Alexander Siloti (zih-LOW-tee) (1863–1945) is not a name Western pianists often hear (or use) in conversation when discussing the great Romantic virtuosos. Moreover, his vast accomplishments and contributions to the musical world — both tangible and intangible — are hardly known among musicians. But Steinway Artist Vladimir Ashkenazy recalls that “during my student days at the Moscow Conservatory the name Alexander Siloti was spoken with the utmost reverence.” Thus, this seemingly obscure virtuoso pianist, conductor, impresario, and mentor may have had more influence on our musical traditions than most ever imagined.
For pianists, it is difficult to consider a musical landscape without the influence of Rachmaninoff. The joy and excitement in his etudes and the grandeur and majesty displayed in his concertos are glorious to listeners and performers alike. Even popular culture has absorbed his Prelude in C-sharp minoruntil it has become a “favorite” among the general public. But such devotion to Rachmaninoff and the esteem for this most popular of his works find their roots in one of Rachmaninoff’s Moscow Conservatory professors, Alexander Siloti.
Siloti, who was ten years Rachmaninoff’s senior, did as much as any one person to contribute to his success. Nearly everything Siloti did for Rachmaninoff had been done for himself once before. Alexander Siloti never failed to recognize the kindness shown to him by the masters of the previous generation. And along with that acknowledgement, he understood the importance of a strong work ethic, marketing abilities, and networking at every opportunity, all while maintaining a healthy respect for those around him.
An early biography of Alexander Siloti reads akin to many virtuoso pianists in the nineteenth century. He was raised in a household where the arts were valued and the children were given the same opportunities afforded to most who belonged to the upper-middle class and above. But for all these opportunities, it seems that Siloti never failed to recognize the requirement on his part: the need to foster and take advantage of what was before him. And that is just what he did. As a pupil of Nikolai Rubinstein (the younger brother of Anton) at the Moscow Conservatory, his work ethic and subsequent musical abilities gained him prominence among his peers (and Rubinstein himself). In addition, Siloti found himself studying composition with Tchaikovsky, who he always credited as one of his most influential teachers and mentors. It was the relationships formed and developed while a student at the Conservatory that would prove vital to his success as a pianist and all-around musician.
By the 1880s, the paradigm of professional musicians relying on benefactors had been the norm for nearly a century. Siloti was aware of this and worked to network even as a student. In February 1880, the teenage pianist performed for an audience including none other than Madame von Meck, the well-known financial sponsor of Tchaikovsky, who was “deeply impressed” by the artist. Following Rubinstein’s unexpected passing in March, 1881, Siloti’s connections formed during these years provided him with the chance to study in Weimar with fellow Steinway Immortal Franz Liszt.
Initially, the developing pianist took it upon himself to study with the famous Polish pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, a resident of Vienna. When Siloti’s letter of proposition went unanswered by Leschetizky, he was given a grant by the Imperial Russian Musical Society to fully fund private study with Liszt (who, actually, charged nothing to his students based on his philosophical principles) and his living costs in Weimar. (Hilariously, the Russian government also gave him 10,000 rubles for gambling.) After performing Totentanzas his audition piece for the aging Maestro in 1883, Liszt replied to Siloti, “You are an honor to your teacher.” He began lessons the following day and continued studies with the master-teacher until Liszt’s death in 1886.
Similar to Siloti’s preferential treatment by faculty at the Conservatory, Liszt, too, seems to have respected (if not blatantly favored) Siloti among his late students. Liszt wrote several recommendation letters for Siloti — something he rarely did — sharing with his esteemed European colleagues his intrigue and support for this rising star Alexander Siloti. Writing in December, 1883, Liszt mentions a “young and remarkably talented Russian pianist [who] possesses everything necessary to succeed as a celebrated pianist.” Another letter was penned by Liszt shortly thereafter addressed to Madame Tardieu. In it, the Maestro writes “I abstain from writing letters of recommendation. I make an exception for a quite remarkable and certainly exceptional young pianist, Mr. Siloti.” But with Liszt’s death in July, 1886, Siloti found himself confused and devasted for the budding pianist had thus far found his identity in Liszt. Now, it was time for the twenty-two-year-old to define himself based on his merits — not those of his revered teacher’s.
To date, Siloti had performed successfully but only sporadically. He was a cautious performer, preferring to premiere a recital in front of a “safe” and selective crowd before taking it to the general public. (The irony of this preference in light of his former teachers and jury panels should not be lost to the reader.) Now with his formal training complete, it was time to start reaping from his years of practice and professional networking. His reasoning, however, was more honorable than simply wanting to jump-start his career as a virtuoso: he wanted to start a family and understood the importance of providing the necessary means to do so. By 1886 he was ready to announce his engagement to Vera Tretyakova, daughter of Pavel Tretyakova. The Tretyakova family, a household name during Russia at the time, was known for their wealth earned in the textile industry. Adding pressure to Siloti was Vera’s father who worked to prevent the marriage. For Pavel, the marriage was already doomed solely because of Siloti’s chosen profession: that of a musician. His simple complaint, while premature, was not unfounded: “[Artists] don’t know how to earn a living.” Eventually, however, Pavel gave up in his pursuit of ending the engagement, and the two were married in February, 1887.
Fortunately for the new couple, the groom’s connections and relationships were ready and willing to help promote the artist. They immediately moved to Leipzig where Siloti had previously co-founded the Liszt-Verein. The security of this organization provided Sasha (as Siloti was known to his friends) and Vera a healthy financial start to their marriage. Moreover, it was at this time that Siloti began to work as Tchaikovsky’s manager for his upcoming tour of Germany. Siloti arranged several concerts in Germany for the honored Russian conductor/composer, and Tchaikovsky returned the favor by reaching out to his own contacts in places like Berlin—an important cultural center at the time—to secure performance opportunities for Sasha. These series of concerts in Germany were the first concerts to feature Tchaikovsky as conductor and included Siloti as soloist in the famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bminor, a work that Siloti himself had much influence over. As their friendship and professional admiration continued to grow, Tchaikovsky began to utilize Siloti as the editor — and later amanuensis—of his compositions, starting first with his Symphony No. 5.Soon after, Siloti began editing many of his works, including the first piano concerto. Siloti’s edits in this specific work—notably those grand opening chords — ultimately became the standard performing edition of this great masterpiece. Yet when Tchaikovsky disagreed with Siloti’s ideas, their admiration and respect for each other went unscathed. After reviewing Siloti’s proposed edits in the second piano concerto, the master wrote to his former pupil that “Your plan to move the cadenza to the end makes my stomach turn over and my hair stand on end. For God’s sake forgive me and don’t get angry.” Neither saw this as anything more than artistic preference, and their relationship never did deteriorate. This privileged and symbiotic relationship between the two musicians would continue to flourish until Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893.
For a short three years, Siloti was on the piano faculty of the Moscow Conservatory. Although his time there ended abruptly after citing differences with Director Vasily Safonoff, it is perhaps this period that would prove so influential to the rest of the Western musical world. One of Siloti’s students at the Conservatory was none other than his maternal-first-cousin and fellow Steinway Immortal, Serge Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff, who was still a teenager, had been composing for a few years already. His Morceaux de fantaisie(Op. 3), composed in the autumn of 1892, includes one of, if not the, most popular piano works by Rachmaninoff: his Prelude in C-sharp minor, often referred to (erroneously, according to the composer) as “The Bells of Moscow.” This piece, which became Rachmaninoff’s signature encore, owes its popularity to Sasha Siloti.
Upon Siloti’s resignation from the Conservatory, international concertizing became his primary focus. Living in Paris, the artist toured Western Europe to much acclaim. In 1898, he toured the United States, still with much success. It was on these tours that Siloti premiered his cousin’s Prelude, first introducing the composition, and more importantly the composer, to Western audiences. The Musical Timeswrote about this “artistically successful” concert which occurred on February 26, 1895, and appears to have been the European debut of the work. The American premiere came on March 3, 1898, in Chicago’s Steinway Hall. A Chicago Tribunecritic wrote the following day that the program, although “unusual in selection…of Russian compositions,” included a prelude by Rachmaninoff which was brilliant and effective. It was on these tours as well that Siloti performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, a work dedicated to him.
Consequently, Siloti’s “advertising” caused Rachmaninoff’s popularity to increase exponentially which led to Rachmaninoff’s first concert outside of Russia. Siloti’s fame, however, began to wane. But the significance of this relationship is not which artist shined brighter, but rather the reputation of Siloti as a promoter of all musicians. He is treasured as an advocate for the arts when one considers that he never failed to remember all those titans — Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein, colleagues in Leipzig and Moscow, even his father-in-law’s business contacts — who supported and encouraged him earlier in his life. It was this same activism that he passed on to so many other promising artists beyond Rachmaninoff. His sponsorship of the Siloti Concertsin St. Petersburg presented and supported a number of “greats” and their talents to the world; examples include Pablo Casals, George Enescu, Josef Hofmann, Wanda Landowska, Arnold Schönberg, Claude Debussy, Edward Elgar, and a young, unknown modernist composer named Igor Stravinsky (whose music was first heard by Diaghilev in this series). Following his departure from Soviet Russia in 1919, Siloti continued to pursue music for himself as a concert artist in Western Europe and the U.S. in addition to helping those who crossed his path, such as the students he taught at Juilliard between 1925—1942. And for musicians today, there stands a large canon of 205 piano arrangements and transcriptions, much in the Romantic lineage of Liszt and Busoni.
Today, Sasha Siloti is not remembered on par with his teachers Liszt, Rubinstein, or Tchaikovsky, but he continues to stand out among many of his artist-colleagues as a wise, helpful, and compassionate fellow-human. Throughout his life he constantly placed others’ needs and prospects above his own personal gains. And although his name is not readily preserved in historical textbooks, his abilities and accomplishments warrant merit, acknowledgement, and appreciation among the current generation of musicians who must always be searching for renewed inspiration from those who have gone before us. Steinway artist Evgeny Kissin points out that Siloti’s “star always shone brightly for us [in Russia]. I hope we will always find inspiration in its beautiful and mysterious radiance.”