About this Recording
8.570996 - ROSLAVETS, N.A.: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / Meditation / Dances of the White Maidens / Viola Sonata No. 1 (arr. for cello) (Kostov, Valkov)

Nikolay Roslavets (1880–1944): Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2
Meditation • Dances of the White Maidens • Viola Sonata (arranged for cello and piano)


Nikolay Roslavets was viewed by his Russian colleagues as one of the most original, innovative and progressive composers of the 1920s. He greeted the October Revolution of 1917 with great enthusiasm, and speedily joined the ranks of the Communist Party, the members of which a little over a decade later would effectively denounce him as an enemy of the Russian people. After the mid-1930s Roslavets’s life and works were shrouded in mystery for several decades both in Soviet Russia and the rest of the world, and only in the late 1980s did rediscovery of his music begin in earnest. The initial difficulty of access to Roslavets’s biographical material and the existence of not one but three of his autobiographies have resulted in the inevitable confusion and inaccuracies that still continue to be identified and corrected.

Roslavets was born on 14 December 1880 in a small village, Dushatino, near the borders of Ukraine and Belorussia. His extended family included a number of self-taught musicians, and it was probably his uncle, a maker of string instruments, who first introduced young Nikolay to music. By the age of eight Roslavets was already taking part in his uncle’s village string ensemble, which enjoyed local popularity. When he turned sixteen, Roslavets moved to Kursk, where he began to study violin, theory, and harmony in classes given under the auspices of the Russian Music Society. Five years later he enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory to study the violin with Jan Hřímalý and composition with Taneyev’s former student Sergey Vasilenko. He graduated in 1912 with a silver medal in composition for his cantata Nebo i zemlya (Heaven and Earth), after Byron.

Among Roslavets’s first professional compositions written between 1913 and 1916 are the song cycle Grustnïye peyzazhi (Paysages tristes) after Verlaine (1913), the First String Quartet (1913), the symphonic poem V chasï novoluniya (In the Hours of the New Moon) (1913), Noktyurn for harp, oboe, two violas and cello, and two violin sonatas. Roslavets’s peers immediately recognised him as one of the most promising, innovative, and daring modern composers, and compared his work to that of Scriabin and Schoenberg. In pre-Revolutionary Russia, however, his compositions did not receive the dissemination they deserved because of their technical complexity and unusual tonal organisation.

After the 1917 October Revolution, which Roslavets greeted with optimism and enthusiasm, he became one of the first representatives of the Union of Working, Peasant and Military Deputies; from 1924 he worked in the department of the State Music Publishing House and also held the post of editor-in-chief of the modernist journal Muzykal’naya kul’tura (Musical Culture). In the first half of the 1920s, Roslavets continued to work on his serial compositional method, producing a song cycle Plamennïy krug (The Flaming Circle), his Third String Quartet, a symphonic poem after Baudelaire, Chelovek i more (The Man and the Sea), now lost, and Konets sveta (End of the World) after Laforgue, a First Violin Concerto, the Second Sonata for cello and piano, a number of works for solo piano, and other chamber music compositions. The first all-Roslavets concert took place in Moscow in 1924.

Roslavets became the leader of the ASM (Association of Contemporary Music), where he actively promoted the works of Webern and Schoenberg. In 1923 he published a comprehensive essay on the latter’s Pierrot lunaire, concluding it with the expression of his belief that greater acceptance of Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic compositional principles by the wider community of modern composers was imminent. But members of the rival RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians), which stood for art and music easily accessible for the masses, viewed Roslavets’s modernist tendencies as dissemination of ‘bourgeois ideology’. Roslavets defended post-tonal music from the attacks of the RAPM, which further increased the tension between him and its members. Perhaps as a reaction against the attacks on his music, or possibly because he became disillusioned with the Communist regime and its policies, he resigned from the Party. As a result, in 1927 Roslavets was forbidden to associate with any political organisations for two years, and in order to escape rising tension and possible persecution, he moved to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, where he busied himself with composition, conducting, and becoming a director of Uzbek Radio and musical director of the Uzbek Music Theatre. It is acknowledged that his compositions dating from this period are well crafted and conform to the prescribed regulations for official Soviet music, but lack artistic inspiration.

In 1933 Roslavets returned to Moscow, where he taught at the State Music Polytechnic and was a repertory supervisor at the All-Union Radio Committee. Although he continued to be active as a composer, his works were not performed and his name did not appear in print until 1978. He was allowed to join the Composers’ Union (established in 1934) in 1940, shortly after suffering his first stroke. He died in 1944 from kidney cancer and a second stroke. A revival of interest in his works was signalled by the second all-Roslavets concert in 1988, held at Dushatino.

Roslavets considered himself an ‘organiser of sounds’, and at the same time but completely independently of Schoenberg, worked on the dodecaphonic system of composition. His first compositions based on this system appeared after 1912, with mature exemplars of the style emerging in the 1920s. Unlike Schoenberg, whose use of the twelve-tone row was highly regimented, Roslavets employed sets of six to nine notes, or ‘synthetic chords’, which undergo transpositions to all twelve degrees of the chromatic scale. They appear re-arranged, chromatically altered, and sometimes with the addition of new pitches. This brings Roslavets’s compositional practice close to that of Scriabin, although Roslavets himself always claimed independence from Scriabin’s influences.

As opposed to a traditional tonal system, where the listener can always hear tension and resolution because of the presence of a stable tonal centre, serial compositional technique radically changes this. When the tones of any given set are emancipated from tonal dependency, a different sound world is created, without the usual relationships and associations. But that does not mean that this world is devoid of familiar emotions and perceptions; Roslavets’s music is rich in soulful lyricism, passion, drama, introspection, mystery, and beauty.

Roslavets’s Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 (1921), a one-movement work with no assigned key signature, displays the composer’s free and flexible approach to form, where the opening six-tone ‘synthetic chord’ is treated akin to a main musical theme in a traditional sonata. Cello and piano are engaged in a polyphonically complex interaction, where each instrumental part places considerable technical demands on the performer. The two distinctive emotional worlds of this sonata, impassioned on the one hand and introspective on the other, alternate in surges of sounds and colours.

Meditation (1921) is a kind of Roslavetskian dodecaphonic Winterreise, specifically bringing to mind the opening song of Schubert’s cycle, Gute Nacht, with its measured walking pattern in the opening piano part which supports the ensuing narrative of the cello. The development of a dramatic soundscape renders this work highly emotional and expressive.

Roslavets’s tonal organisation system had reached its maturity by the time the Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 (1922) was written. The most extensive work on this disc, and twice as long as the first sonata, it opens with crystal-clear piano chords like frozen tear-drops. These fleeting aural images bring to mind the second song of Winterreise, Gefrorne Tränen, but swiftly develop into a deeply felt, introspective, meditative sound world. The sonata is built on alternating sections of intimate, pensive, lyrical moods that are separated by the insertions of fragile, lucid piano chords.

Although assigning Tanets belïkh dev (Dances of the White Maidens) (1912) to the key of A major, the composer deliberately avoids the tonic by concentrating on subdominant sonorities. In this early composition the development of one of the prominent aspects of Roslavets’s style, the function of ostinato as the musical substructure, is clearly present. Tanets gives the listener a glance into a mystical, ethereal universe, which vanishes when the undulating piano accompaniment in the concluding section evaporates into silence.

Like much of Roslavets’s life, the history of the Viola Sonata (transcribed for cello and piano) (1926) is not free from some confusion. A large number of manuscripts left by Roslavets for viola and piano point to the existence of not two such sonatas, as it is usually believed, but three. Full-bodied, sonorous, highly impassioned, this is perhaps the most personal work on this disc. Everchanging and evolving sound colours, harmonies and rhythms provide a great deal of interest while creating a sense of boundless space between the lower registers of the cello and the high notes of the piano.

Anastasia Belina

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