riot.

If you've heard of Tcherepnin, it's likely through his piano works, which every kid loves to play — including this kid. Long ago, I remember performing that Op. 5 No. 1 bagatelle, reveling in the dissonance and thinking I was a rebellious teen for choosing Tcherepnin over Beethoven. (Sadly, playing Tcherepnin probably was my most rebellious act. And I probably had to do Beethoven that year, anyway.)

But it was Tcherepnin's Symphony No. 1 in E that made his listeners antsy. In Paris, on October 29, 1927, the percussion-only second movement was apparently too much for the audience.1 Tcherepnin would go on to write three more symphonies, but he must have needed a break after his first one — the Second was composed in 1945 and was first heard in 1951, in Chicago. As far as I know, the Chicago audience remained calm throughout that concert.

Although I didn't scream and yell when I first heard Tcherepnin's First the other day, I'll admit that the composer's concept of "Interpoint" threw me off a little (he capitalized it, but from now on, I won't). It's a kind of interaction between voices or lines that calls attention to the spaces between the notes, rather than the way notes sound at the same time. Breaks in one instrument's lines are highlighted because another voice actively fills in those breaks. Sometimes, this creates a pointillistic effect that breaks down our sense of each line as continuous. Here's an extended intrapuntal section among strings and various winds from the first movement:

This episode, which leads to movement's climax, can be heard as the logical extension of something else Tcherepnin does in the symphony — the trading of motifs from instrument to instrument that Tcherepnin sets up early in the first movement. Here, the voices seem more coordinated and thus less "intrapuntal," but interpoint is just one step away:

What has been pointed to as perhaps a more classic kind of interpoint, and less pointillistic than the example in the first movement, comes in the third movement, which is built on three duets. The first, here, is for horn and trumpet. (If you're into Medieval music and you hear something that sounds like hocketing, you're on the right track — they've been described as related.)

The next intrapuntal duet is for clarinet and timpani:

The third (and most haunting) is for violin and double bass.

At the end of the movement, these intrapuntal duets are themselves blended. (For a detailed discussion of how this all works in this excerpt, see Nicolas Slonimsky's "Alexander Tcherepnin Septuagenarian," in Tempo 87 (Winter 1968-9) 20-1.) I'm willing to buy that there is some order here, but on just a few listens, three combined intrapuntal duets sound a little out-of-control to me. Judge for yourself:

It apparently wasn't the interpoint, but the percussion-only second movement that made its first audience uncomfortable. It has been described as a recomposition of the first movement without pitches, a "skilful, purely rhythmic version of the themes from the first movement."2 Since he kept it very short, at under three minutes, Tcherepnin might have known an all-percussion movement was a risky move. Today, this sounds pretty tame, and I couldn't help but think the movement could have been longer. Here's a clip:

Interpoint is a good starting place, but there's much else to discover — melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically — in this rich work. (Including in the fourth movement, which I found the most satisfying.) But we'll let Tcherepnin himself send us off for more listens. Looking back on this symphony in 1964, Tcherepnin clearly thought it was something special. He considered it well ahead of its time and pointed to "serial thematic construction," "medieval Polyphonic artifices," the "bird-calls used as motifs" and a "desire to get away from conventional pitch": "All of this happened before the birth of dodecaphonic music, before Messiaen's looking to bird-calls for thematic materials, before the esoteric use of rhythmic patterns by many a Western composer, and long before the liberation of music from conventional pitch that became dear to post-Second World War composers."3 What do you Tcherepnin-aficionados think?
— Matthew Mugmon

1. From the liner notes by Julius Wender, of the Tcherepnin symphonies and conertos recording by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra with Lan Shui and Noriko Ogawa, p. 9. Also see Enrique Alberto Arias, "The Symphonies of Alexander Tcherepnin," in Tempo 158 (Sept. 1986) 23-31.
2. Ibid.
3. "Alexander Tcherepnin: A Short Autobiography," Tempo 130 (Spring 1979) 16.


  1. thank you. very interesting.

  2. I can't figure out if it's the end or beginning. And the train's put its brakes on and the whistle is screaming, "Tcherepnin!"