Bio File - César Antonovich Cui
During the latter half of the 19th century, César Antonovich Cui (1835-1918) was one of a group of five Russian nationalist composers who were collectively known as the “Mighty Handful” or “the Five.” Despite this, his colleagues in this illustrious company are mostly all far more famous than he, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov, and the rather more obscure Mili Balakirev. In common with other Russian composers of his generation and background, Cui had a career apart from music; in his case, as a professor at the Academy of Military Engineering, where he was a well-regarded expert in fortification; his colleague Nicholai Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer. Cui's military career did not prevent him from ambitious activity as a composer and an important career as a critic, often harsh and intolerant in his judgments.
Oddly, Cui was the son of a French officer, Antoine Queuille. Captured during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, Queuille had settled in Russia. He married a Lithuanian lady, Julia Gucewicz, became a teacher, and eventually a Russian citizen, his name becoming “Anton Cui” in the process. The Cuis had five children. The four boys were all named after notable military men, Alexander, Napoleon, César, and Boleslav (an heroic King of Poland), while the daughter, their first-born, was named Marianna, perhaps to honor the family’s French origins. César was born at Vilna on January 18, 1835. As a boy, he learned music from his sister, and then took lessons with professional instructors. In 1851, when he was 15, Cui enrolled in the Engineering School at St. Petersburg, and later went on to the Military Engineering Academy. After graduation, he served as a fortification engineer. He performed the normal duties of an engineer officer for several years, taking part in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, where he served at the Siege of Plevna. In 1878 César returned to the Academy as a professor. In the course of his career he wrote several books on fixed and field fortifications, while rising to generalmajor – brigadier general in U.S. terms. Meanwhile, he never lost his love for music. He had started to compose for the piano as early as 1850.
Perhaps on the theory that quantity was better than quality, Cui wrote a lot; 10 full scale operas, many on French themes or based on French novels, four operas to be performed by children, plus many short works, including one-act operas, piano pieces, waltzes, string quartets, hundreds of songs in Russian, French, Polish, and German, and even some music for the Orthodox Church, a good trick, given that he was a Roman Catholic. His last works, composed during World War I, were mostly military marches and songs.
Cui was also a music critic, apparently a rather acerbic, usually sarcastic, and often scathing one who disliked “modernism” in music. Ultimately he produced some 800 critical pieces, some of which were collected in book form.
Cui died in St. Petersburg on March 24, 1918, shortly after the Communists had taken power. They actually liked some of his music, especially his children’s works, and eventually buried him in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, at St. Petersburg, alongside many other famous Russian composers, including several of “The Five.”
So, although he started out to be a soldier, and had a rather distinguished career, Cui ultimately became noted primarily as a composer of great skill.