Penetrating the Dark Musical Mind of Roslavets

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ROSLAVETS: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2 & 5. 3 Compositions: I. Adagio; II. Agitato con passione; III. Allegretto grazioso. Prélude (1915). 2 Sochineniya (Compositions): I. Très modéré; II. Lent. 2 Poems. 3 Études. 5 Préludes. Berceuse. Danse. Valse (reconstructed by M. Lobanova). Prélude (reconstructed by M. Lobanova). from 4 Compositions: Prélude; Poème / Olga Andryushchenko, pianist / Grand Piano GP743-44

Despite the fact that Sonatas Nos. 3 & 4 are missing, this set is advertised as the complete piano music of the obscure Nikolay Roslavets (1881-1944), who Stravinsky called “The most interesting Russian composer of the 20th century.”

Because he is such an obscure and controversial figure, some detail must be given on his background. This in itself is difficult because Roslavets published three completely different autobiographies! In the 1924 version he deliberately misrepresented his own life to prevent attacks by the “Proletarian Musician” faction in the Soviet Union. But there are also different accounts of his birthplace, one saying that he was born in Dushatyn to a family of peasants whereas he was actually born the son of a Ukrainian railway clerk in Surazh, now in Bryansk Oblast. During the 1910s he became enchanted by the late music of Alexander Scriabin and his “mystic chord”; despite having Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov as his composition teacher, he turned to the mystical music of Scriabin as his starting-point. Upon graduating in 1912, he won a silver medal for his cantata Heaven and Earth, inspired by Byron’s verse drama.

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Roslavets c. 1920

During the 1910s his compositions were published in Russian Futurist journals, and some “futurist” artists designed covers for his music. After the Bolshevik Revolution he became a prominent public exponent of “leftist art,” and a friend of Arthur Lourié, Kazimir Malevich, Vsevolod Meyerhold and others (pace Wikipedia). He taught violin and composition in Elets, Khariv (then known as Kharkov) and Moscow. He was also a musicologist and editor of the arts journal Muzykalnaya Kultura, fighting for the best in Russian, Western classical and New Music and criticizing “vulgar identifications of music with ideology” in his article On Pseudo-Proletarian Music. Because he wrote the first Russian article about Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, he was viciously attacked during the 1920s by the “proletariat musician” movement, particularly by representatives of “Prokoll,” the Productive Collective of the Students of the Moscow Conservatory. This led to his being branded “counter-revolutionary” and bourgeois, “alien to the proletariat” and a formalist “class enemy.” During the late 1920s and ‘30s, he was given the worst insult of the time, being accused of being a Trotskyite. In 1930 he was even banned from getting a political editorial position for two years and banished to Uzbekistan where he worked at the Musical Theater in Tashkent. After moving back to Moscow in 1933, he eked out a living giving piano and violin lessons and doing menial labor. A target of political purges, he never again obtained a good position in the Soviet Union. In 1938 he suffered a stroke, and in 1944 he died.

Musically speaking, Roslavets came out of the Scriabin style with his own musical “system of sound organization” which regulated the 12-tone chromatic scale. He developed “synthetic chords” of six to nine tones, expanding his system during the 1920s to encompass counterpoint, rhythm, and musical form while elaborating new principles of teaching. In his later years, however, he simplified his style somewhat, being more influenced by folk material.

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Roslavets in the late 1930s

Listening to his piano scores from the early years, the Scriabin influence is quite extensive, yet in terms of the form and direction of his music it sounds nothing like Scriabin, who always remained tied to a more lyrical system of music. Roslavets’ scores almost sound like a German equivalent of Scriabin, with thick, heavy chords and a monotonous rhythm. All the expression of his music was in the melodic and harmonic direction, even in short pieces like the 1915 Prélude (which sounds more like a lament or a dirge), the 3 Compositions and the 2 Compositions. Pianist Andryuschchenko describes his music as being a combination of “fire and ice,” and that is an apt description of his pieces. The music doesn’t flow so much as it drifts, and this drifting is almost consistently dark in color and mood. Dissonances do not resolve themselves, as in Scriabin, but either remain unresolved or morph into other unresolved dissonances. The first of his 2 Poems simply ends on an unresolved single note F, repeated twice, that simply stops the piece in the middle of nowhere. So too does the second Piano sonata, this time on a C.

Incidentally, if you think his piano music is rather strange and wild, you should hear his orchestral works. Go to YouTube and type in “Roslavets – Komsomoliya,” click on the link and be prepared for one of the wildest rides of your life. This is like Scriabin on acid! Of course, he also had his tender side, as evidenced by the Nocturne and the Violin Concerto No. 1, but returning to his piano music and listening to the sonata No. 2 one is again plunged into a world of darkness in which no light can penetrate. Peering into Roslavets’ mind is a scary experience because there is no way out of his musical mazes. They are complete and impenetrable.

Although every piece on CD 1 was previously recorded, CD 2 presents a handful of previously unrecorded works: the Berceuse, Danse, Valse (reconstructed by Lobanova), Prelude (ditto) and excerpts from the 4 Compositions. Although none of Roslavets’ piano compositions are in his later style—the latest work here is the Piano Sonata No. 5 of 1923—there is a discernible change in his use of rhythms in his post-1917 music. These pieces are livelier in pace and have more forward momentum than his earlier music, and the piano writing is occasionally ornate. In addition, the consistently dark mood of the earlier works is now occasionally leavened, for instance in the 5 Préludes of 1919-22 where, as the notes point out, he “composes using barely discernible gradations of time and movement… His point of departure is microthemes, microdynamics, microfacture, microarticulation.”

Andryuschchenko’s playing is rich-toned and evocative. She does her best to pull the music together and in most cases succeeds, even in those pieces where Roslavets subverts her intentions with ambiguous form and drifting harmonies. Overall, my impression of his piano music is that it is extremely complex and interesting, but not always communicative. The listener, for instance, will have a hard time hearing a waltz or a berceuse in those pieces marked as such, and the continual harmonic ambiguity, without much in the way of resolution, makes it rather wearing on the listener. In short, most of these pieces, depending on the era and style, tend to sound very much alike, yet one is occasionally riveted by the cleverness and complexity of his style. My advice would be to take him in small doses, and to leaven his piano music with his orchestral and chamber works like the String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3. These will give you a different side of Roslavets and break up the monotony of his dissonant knots of music that make up each of his piano works. Perhaps the persecution he suffered in his lifetime had something to do with his style, which seemed to be defiant to the point of stubbornness. He had a lot to offer, but also a tendency to ramble. Recommended for its creating mood if not for aesthetic appeal.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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