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Stephan Elmas (1862–1837) 

World Premiere recordings

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Stephan Elmas was born into a family of wealthy entrepreneurs in the Greek city of Smyrna (now İzmir in Turkey), a strategic port city of the Ottoman Empire. It was soon discovered that he was a child prodigy; he began taking piano lessons and writing short piano pieces under the tutelage of a local music teacher, one Mr Moser, and by the tender age of 13 the young virtuoso had performed a piano recital of works by Liszt. In July 1879, with the encouragement of his teacher – but against the wishes of his family – Elmas left for Weimar, Germany, hoping to audition for Franz Liszt. Here, he was able to meet the great master. Liszt advised him to go to Austria and work with professor Anton Door at the Vienna Conservatory (now the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna) and Franz Krenn, the distinguished composer and church musician. In Vienna, the 17-year-old Stephan divided his time between studying the piano and composition, making his performing debut in Vienna in 1885, an event which garnered many accolades in the press. Elmas continued to compose, writing many character pieces, including waltzes, mazurkas, nocturnes and impromptus. He dedicated a set of études to Franz Liszt in 1881, and a number of pieces to Victor Hugo. In 1886 he had his first major works published by the Austrian publisher Emmanuel Wetzler, under the name ‘Stefan Elmas’. Elmas stayed in contact with Liszt and frequently sought his advice. In 1886, he briefly returned to his native Smyrna to attend his father’s funeral, but returned to Vienna convinced that Europe had much more to offer him. On 24 February 1887, he gave a highly successful recital in Vienna’s Bösendorfer-Saal. A busy concert schedule followed, with Elmas scoring artistic triumphs in France, England, Germany, Austria and Italy. He mostly programmed his own works, but also performed pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann. During the course of his travels, Elmas became closely acquainted with, among others, the Russian composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein, the French composer Jules Massenet, the French pianist Joseph-Édouard Risler and the French lexicographer Guy de Lusignan. In 1897, at the age of 35, Elmas was contracted with typhoid fever, resulting in a deterioration of his hearing. Struggling with this disease, he continued desperately to compose. In 1912, he took up permanent residence in Geneva, Switzerland, where he continued to write, teach and perform. Over time, Elmas became increasingly hard of hearing and grew into somewhat of a bitter recluse, cutting himself off from the world. Thankfully, during this time he befriended Aimée Rapin (1868–1956) – the astonishingly talented armless Swiss painter, who used her feet to draw and paint – who nursed and comforted him. When they met she was 43, and Stephan was 49, and he had been completely deaf for more than ten years. His relationship with Aimée transformed him. They settled in a house by Lake Geneva, where Aimée continued with her art, painting portraits of her contemporaries, Elmas and, later, his family members. Elmas was also haunted, however, by the tragic events of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Fortunately, his family was able to escape to Athens following the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922 which followed the Turkish occupation of the city. Tragically, however, most of his works that were housed in the city were lost. In 1929, Elmas wrote his last work after 20 years of silence – 12 Armenian Poems for Piano, which he dedicated to the Armenian people. Towards the end of his life Elmas dictated his memoirs to Krikor-Hagop, a young journalist. Elmas passed away in 1937 in Geneva, and was buried in the city’s Plainpalais cemetery. Aimée Rapin outlived him by almost 20 years. In connection with his death, she wrote in a letter to a friend and biographer of the composer Akab-Grigor (Hrchryan): ‘Two eyes have closed for the world, and the world has changed for me… But still, wasn’t it a blessing of fate that for 26 years I had such a wonderful friend.’ Elmas’s piano, along with his manuscripts and reminiscences, is now housed at the Charents Museum of Literature and Arts of Armenia. Elmas composed rapidly and with great ease, and this might explain why he sometimes did not revise his compositions sufficiently. Many of his works, however, are of high quality, and he was perhaps most successful in composing elegant and stylish salon pieces. These pieces seem to be written for an earlier time: Elmas’s compositions tend to hark back towards the style of earlier, Romantic composers, rather than forward to the challenging times that were shaping the musical world at the beginning of the new century. In the early Ballade in G major (1879), Ballade in E flat major (1881) and Ballade in B major (1883), the influence of Liszt, Schumann and Chopin is felt in terms of musical material and texture. The similarity to Chopin is especially evident in the Ballade in B major. Nevertheless, it becomes apparent that the composer was actively searching for his own musical style, which began to manifest itself in the Barcarolle No. 1 in E flat minor (1884). The influence of Romantic composers gradually structured Elmas’s own musical style, which was already visible in the cycle Seven Nocturnes, created by the composer from 1882 to 1900. The textural features of this work combined with the composer’s formidable technique, melodic invention and Romanticism places it and all of his piano works on a very high level. 

Mikael Ayrapetyan

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