César Cui Biography

(Russian Composer and Music Critic)

Birthday: January 18, 1835 (Capricorn)

Born In: Vilnius, Lithuania

Cesar Cui was a Russian soldier, composer and critic best known for being a part of the esteemed group ‘The Five.’ He was born into a military family with an army officer father who was a member of Napoleon’s army. He began learning piano when he was a kid and upon growing up, he studied to become an engineer. He joined the Imperial Russian Army in 1857 as an instructor in fortifications and eventually climbed the rank Engineer-General in the Army. He also built a side career for himself as a music composer as a part of a group of Russian nationalist composers, named The Five. He composed 15 operas throughout his careers, such as William Ratcliff, The Mandarin’s Son, and Prisoner of the Caucasus. He also composed several songs, piano concerts and choruses. He was a composer with hardcore nationalist sentiments toward music. In his career as a music critic, he also supported contemporary Russian nationalist composers, such as the members of his own group. As a critic, he has written about 800 reviews in his career. He kept composing until he passed away in 1916.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: César Antonovich Cui

Died At Age: 83


Spouse/Ex-: Mal'vina Rafailovna Bamberg

father: Antoine

mother: Julia Gucewicz

children: Aleksandr, Lidiya

Born Country: Lithuania

Soldiers Composers

Died on: March 13, 1918

place of death: Saint Petersburg, Russia

Ancestry: Polish Russian, Lithuanian Russian, French Russian

Notable Alumni: Military Engineering-Technical University

Cause of Death: Cerebral Apoplexy

More Facts

education: Military Engineering-Technical University

Childhood & Early Life

Cesar Cui was born Cesar Antonovich Cui, on January 18, 1835, in Wilno, German Empire. He was born into a family of French and Polish-Lithuanian descent. He was born the youngest among five children born to Julia and Antoine Cui. His father served in Napolean’s army and married Julia, who was a Russian local. Hence, Cesar was brought up in a multicultural background and learned to speak languages such as French, Russian, Polish and Lithuanian.

As it was a norm in society, Cesar was made to learn music early in his life. As a child, he began taking lessons in music and music theory. It was then that his interest in the field began. However, his father was not in favour of his son becoming a professional musician. In 1850, Cesar enrolled on an engineering college in St. Petersburg and moved there. Following his initial education at the institute, he enrolled in Nikolaevsky Engineering Academy, which was also known as Military Engineering-Technical University.

He was leading sort of a double life. Apart from pursuing engineering to be a part of the Russian Army, he was also busy learning and making music. He studied Chopin’s works and got heavily inspired by him. He began composing little piano pieces at the age of 14.

Furthermore, before he moved to St. Petersburg, to begin his engineering education, he met Stanisław Moniuszko and took some classes on music theory from him. However, he only began making music seriously in 1856.

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Military Career

Following the completion of his education in advanced engineering studies, he joined the Russian Army in 1857. His studies of fortifications turned out to be quite useful for him when he was serving in the army. He used his skills during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. Due to his expertise in fortifications, he was made a professor in 1880. In 1906, he would earn the rank of an army general. He also wrote several textbooks on fortifications that went on to become highly popular.

Music Career

He had learned to compose music at an early age and only composed music whenever he got some free time. He completed more than a dozen operas throughout his career and yet, he was self-critical to an extent that he claimed that he had never composed one ‘truly Russian Opera’. He further admitted that he was half French and half Lithuanian and that he did not have pure Russian blood in him to make Russian music. 

He gave his first public performance in 1859 when he performed his piece Scherzo, Op. 1, in front of several respected members of the Russian Musical Society.

In the early 1860s, he began composing his first opera, titled William Ratcliff. It was an opera in three acts which was staged in 1869 in St. Petersburg. However, this opera never quite become a part of the standard operatic repertoire of Russia. It did not even succeed in the west. Despite that, the opera remains special for many as it was the first opera by a member of The Five and it had an experimental tone about it, which made it special.

One other reason for its failure was considered to be his harsh reviews in the musical publications. He had begun his career as a music critic in 1864 and during his career as a critic, he wrote about 800 reviews. He covered concerts, recitals, musical lives and personalities in his reviews. He wrote more reviews on opera than any other genre.

One of the main goals of his music reviews was to promote the new age Russian composers who were his contemporaries. He also frequently sponsored his own group named The Five. However, his views as a music critic were not really favored by contemporary musicians.

The group named The Five, was a group of five Russian 19th-century Russian composers who composed in the Russian classical music style. The group began functioning in 1856 and remained active and collaborated with each other on multiple projects. The Five was disbanded in 1870.

Cesar composed music in many genres except solo concerto, symphonic poems and symphony. He composed several children’s songs, art songs and vocal duets. Two of his most popular art songs were titled The Statue at Tsarskoye Selo and The Burnt Letter. Both were based on the poems written by ace Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

Among his catalogues are also several piano, choruses and orchestral works. However, some of the most brilliant of his compositions were in the opera genre. Throughout his career, he composed 15 operas in total, of different scales.

Following the failure of his first opera, William Ratcliff, he went on composing 14 more operas to different degrees of success. Almost all of his operas were written in Russian text, except for the one titled Le flibustier which was performed in Paris in the 1890s. It wasn’t a successful opera either. Among all his operas, one of his most successful operas was titled The Mandarin’s Son. The three-act opera was composed in 1859 in Saint Petersburg. The opera was publicly premiered only in the late 1870s.

He had another famous opera to this name, titled Prisoner of the Caucasus. It was an opera composed in three acts. It was also based on one of the poems of Alexander Pushkin, which Cesar greatly admired. Another opera composed in 1903, titled Mademoiselle Fifi, was successful.

Apart from composing and reviewing music, he was also the director of the Russian Musical Society from 1896 to 1904.

Cesar also remained in touch with many music composers during his lifetime. He shared a good friendship with Franz Liszt. Franz was a Hungarian composer who was an admirer of Russian composers. He was a big admirer of Cesar’s first opera William Ratcliff. In turn, Cesar exhibited his respect for the composer by writing a book titled La musique en Russie and his Suite pour piano, Op. 21.

Cesar had a long and respected musical career. He was honored by several music societies for his contribution to music. He earned two big honors in France. First was the membership of Académie française and the cross of the Légion d'honneur. Furthermore, in 1896, he earned a membership in the Belgian Royal Academy of Literature and Art. Also, towards the end of his life, several events were organized in honor of his musical career.

Personal Life & Death

Cesar Cui was married to Malvina Rafailovna Bamberg. The couple got married in 1858 after meeting at the house of composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky, from whom she was taking singing lessons. Cesar dedicated many of his songs to his wife. The couple had two children together.

In the mid-1910s, Cesar went completely blind. However, he was still able to compose music through dictation. He passed away on March 13, 1918.

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