Cui's father, Antoine (the family name at one time used to be spelled "Queuille"), settled in Vilnius, Lithuania after arriving as part of Napoleon's invading army. He married a local named Julia Gucewicz, with whom he had five children. The sons were named after great military men (Cesar, Alexander, Napoleon; the other son was named Boleslav -- was that a famous military man? Their daughter was Marianna).
Antoine (Russianizied as Anton) made a living by teaching, and became a Russian citizen; eventually the family entered the nobility. Yet they had not a drop of Russian blood, of course (even a transfusion wouldn't have helped make Cesar's music sound more Russian, I dare say), although, I would assume from Julia Cui's maiden name and their residence in Lithuania that there is some Polish blood (a possibility which doesn't prove anything musically, of course, because even the really Russian composers wrote some music in Polish styles and genres).
Little Cesar was born in 1835. He was not, apparently, a child prodigy. His sister started his music lessons; then his father sent him to a violinist named Dio (sp?) to learn music. Then, when the Polish composer Moniuszko came to town to stay for a while, Cesar had some sort of theoretical training with him, although not, apparently, composition lessons. All too soon, however, the adolescent Cesar had to go to military engineering school in Petersburg. (This was around age 15 or so -- sorry I don't have exact dates with me at this time.)
And Petersburg was where he met Balakirev, and eventually the rest of the "guys". At engineering school he also came to know Viktor Krylov, who wrote Cui's first few opera libretti and song texts. The now not-so-little Cesar was writing music under Balakirev's tutelage, visiting the opera, and learning to be a military engineer. He was graduated and eventually became a professor of fortifications (his final rank, I think, was general).
He married a woman by the name of Malvina Bamberg, one of Dargomyzhsky's singing pupils, to whom he dedicated his first numbered opus, a Scherzo for piano/4-hands (later orchestrated) on the themes B.A.B.E.G (i.e. BAmBErG) and C.C. (guess whose initials *those* are), from 1857. She died in 1899. (Their daughter, Lidia, married a certain Mr. Amoretti, and they also had a son, Aleksandr).
Grown-up Cesar became one of the main spokesmen for the "new Russian school" of which the Handful were chief representatives (the other spokesman being Stasov). He published his reviews and views fairly regularly from 1864 to the end of the century in various domestic and foreign newspapers and journals, participating in some heated propaganda skirmishes, especially in the early years. His by-line for a long time was "***". He even made a scathing review of the first production of "Boris Godunov" (which I have yet to read, shame on me). There is a parody cartoon from some publication during his life with the caption in Latin: "Hail, Cesar Cui, we who are about to die salute you."
Several of his 800 or so articles were collected into books ("La Musique en Russie", "The Ring of the Nibelungs", "Russian Art Song", etc.), only the last of which, to my knowledge, has been translated into English. (He also wrote books and textbooks on fortification -- quelle surprise!) He wrote musico-critical articles only occasionally after the turn of the century, by which time he could not stand the "modernists" or "futurists", as he called them -- people like Debussy, R. Strauss, D'Indy.
His writings include some sarcasm mixed with musical criticism. One of his letters is a brief song with the text: "He loves me no longer; he's fallen in love with Strauss!" His penultimate musico-critical article was a song entitled "Hymn to Futurism"; his last article was a list of instructions on how to compose in the new, modern way. And one of his late piano pieces is entitled "Reverie d'un faune apres la lecture de son journal", in obvious homage, so to speak, to Debussy. So much for Cui the critic. (I don't mean to dismiss this aspect so callously, but I have not read enough of his criticism to even pretend to make my own judgment a fair one, although you can read yourself how other English-language writers have dismissed his writings.) Besides a selection of musico-critical articles, a sampling of his letters was published in the 50's. My favorite quote from his letters is "A libretto, a libretto, my kingdom for a libretto!"
As to Cui the composer, we could simply say that some people have to work hard to be mediocre. But, let's not. He was a terribly prolific composer (especially compared to his compatriots Balakirev, Borodin, and Musorgsky), as his publishers could no doubt confirm. Except for the first act of Mlada (1872), he completed some 14 operas, including 4 children's operas and several one-act "adult" operas; he also made the first completed version of Musorgsky's Fair at Sorochinsk (1917). (Apparently, despite his review of Boris, he championed Musorgsky's music.)
He wrote several hundred songs (in Russian, French, Polish, and German), many piano pieces and chamber works, including 3 string quartets, several orchestral works (mostly light music -- suites, waltzes, scherzos), and many choral works, including a cantata for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty (1913). The war years (i.e. the Russo-Japanese War, ca. 1905, and WWI) inspired a number of works by Cui, mostly songs and a military march for band. There is even some religious music: 3 psalms, a couple of Ave Marias, and an Orthodox setting of the Magnificat (Cui was Catholic, by the way, but seems to have enjoyed the challenge of writings music for Orthodox service).
But he is best known as a miniaturist in songs and piano music; these are the kinds of pieces that tend to be reprinted or recorded, if at all. Many of you may be familiar with his notorious "Orientale" (op. 50, no. 9, originally for violin & piano), which has been transcribed for everything from piano duet to Hawaiian guitar. Please become *un*familiar with that piece, if you don't mind.
The first opera of the Kuchka to be performed was his William Ratcliff (or, as stressed in the Russian, Vil-YAM Rat-KLIFF; based on Pleshcheev's translation of Heine's tragedy), first performed in 1869. Although it was praised by the "gang", the opera never gained a foothold in the repertory and was not revived until around 1900. His next-performed opera, Angelo, premiered 1876, was also revived around 1900. (It's premiere took five hours!)
In these two works Cui tried to follow the guidelines of the new Russian school with regard to realistic setting of Russian text and so on (as was being attempted ever so judiciously by Dargomyzhsky in The Stone Guest, which Cui helped to complete), but did not necessarily succeed. These operas certainly did not use Russian subject-matter, and Cui's style even in those with Russian subjects in general avoids Russian folk- or other idiom, and does not resemble that of his compatriots. Even his first-composed opera, The Prisoner of the Caucasus (not performed until 1883), which has a lead Russian character among the dramatis personae, does little better than to employ a smidgeon of the expected pseudo-orientalism (because of the setting) that was all too common, and no "Russian" style, per se. (Cui's style has generally been linked with Auber, Meyerbeer, with maybe a little Schumann. Lyricism in the operas prevails often at the expense of drama; but it is very beautiful lyricism, IMHO.)
His last large opera, The Captain's Daughter, probably employs as much truly Russian-style music as Cui could ever hope to achieve. He even admitted in a letter (quoted in New Grove) that he was incapable of writing a truly Russian opera; so I don't hold his non-Russianness in style against him, even in the operas set in Russia. After all, his music can be legitimately criticized on other grounds. (He did, however, consider writing an opera on a Lithuanian subject.)
In the early 1870's Cui wrote the first act for the collective (and aborted) project Mlada (later composed completely by Rimsky-Korsakov -- and a gorgeous work, by the way). Cui later published the score, with some slight changes, in 1911, dedicating it to the late Rimsky, Borodin, and Musorgsky. It is a slight, and I mean *slight*, oeuvre.
The other operas are dominated by French sources: The Saracen (from Dumas (pere)'s Charles VII chez ses grands vassaux), Le Flibustier (set to Richepin's adaptation of his comedy, and premiered at the Opera Comique in 1894), Matteo Falcone (after Merimee and Zhukovsky), Mademoiselle Fifi (after Maupassant's story and Metenier's play), and Little Red Riding-Hood and Puss-in-Boots (after Perrault). Fifi (1903) became widely popular in the empire during World War I, no doubt due to its subject matter (the Franco-Prussian war). It's my favorite of the one-act operas, although I'm disappointed that Cui left out this particular line in the dialogue spoken by one of the, ahem, ladies: "I'm Eva, the Tomato". Perhaps it wouldn't have been acceptable to the opera censors?
His operas based on Pushkin are Feast in Time of Plague (which is one of the Little Tragedies of Pushkin along with The Covetous Knight [set by Rachmaninoff], The Stone Guest [Dargomyzhsky], and Mozart and Salieri [Rimsky-Korsakov]), and the above-mentioned Prisoner of the Caucasus and The Captain's Daughter. Prisoner was perhaps the most popular of his large-scale operas, having apparently the most productions. (In contrast, a recent dictionary of opera calls William Ratcliff his most successful work -- a misleading adjective, given the material meaning of "success" in today's culture.)
His second-written opera, The Mandarin's Son, a comic opera in one act, though produced several times, is regrettable -- but still could be made use of in studio opera classes. The other children's operas are based on Russian fairy tales: The Snow Hero and Ivan the Fool.
All the operas except Flibustier were composed to Russian libretti. Prisoner was performed in Liege in 1886 (in French), with the help of La Comtesse de Mercy-Argenteau, who did a lot for the awareness of Russian music in the west. Flibustier was performed in Russian at the Moscow Conservatory in 1908 under the title By the Sea.
Two of the children's operas were republished during the Soviet era with new, more "acceptable" libretti, and one of those (Puss-in-Boots) was performed in Dresden and Weimar some years ago (in 1982, I think). But other than that, I know of no operas, especially the "adult" ones, that have been performed since Cui's death (1918), except for Little Red Riding-Hood, whose earliest performance seems to have been in Belarus' in the early 1920's.
Late in his life Cui became very interested in writing music for children, and became associated with a teacher named Nadezhda Dolomanova in this regard. The children's operas were mentioned earlier; these are meant for children to perform, not merely to watch. Several of his opus numbers contain only children's songs. Already one of his early collections of songs, op. 15 ("13 Musical Pictures", from 1877-1878), seems to have pointed in this direction, and was dedicated to his daughter, Lidia.
In the last couple decades of his life Cui wrote a prolific amount of music (perhaps that's because of dropping the heavy journalistic career), especially songs and piano pieces. He was involved with the Kerzin Circle of Music-Lovers in Moskow; and there were at least two jubilees in his honor: one in 1894 (25 years after "Ratcliff") and one around 1909 (40 years). He became blind a year or so before his death. (No, I'm *not* going to stretch credibility by comparing him to Bach! But it's a nice thought.) Then came death and peaceful relative obscurity -- unless somebody does something serious about that. The end.
If any of you read Russian, the only full-length biography of Cui is the following: A. F. Nazarov. "Tsezar Antonovich Kiui". Moskva : Muzyka, 1989. It is part of the popular-style biography series "Russkie i sovetskie kompozitory", but as such contains no musical analysis. La Comtesse de Mercy-Argenteau published her biography of Cui and analysis of his works in the late 1880's, and Stasov wrote a sketch of his life for the 1894 jubilee.