About this Recording
8.557903 - ROSLAVETS: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1, 4 and 6 / 3 Dances

Nikolai Roslavets (1880-1944)
Violin Sonatas Nos. 1, 4 and 6 • Three Dances


Nikolai Roslavets is an enigmatic but intriguing figure in the history of twentieth-century music. Although biographical information about him is very limited and sometimes contradictory, his surviving compositions exhibit a marked sophistication and uniqueness attractive especially to those who enjoy repertoire beyond the mainstream. The music for violin and piano presented in this recording spans his compositional lifetime and thereby presents an overview of his work for this instrumental combination.

Roslavets was born in 1880 in the Surazh county of the Chernihiv gubernia. Governed by the Russian empire at the time, Surazh is part of Ukraine. Roslavets studied violin performance and composition at the Moscow Conservatory. He graduated in 1912 and immediately began to establish himself as a modernist innovator. Between 1913 and 1919, he worked at formulating a new, harmonically-based system of tone organization and continued to refine this method of composition throughout the 1920s. His compositional practice involved manipulation of harmonies consisting of six or more notes, which he called "synthetic chords". It is musically evident that his synthetic chord technique is indebted to the late harmonic practice of Alexander Scriabin, although Roslavets claimed compositional independence from him.

In addition to being a composer and teacher of composition, Roslavets was also a musical and political activist. He was a founding member of the Association for Contemporary Music in Moscow, rector of the Kharkiv Music Institute from 1921-22, editor-in-chief of a short-lived modernist journal titled Musical Culture, and was appointed to various administrative positions within artistic organizations and governmental departments.

While advocating his own approach to composition, Roslavets defended European trends in post-tonal music from criticism by members of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians. By the end of the 1920s, Roslavets himself succumbed to political denunciations of his modernist position, which was viewed with enmity as antiproletarian. Branded as formalist and decadent, his work was silenced and his name disappeared from Russian reference sources and concert programmes. To escape the tensions of Moscow, Roslavets moved to Tashkent in 1931, but returned to Moscow in 1933 where he continued to teach and compose until his death in 1944.

Regrettably, many of Roslavets's scores have been lost or destroyed. Unlike Sonatas Nos. 1 and 4, which were published during Roslavets's lifetime, Sonata No. 6 remained in manuscript form until 1996 when it was published by Schott as the sixth sonata for violin and piano. It is not certain that this composition is in fact the sixth sonata because the manuscript is titled Legenda (Legend) and is dated 1940. These markings, however, do not appear to be in the composer's hand and the title in particular is probably an error in light of the work's three-movement form, which more accurately resembles that of a sonata. Although the archival date of 1940 may be questionable, this is undoubtedly a late work because of its simplified harmonic and rhythmic context, its apparent C minor tonality, and traditional use of key signatures, which are conspicuously absent in earlier works. Reminiscent of a late nineteenth-century style, the composition clearly departs from Roslavets's earlier experimental focus and is much more musically accessible. One may argue that it is an example of the manner in which Roslavets was forced to accommodate political pressures, but on the other hand it bears enough stylistic characteristics of the composer's earlier work to illustrate a heroic will determined to express itself artistically and relevantly regardless of political obstacles.

The Sonata for violin and piano No. 1 is one of Roslavets's earliest professional works. Completed in April 1913, it helped to launch his career and marked him as a modernist innovator. The composition caught the attention of composer and compatriot Nikolay Myaskovsky, who reviewed it in 1914. His review praised Roslavets's compositional mastery, but warned that the composition's complexity and technical difficulties limited its dissemination and noted prophetically that the piece would therefore experience prolonged neglect. The composition is a single-movement work in sonata form, whose experimental, highly chromatic writing avoids a tonal centre and a regular rhythmic pulse. In actual fact, there is much repetition of music from the exposition in the recapitulation section of the piece, but this is not perceived readily. Instead, the listener is struck by a dense harmonic idiom, repeated motivic gestures often punctuated by trills, and meandering, angular melodic lines juxtaposed from time to time with lyrical melodies. These are hallmarks of Roslavets's compositional style as is his apparent conception of sonata form as a dynamic work for virtuoso performers.

Like the first sonata, the Sonata No. 4 is also a single-movement composition based on sonata form, but includes an additional, slower third theme. It is again a technically demanding piece featuring a spirited opening, a lyrical second theme, and an agitated coda that is eventually brought to a tranquil ending. Written in August 1920, its harmonic structure is based on a more mature version of Roslavets's synthetic chord technique. The piece does not have a referential tonic, but rather a referential chord with which it begins and ends. The inclusion of tritones and minor sevenths as stable, non-resolving intervals within continuous permutations of this harmony yields a highly chromatic texture. To aid performers, Roslavets employs a harmonic pedal marking in the piano part that not only marks changes of pedal, but also clarifies succession of harmonies within the piece.

In 1923, Roslavets completed a trio of relatively short pieces for violin and piano, which he grouped into a collection entitled Three Dances that was published in 1925. The three pieces are subtitled Waltz, Nocturne, and Mazurka. While the Nocturne is not a dance form, the other two ostensible dances are also dubious due to departures from a regular rhythmic pulse appropriate for their stylized dance types. The Nocturne is perhaps the most appropriately titled piece as it effectively expresses a subdued nocturnal quality, but all three pieces continue to feature stylistic traits identified in the earlier sonatas. The music shows further development of Roslavets's compositional method whereby certain transpositions of a referential sonority are used to create successive statements of all twelve chromatic tones.

Anna Ferenc

Close the window