Cesarius-Benjaminus Cui was born in Vilnius, Vilna Governorate, Russian Empire (now Vilnius, Lithuania), to a Roman Catholic family, the youngest of five children.
His French father Antoine (his name was later Russified as Anton Leonardovich), had entered Russia as a member of Napoleon’s army in 1812, settled in Vilnius upon their defeat, and married a local woman named Julia Gucewicz.
The young César grew up learning French, Russian, Polish and Lithuanian.
In 1855 he was graduated from the Academy, and after advanced studies at the Nikolaevsky Engineering Academy, now Military engineering-technical university, he began his military career in 1857 as an instructor in fortifications.
His students over the decades included several members of the Imperial family, most notably Nicolas II.
Cui eventually ended up teaching at three of the military academies in Saint Petersburg.
Cui’s study of fortifications gained from frontline assignment during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 proved quite important for his career.
As an expert on military fortifications, Cui eventually attained the academic status of professor in 1880 and the military rank of general in 1906.
He was a Russian composer and music critic of French and Lithuanian descent.
His profession was as an army officer (he rose to the rank of Engineer-General (compared to full general) of The Russian Imperial Army) and a teacher of fortifications, and his avocational life has particular significance in the history of music.
Regardless of his achievements as a professional military academic, Cui is best known in the West for his “other” life in music.
As a boy in Vilnius he received piano lessons, studied Chopin’s works, and began composing little pieces at fourteen years of age.
In the few months before he was sent to Petersburg, he managed to have some lessons in music theory with the Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko, who was residing in Vilnius at the time. Cui’s musical direction changed in 1856, when he met Mily Balakirev and began to be more seriously involved with music.
Cui married Mal’vina Rafailovna Bamberg in 1858. He had met her at the home of Alexander Dargomyzhsky, from whom she was taking singing lessons.
Among the musical works Cui dedicated to her is the early Scherzo, Op. 1 (1857), which uses themes based on her maiden name and his own initials (C.C.), and the comic opera The Mandarin’s Son. César and Mal’vina had two children, Lidiya and Aleksandr.
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.