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Stephan Elmas (1862–1837) 

World Premiere recordings

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Grand piano.jpeg

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 Elmas divided his time between studying the piano and composition, making his performing debut in Vienna in 1885, an event that garnered many accolades in the press. Elmas continued to compose, writing many character pieces, including waltzes, mazurkas, nocturnes and impromptus. He dedicated his Six Études (1881) to Franz Liszt, 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 struck down 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. The word ‘mazurka’ (‘mazurek’, also ‘mazur’) was derived from the name of residents of Mazovia, in Mazury, where the dance originated. A Polish folk dance, it is characterised by a fast-paced rhythm in triple metre, with irregular accents often shifting to the second and third beats of a bar, and sometimes placed on two or all three of the beats. The emotional richness of the mazurka, with its combination of boldness, impetuosity and sincerity, has long attracted the attention of composers, both Polish (in particular Elsner and his students), as well as foreign, especially J.S. Bach, Telemann and Kirnberger. In the process of establishing the identity of Poland, folk dance culture, in particular mazurkas, has played an important role. Having firmly established itself in the peasant life of Mazovia in the 16th century, and propagated beyond its borders by the 17th, the mazurka became part of the cycle of Polish peasant dances known as the ‘rural ball’. In a format that had been established by the 16th century, slow, formal dances, starting with a two-part ‘walking dance’ (‘Taniec Chodzony’), were alternated with a fast ‘chasing dance’ (‘Taniec Goniony’), with the same musical theme sometimes used and developed for dances of both tempos. The mazurka, including its instrumental, vocal and choreographic elements, evolved alongside other traditional dances in these settings, and also later adopted the musical features of mazurkas written by professional composers. Elmas’s mazurkas are musical poems and paintings, in which depictions of everyday scenes are combined with soulful lyricism. He, like Chopin, combined three affiliated dances under the name ‘mazurka’: ‘mazur’, ‘kujawiak’ and ‘oberek’. Each in triple time, these dances are characterised by the absence of the upbeat typical of Polish folk music and the division of the first rhythmic phrase, and the schematic repetition of four and eight-bar fragments. At the same time, each dance has its own characteristic features. The mazur, a dance of the Mazovian region, is characterised by a restrained tempo, and a sweeping, free melody with a dotted rhythm. The kujawiak is denoted by a slow, smooth melody with softly pronounced accents. There are two types of kujawiak – the first, of rural Polish origin, is heard in a major key, and the second, with its roots in Jewish music, in a minor key. The oberek is recognisable for its spontaneous character, cheerful melody and very fast tempo, featuring strong, regular accents, circular dance movements and abrupt stops. Its characteristics can be heard it in Elmas’s mazurkas No. 1 in F sharp major, No. 2 in E flat major and No. 8 in D major. In Elmas’s early mazurkas, Chopin’s influence is felt both in textural solutions and rhythmic features. No. 9 in D minor, No. 10 in C sharp minor and No. 15 in G minor introduces us to a new stage in Elmas’s approach to the mazurka genre, in which the individual style of the composer can be more clearly heard. The late mazurkas, No. 24 In B flat major and No. 26 in F major, do not differ much from the early ones that Elmas wrote, indicating that the composer followed the idiosyncrasies of the genre quite closely when composing these works. No. 27 in B major is distinctive for its textured use of doubled notes, which add an air of sophistication. Undoubtedly, Elmas’s mazurkas offer great value to the musical heritage of both Armenia and the wider world.


Mikael Ayrapetyan

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