Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861 – 1906) was a Russian composer of Romantic classical music, a pianist and a professor of music. Little known today, Arensky was one of the brightest stars of the late nineteenth century music scene.
Born in Novgorod, Russia to a pair of devoted amateur musicians, Arensky began his training in piano and composition since childhood. He was musically precocious, and had composed a number of songs and piano pieces by the age of nine.
In 1879, Arensky studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He scored consistently high marks during his three years of study, eventually graduating with a gold medal. In 1882, Arensky became one of the youngest professors ever hired by the Moscow Conservatory.
Arensky’s years at Moscow were fruitful. Between 1882 and his resignation from the Conservatory’s faculty in 1895, he completed most of his larger works, including the early Piano Concerto, and both Symphonies in B minor and A major. In 1891, his first opera, Son na Volge (A Dream on the Volga), which he had worked on intermittently since his student days, was successfully premiered in Moscow. However, his next operatic endeavor, Rafael, fared rather worse than the first; it was an immediate failure at its 1894 premiere.
Asked to replace Balakirev as director of the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg, Arensky returned to his home city in 1895, and he remained there for the rest of his life. By the mid-1890s, Arensky’s somewhat diminished stature as a composer was replaced by an increased public awareness of his gifts, both at the keyboard and on the podium. Having served as director of the Russian Choral Society from 1888 to 1895 in Moscow, Arensky was no stranger to the baton, and in 1901 he resigned his position at the Imperial Chapel, with the aim to pursue a fuller schedule of conducting and performing appearances. However, death came prematurely to him; after decades of hard living and overindulgence, Arensky succumbed to tuberculosis in 1905.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky was the greatest influence on Arensky’s musical compositions. As Rimsky-Korsakov said, “In his youth Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later the influence came from Tchaikovsky. He will quickly be forgotten.” The perception that he lacked a distinctive personal style contributed to long-term neglect of his music, though in recent years a large number of his compositions have been recorded, including the popular orchestral Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, based on one of the composer’s Songs for Children, Op. 54.
Arensky was perhaps at his best in chamber music, in which he wrote two string quartets, two piano trios, and a piano quintet; as well as the shorter works for solo piano, and the melodious Songs, which seem to have influenced Rachmaninov’s conception of Russian Song. Most importantly, Arensky’s influence as a teacher—to such future luminaries as Rachmaninov and Scriabin—has earned him a place of distinction in the history of Russian music.
Anton Arensky: Chant Triste
Anton Arensky: Suite No. 1 in F major, Op. 15, Part 1/3