Vladimir Ivanovich Rebikov, sometimes known as the father of Russian modernism and the inventor of the whole-tone scale, was born at Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Russia, on May 31 1866. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory with N. Klenovsky, a pupil of Peter Tchaikovsky, and proceeded to teach and play in concerts in various parts of Russia and Europe. He settled in Yalta in 1909 and composed various piano pieces and stage works until his death in 1920.
His early works were mostly unremarkable salon pieces in the style of
Tchaikovsky and Grieg. At some point in time he realized that he was being too
influenced by these compositional models, and thus he closed himself off to the
music of other composers, determined to forge his own compositional style
through self-introspection. He also believed that music ‘was the language of
emotions’, and thus purged his own compositions of any academic framework,
forgoing development for the sake of expression.
This led him to formulate numerous musical innovations somewhat ahead of their time, such as quartal harmony, bitonal pieces, utilization of the whole-tone scale, parallel 7ths and 9ths, as well as tone clusters, utilizing them in his operas and piano miniatures. He was thus reviled by conservative musical scene of Russia, which condemned his music as ‘chaotic and formless.’ He had more success overseas and managed to garner a small following among the trendy musical circles of Europe, even getting a vote of confidence from Grieg.
Sadly, his musical theories, as well as his modest talent, prevented him from incorporating these innovations into large scale works, and in this way he was quickly outstripped by composers such as Scriabin and Debussy, who pushed his innovations to heights he had never dreamed of. By the time of his death, he was already obscure and forgotten, bitterly lamenting that others had stolen his innovations for their own.
Today, he is chiefly remembered for his Silhouettes for piano Op. 31 (which has a Palmer edition), as well as his Valse (from his opera ‘The Christmas Tree’ Op. 21), popular as an encore piece. His opera, ‘The Christmas Tree’, is still popular in Russia, but most of his output remains unknown.
For all his modernism, Rebikov was unable to shake off his early influences, and thus his works come across as unique juxtapositions of charming Tchaikovskian lyricism and experimental techniques. He does his best work in his piano miniatures, often employing obsessive repetitions, creative harmonies and abrupt endings which make them unique and interesting. He has also composed a few operas (utilizing melodeclamation with very sparse musical accompaniment), though these are completely unknown outside Russia.
While certainly nowhere near the equal of other modernist composers like Scriabin and Debussy, he deserves to be better known as an important innovator, who, in his best scores, can rival some of his role models. Recently, a few pianists have taken an interest in Rebikov, producing recordings of some of his piano miniatures, and we can hope that he can be more appreciated as a composer in the future.
--Jonathan Yeo (more on the author)