The Kennedy Center

Alexander Tcherepnin


Russian composer and pianist Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1997) wrote in a variety of genres, composing four symphonies, six piano concertos, three operas, and several ballets, among other works. He is known for composing in a musical scale of nine notes, sometimes referred to as the Tcherepnin scale. His works are characterized by their bitonality (the use of two different keys at the same time), dissonance, and irregular rhythms. He came to America to teach at Chicago's DePaul University, becoming an American citizen in 1958.


Tcherepnin's father Nikolay was a prominent composer, and Alexander began musical studies with him. By age 14, Tcherepnin had already composed many piano pieces, later collected to form sonatas and other cycles. One such collection of 10 pieces became his most famous work, the Bagatelles, published in Paris in 1922.


A year after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Tcherepnin moved with his family to Tbilisi. However, as communism spread into that  region as well, the family moved to Paris in 1921, where Tcherepnin studied piano at the conservatory and gained a reputation as an excellent pianist.


Tcherepnin began to compose more and more large-scale works in Paris. Winning a major musical prize in 1925 for his work, Concerto da camera (for violin, flute, and chamber orchestra), was a major impetus in his compositional career. During this period, he wrote several ballets and operas. His music was expressionistic and used well-defined, clear tonalities. His First Symphony (1927), was notable for its dissonance, contrapuntal clarity and, in the Scherzo movement, for the use of percussion alone. At the premier, the work's unusual characteristics created an uproar in the audience.


Tcherepnin gained new musical ideas when he toured the near East in 1931 and China in 1934. He stayed in China and Japan--with intervals in Europe--until 1937, studying Chinese classical music.


In 1938, Tcherepnin returned to Paris. Caught in that city's German occupation, he survived the war by making musical arrangements. In 1948, he was invited by DePaul University in Chicago to teach composition, analysis, and music history. His Second Symphony, begun in 1945 and first performed by Rafael Kubelik with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1951, supposedly expresses the suffering of the war years.


His Chicago years produced Tcherepnin's most significant orchestral works: the Divertimento (1955–7), the Fourth Symphony (1956–7), and the Symphonic Prayer (1959). Late works such as the Piano Concerto no.5 (1963) and the Serenade for Strings (1964) use radical contrasts between movements, indicating Tcherepnin was exploring new styles. In 1964, Tcherepnin retired from DePaul and moved to New York, beginning a period of international activity as pianist, conductor, and composer.


Tcherepnin's music is notable for several personal compositional techniques: His nine-step scale results from combining minor and major chord groupings. In his later works, Tcherepnin increasingly favored an eight-step scale in such works as the Piano Sonata no.2 (1961). Generally, his music was characterized by conciseness, strongly articulated structures, and the use of contrapuntal textures (multiple musical lines each exhibiting independent melodic qualities). His originality expresses itself in his emphasis on percussion, infrequently-used instruments, rhythmic transformations, and unusual scales.

Alexander Tcherepnin