Though the name Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861 – 1906) is not very well known today, he was an integral part of the Russian musical world of his day. He studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and, immediately upon graduation (with a gold medal), joined the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, where his pupils included such famous future composers as Alexander Scriabin, Reinhold Glière, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
The undisciplined Scriabin incurred Arensky’s wrath on a number of occasions and finally walked out of his composition class without passing the final exam. Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, did so well he was allowed to graduate a year early, and it was to Arensky that he dedicated his Opus 3 piano pieces, Morceaux de fantasie, which include his most famous work, the Prelude in C-sharp minor.
Tchaikovsky admired Arensky’s music, writing to a friend in 1890 that the composer was “a man of remarkable gifts, but morbidly nervous and lacking in firmness — altogether a strange man.” On more than one occasion Tchaikovsky let the younger composer know what he thought of a piece of music, even if he had not been asked. In the autumn of 1885 he wrote Arensky, “Pardon me if I force my advice upon you. I have heard that 5/4 time appears twice in your new Suite. It seems to me that the mania for 5/4 time threatens to become a habit with you. I like it well enough if it is indispensable to the musical idea, [but in this instance] your basso ostinato should be written in ¾ or 6/4 time, but not in 5/4.”
The following year Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov, asking that composer to replace one of Tchaikovsky’s own pieces in an upcoming concerto with a work of Arensky’s. “I have a favor to ask,” Tchaikovsky wrote. “Arensky is now quite recovered, though I find him somewhat depressed and agitated. I like him so much and wish you would sometimes take an interest in him, for, as regards music, he venerates you more than anyone else. He needs stirring up; and such an impulse given my you would count for so much with him, because he loves and respects you.”
All his life Arensky was something of a loner. He had problems with alcohol and gambling, and these eventually caused a permanent break with Rimsky-Korsakov. His health undermined by his way of life, Arensky died of tuberculosis. On learning of his death, Rimsky-Korsakov remarked, “The man burned himself out, but he did not lack talent.”
Arensky’s Trio No. I for Violin, Cello, and Piano is one of his most successful works. It was awarded the Glinka Prize (500 rubles) and was written in memory of the great virtuoso cellist Karl Davidov. The Trio is in four movements — none of which are in the 5/4 time Tchaikovsky warned against overusing. The first movement, Allegro moderato, opens with a lyric theme admirably suited for the violin and cello, a good example of Arensky’s ability to compose wonderful melodies and which made his numerous songs so appealing. The remarkable, impish second movement is a scherzo. Its playful, puck-like opening and closing, with its staccato and pizzicato texture, is a splendid contrast to the movement’s more lyric central section, which seems almost like an affectionate parody of a popular waltz tune. The pensive, melancholic third movement is labeled Elegia. A dramatic allegro finale in ¾ time brings the Trio to a satisfying end,
This article appeared originally in the program book of the San Francisco Symphony and is used here with permission.