Taneyev was born to a cultured and literary family of Russian nobility. A distant cousin, Alexander Taneyev, was also a composer, whose daughter, Anna Vyrubova, was highly influential at court. Alexander was drawn closely to the nationalist school of music, while he would gravitate toward a more cosmopolitan outlook.
He began taking piano lessons at age five with a private teacher. His family moved to Moscow in 1865. The following year, the nine-year-old Taneyev entered the Moscow Conservatory. His first piano teacher at the Conservatory was Edward Langer. After a year's interruption in his studies, Taneyev studied again with Langer. He also joined the theory class of Nikola Hubert and, most importantly, the composition class of Tchaikovsky. In 1871, Taneyev studied piano with the Conservatory's founder, Nikolai Rubinstein.
Taneyev graduated in 1875, the first student in the history of the Conservatory to win the gold medal both for composition and for performing (piano). That summer he travelled abroad with Rubinstein. That year he also made his debut as a concert pianist in Moscow playing the first piano concerto in D minor of Johannes Brahms, and would become known for his interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. In March 1876 he toured Russia with violinist Leopold Auer.
Taneyev was also the soloist in the Moscow première of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto in 1875. Tchaikovsky was clearly impressed by Taneyev's performance; he later asked Taneyev to be soloist in the Russian premiere of his Second Piano Concerto. (After Tchaikovsky's death, Taneyev also completed and premiered his Third Piano Concerto and Andante and Finale.)
Taneyev attended Moscow University for a short time and was acquainted with outstanding Russian writers, including Ivan Turgenev and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. During his travels in Western Europe in 1876 and 1877, he met Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns amongst others.
When Tchaikovsky resigned from the Moscow Conservatory in 1878, Taneyev was appointed to teach harmony. He would later also teach piano and composition. He served as Director from 1885 to 1889, and continued teaching until 1905. He had great influence as a teacher of composition. His pupils included Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Reinhold Glière, Paul Juon, Julius Conus, and Nikolai Medtner. The polyphonic interweaves in the music of Rachmaninoff and Medtner stem directly from Taneyev's teaching. Scriabin, on the other hand, broke away from Taneyev's influence.
During the summers of 1895 and 1896, Taneyev stayed at Yasnaya Polyana, the home of Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sofia. She developed an attachment to the composer which embarrassed her children and made Tolstoy jealous. However this also released her from the distress of the isolation she experienced when Tolstoy grew distant from family concerns and devoted himself to the Christian anarchist-pacifism which shaped his last years. Sofia's infatuation with Taneyev and his music echoes the story of Tolstoy's great and penetrating dissection of marital relations in The Kreutzer Sonata.
Taneyev's later years were troubled by alcohol problems. He died from pneumonia contracted after attending the funeral of his pupil Scriabin.
A museum dedicated to Taneyev is located in Dyudkovo, where he died. There is also a section dedicated to Taneyev at the Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin.
While Taneyev lacked an original creative gift, he was a fastidious and diligent craftsman with an unrivaled technique. Tchaikovsky realized that the opinions of such a man, whose own taste and competence were so high, yet whose self-scrutiny was so exacting, was to be respected. Therefore, Tchaikovsky came to greatly appreciate criticism from Taneyev. In fact, Taneyev became the only one of Tchaikovsky's friends encouraged by the composer to be absolutely frank about his works.
Taneyev's frankness came at a price, however, and that price for Tchaikovsky was bearing with a forthrightness that went to the point of absolute bluntness. This means that while Tchaikovsky appreciated Taneyev's views, he did not always welcome them. A postscript to a letter Tchaikovsky wrote to Taneyev about Eugene Onegin and the Fourth Symphony basically sums up his general frame of mind: "I know you are absolutely sincere and I think a great deal of your judgment. But I also fear it."
Tchaikovsky's use of the word "fear" was not exaggerated. Music writer and composer Leoned Sabaneyev studied composition with Taneyev as a child and met Tchaikovsky through him. To Sabaneyev, Tchaikovsky really did seem afraid of Taneyev in some ways. He also suggests why:
I think he was unnerved by the overt frankness with which Taneyev reacted to Tchaikovsky's works: Taneyev believed that one must indicate precisely what one finds to be 'faults,' while strong points would make themselves evident. He was hardly fully justified in his conviction: composers are a nervous lot and they are often particularly dissatisfied with themselves. Tchaikovsky was just such a person: he worried himself almost sick over each work and often tried even to destroy them ...
Despite Tchaikovsky's notoriously thin skin when it came to criticism, he could not take any lasting offense at such transparent honesty, especially when Taneyev's assessments could show a great deal of perception Even if the manner in which Taneyev presented his comments made them sting all the more, Tchaikovsky was painfully grateful for his fellow-musician's candor.
"At the rehearsal of the concert he publicly declared to Balakirev: 'Mili Alekseyevich! We are dissatisfied with you.' I picture to myself Balakirev constrained to swallow a rebuke of this sort. Honest, upright and straightforward, Taneyev always spoke sharply and frankly. On the other hand, Balakirev, of course, could never forgive Taneyev his harshness and frankness with regard to his own person."
Nor was this the only time Taneyev shared strong opinions about the St. Petersburg based nationalist music group known as "The Mighty Handful" or "The Five." Rimsky-Korsakov recalls what he considered Taneyev's glaring conservatism in the 1880's. Taneyev reportedly showed "deep distrust" in Alexander Glazunov's early appearances. Alexander Borodin was merely a clever dilettante, and Modest Mussorgsky "had made him laugh." He may not have had a high opinion of Cesar Cui or even Rimsky-Korsakov. However, Rimsky-Korsakov's study of counterpoint, of which Taneyev learned from Tchaikovsky, may have prompted Taneyev to revise his opinion of that composer
The following decade showed a marked change in opinion, Rimsky-Korsakov writes. Taneyev now appreciated Glauzunov, respected Borodin's work and regarded only Mussorgsky's compositions with disdain. Rimsky-Korsakov ascribed this change to a new period in Taneyev's activity as a composer. Previously he had been absorbed mainly in research for his treatise on counterpoint, which left little time for composition. Now he was throwing himself more freely into creative work. In doing so, Taneyev was guiding himself by the ideals of contemporary music while still preserving "his astounding contrapuntal technique
Rimsky-Korsakov also writes that, after the fiasco regarding the Mariinsky Theater's production of Taneyev's Oresteia, Mitrofan Belyayev, the publisher and impresario who now headed the "Mighty Handful", shared Taneyev's outrage over the incident and volunteered to publish the score himself. Prior to publishing, Taneyev "revised and signally improved the orchestration, which had not been uniformly satisfactorily.... [T]hereafter, Taneyev began to avail himself of Glazunov's advice in orchestration; of course he made rapid strides in that field." Note the "of course." Glazunov had been Rimsky-Korsakov's student in orchestration as well as composition.
Taneyev published a gigantic two-volume treatise, Imitative Counterpoint in Strict Style, the result of 20 years of labor. In it, the laws of counterpoint are broken down, explained and brought into focus as a branch of pure mathematics. Taneyev used a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci as its inscription: "No branch of study can claim to be considered a true science unless it is capable of being demonstrated mathematically."
Taneyev's focus on strict mathematical counterpoint strongly influenced the way he composed his music. He described this process, while discussing his dramatic trilogy Orestia, in a letter to Tchaikovsky dated June 21, 1891:
I spend a great deal of time on preparatory work, and less time on final composition. Some items I have not finished within the last few years. Important themes which are repeated in the opera, are used by me objectively, without any reference to a particular situation, for studies in counterpoint. Gradually, from this chaos of thoughts and sketches something orderly and definite begins to emerge. Everything extraneous is discarded. That which is unquestionably suitable remains.
Taneyev would continue this series of contrapuntal exercises until he had exhausted every polyphonic possibility. Only then would he actually begin composing music
Rinsky-Korsakov describes Taneyev's compositional process similarly, but with more telling detail:
Before setting out for the real expounding of a composition, Taneyev used to precede it with a multitude of sketches and studies: he used to write fugues, canons, and various contrapuntal interlacings on the individual themes, phrases, and motives of the coming composition; and only after gaining thorough experience in its component parts did he take up the general plan of the composition and the carrying out of this plan, knowing by that time, as he did, and perfectly, the nature of the material he had at his disposal and the possibilities of building with that material.
Taneyev's rationale for this process stemmed from his belief that truth and moral integrity in music were synonymous with its objectivity and purpose. He viewed classical concepts of composition as perfect examples of a compositional technique devoid of anything casual or extraneous.
Taneyev also saw a synthesis of counterpoint and folk-song as the means of creating large-scale musical structures that would follow Wesstern rules of thematic development in sonata form. This goal had eluded both "The Five" and Tchaikovsky. Taneyev wrote:
The task of every Russian composer consists in furthering the creation of national music. The history of western music gives us the answer as to what should be done to attain this: apply to the Russian song the workings of the mind that were applied to the song of western natins and we will have our own national music. Begin with elementary contrapuntal forms, pass to more complex ones, elaborate the form of the Russian fugue, and from there it is only a step to complex instrumental types. The Europeans took centuries to get there, we need far less. We know the way, the goal, we can profit by their experience.
Compositionally, Taneyev and Tchaikovsky differed on how they felt music theory should function. Tchaikovsky prized spontaneity in musical creativity. Taneyev, in contrast, thought musical creativity should be both deliberate and intellectual, with preliminary theoretical analysis and preparation of thematic materials.
Consequently, Taneyev's intelwaylectual approach to the way of characterizing the music of his teacher, Tchaikovsky. Nevertheless, Taneyev's compositions reveal his mastery of the classical technique of composition, so his style could be said to reflect thedd European, and especially German, orientation of the Moscow Conservatory, rather than the Russian nationalist outlook of the school of Mily Balakirev.
His compositions include nine complete string quartets (plus two partially completed), a piano quintet, two string quintets and other chamber works, including a piano prelude and fugue in G-sharp minor; four symphonies (only one published during his lifetime, and at least one incomplete), a concert suite with violin and a piano concerto, and other orchestral works; an organ composition "Chorale with variations"; choral and vocal music. Among the choral works are two cantatas, "St. John of Damascus", op. 1 (also known as "A Russian Requiem"), and "At the Reading of a Psalm" (op. 36, sometimes regarded as his swan song). In the choral works the composer combines the Russian melos with remarkable contrapuntal writing.
Taneyev regarded his Oresteia, originally conceived in 1882, as his major achievement. This work, which the composer entitled a 'musical trilogy' rather than an opera, and was closely modeled on the original plays by Aeschylus, was first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre on 17 October 1895. Taneyev wrote a separate concert overture based on some of the opera's major themes, which was conducted by Tchaikovsky in 1889.
Rimsky-Korsakov considered many of Taneyev's compositions "most dry and laboured in character." A private hearing of Oresteia at his home, with Taneyev at the piano, was quite another matter. The opera, he writes, "astonished us all with pages of extraordinary beauty and expressiveness." He adds that he felt Taneyev's working methods "ought to result in a dry and academic composition, devoid of the shadow of an inspiration; in reality, however, Oresteia proved quite the reverse—for all its strict premeditation, the opera was striking in its wealth of beauty and expressiveness."
Along with beauty and expressiveness, Taneyev could also show a whimsical streak in his musical nature. Gerald Abraham writes, "Taneyev had a dual nature rather like Lewis Carroll's, half mathematician, half humorist." Among Taneyev's unpublished works are reportedly various parodies, including "Quartets of Government Officials", "humorous choruses, comic fugues and variations, toy symphonies, a mock ballet for Tchaikovsky's birthday with an absurd scenario and music which is an ingenious contrapuntal pot-pourri of themes from Tchaikovsky's works...."