César Antonovich Cui (Tsezar' Antonovič Kjui) (18 January [O.S. 6 January] 1835 - March 13, 1918) was a Russian of French and Lithuanian descent. His profession was as an army officer and a teacher of fortifications; his avocational life has particular significance in the history of music, in that he was a composer and music critic; in this sideline he is known as a member of The Five, the group of Russian composers under the leadership of Mily Balakirev dedicated to the production of a specifically Russian type of music.
Cui composed in almost all genres of his time, with the distinct exceptions of the symphony and the symphonic poem (unlike his compatriots Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov). By far art songs constitute the greatest number of works by Cui; these include a few vocal duets and many songs for children. Several of his songs are available also in versions with orchestral accompaniment, including his Bolero, Op. 17, which was dedicated to the singer Marcella Sembrich. Some of his most famous art songs include "The Statue at Tsarskoye Selo" ("Царско-сельская статyя") and "The Burnt Letter," ("Сожжённое письмо"), both based on poems by Cui's most valued poet, Pushkin.
In addition, Cui wrote many works for piano and for chamber groups (including three string quartets), numerous choruses, and several orchestral works, but his most significant efforts are reflected in the operas, of which he composed fifteen of varying proportions. Besides children's music (which includes four fairytale operas as well as the aforementioned songs), three other special categories of compositions stand out among his works: (1) pieces inspired by and dedicated to the Comtesse de Mercy-Argenteau (whom the composer knew from 1885 to her death in 1890; (2) works associated with the Circle of Russian Music Lovers (the "Kerzin Circle"); and (3) pieces inspired by the Russo-Japanese War and World War I.
As to the current status of Cui the composer, in the last few decades one of his children's operas (of which he composed four) entitled Puss-in-Boots (from Perrault) has had wide appeal in Germany. Nevertheless, despite the fact that more of Cui's music is being made available in recent years in recordings and in new printed editions, his status today in the repertoire is considerably small, based (in the West) primarily on some of his piano and chamber music (such as the violin and piano piece called Orientale (op. 50, No. 9)) and a number of solo songs. The received wisdom that he is not a particularly talented composer, at least for large genres, has been cited as a cause for this state of affairs; his strongest talent is said to lie in the crystallization of mood at an instant as captured in his art songs and instrumental miniatures. Although his abilities as an orchestrator, too, have been disparaged (notably by his compatriot Rimsky-Korsakov), some recent recordings (e.g., of his one-act opera Feast in Time of Plague, from Pushkin) suggest that Cui's dramatic music might be more interesting to pursue with regard to this feature.
Cui's works are not so nationalistic as those of the other members of The Five; with the exception of Pushkin, his operas do not display a strong attraction to Russian sources. In the area of art song, however, the vast majority of Cui's vocal music is based on Russian texts. Overt attempts at Russian "folk" musical style can be detected in passages from his first act of the collaborative Mlada (1872), The Captain's Daughter, a couple of the children's operas, and a few songs; many other passages in his music reflect the stylistic curiosities associated with Russian art music of the 19th century, such as whole tone scales and certain harmonic devices. Nevertheless, his style is more often compared to Robert Schumann and to French composers such as Gounod than to Mikhail Glinka or to Cui's Russian contemporaries.