About this Recording
GP682 - OSWALD, H.: Pagine d'Album / Álbumes, Opp. 32, 33, 36 / 3 Études / Estudo para a mão esquerda (Monteiro)
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Henrique Oswald (1852–1931)
Piano Works

 

Henrique Oswald was born on 14 April 1852 in Rio de Janeiro to Jean-Jacques Oschwald, a Swiss-German immigrant, and Carlota Luiza Cantagalli, a native of Italy. By 1853 the family had moved to São Paulo, where his mother was Oswald’s first piano teacher. In 1860 he began lessons with the French pianist Gabriel Giraudon, giving his début recital at six or seven. Oswald left with his mother for Europe in 1868, where they forwent plans to go to Munich on their arrival and instead travelled to Florence. Oswald quickly adapted to Florentine musical life, studying piano and composition with Giuseppe Buonamici (a student of Hans von Bülow and champion of German instrumental music in Italy) and piano with the Hungarian virtuoso Henri Ketten. By 1873 he had become the colleague of his professors, serving as a teacher of piano at the Istituto Musicale di Firenze. Through Buonamici Oswald met Liszt and Brahms, and his success as a recitalist throughout the 1870s and 1880s grew to include critical praise as a composer. His compositions were lauded by Saint-Saëns and Fauré, two composers whose music left an indelible mark on Oswald’s compositional style.

In 1903 Oswald returned to Brazil, where he accepted a position as director of the Instituto Nacional de Música (INM) in Rio de Janeiro, a prestigious post he held amid difficulties. He enjoyed a successful European recital tour in 1906, returning to Brazil to finalize his resignation from the INM in 1907, and in the interim teaching piano privately until 1911, when he returned to the INM as a professor of piano. With his family now rejoining him in Brazil in 1912, Oswald spent the remainder of his life teaching and composing, while his great musical reputation at home and abroad afforded him visits from many artists and musicians, including Darius Milhaud and Ottorino Respighi.

Oswald’s position as one of Brazil’s leading composers came under scrutiny following the Semana de arte moderna (Week of Modern Art) in São Paulo in February of 1922, a series of modern art exhibitions and concerts protesting at the pervasive influence of older academic European models in Brazil’s cultural institutions. Oswald and his music received their most vociferous attacks from one of the event’s co-organizers, the poet and musicologist Mário de Andrade, who in 1934 proclaimed that “Henrique Oswald was perhaps the most rootless, most dysfunctional of those Brazilian composers who came from the second half of the nineteenth century.” Such pro-nationalist sentiment grew in the 1930s and 1940s to more or less exclude Oswald’s music from concert programming in Brazil, which was replaced with the Brazilian “nationalist” music of Francisco Mignone, M. Camargo Guarnieri, Radamés Gnattali and, most significantly, Heitor Villa-Lobos. His impact on Brazilian composers, however, was not erased, even at the height of the nationalist period following the Semana de arte moderna. At the time of Oswald’s death in 1931 Villa-Lobos referred to him as “the most admirable composer of this country”, and he organized in Rio de Janeiro a memorial performance of Oswald’s Missa de Réquiem, the score for which he also prepared and edited. Villa-Lobos’s remarks resonate today among many performers, especially pianists, who have embraced Oswald as one of the most significant Brazilian composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Oswald’s music as a whole reveals an eclectic mixture of traditional and modern traits aligned with French traditions, and like the music of his friend Saint-Saëns is not easy to contextualize within a single stylistic paradigm. Oswald’s fin-de-siècle French sensibilities mingle freely with significant nods to the established nineteenth-century pianistic idioms of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms. These tastes reflect in part the influence of Buonamici and Saint-Saëns, two figures who played significant rôles in Oswald’s compositional development.

Pagine d’album, Op. 3

The nineteenth-century salon music aesthetic is prominently on display in this Pagine d’album, with a few wistful evocations of the Chopin miniature, especially the Preludes in Preludio and Nocturnes in Sognando (Dream) and the haunting In Hamac (In Hammock). The lyrical Romanza and flashy Scherzo that conclude the Op. 3 set serve as testaments to the influence of Schumann on Oswald as a young composer.

Album, Op. 32

The four pieces of Op. 32 illustrate Oswald’s continued interest in the salon music aesthetic of the nineteenth century while composing well into the first decades of the twentieth century, which some have criticized as the product of Oswald’s conservative and bourgeois musical tastes during a time of great stylistic innovation. While the sentimentality of the Valse and Sérénade evokes the parlour sensibilities of earlier times, the Menuet that closes the collection is a reminder of Oswald’s musical affinity with the composers associated with the nouveau classicisme movement in France at the turn of the century, most notably Saint-Saëns, d’Indy, and Debussy.

Album, Op. 33

The Album, Op. 33 is a short collection of three character pieces published in Rio de Janeiro around 1920. In the ocean miniature Sur la Plage (On the Beach), a calm barcarolle theme gives way to a dramatic tidal surge (marked Agitato), which soon transitions back to the peaceful tranquillity of the opening theme. Pierrot is a playful bit of grotesquerie whose Tempo di Polka marks the influence of the French neoclassical aesthetic on Oswald’s evolving musical language. Idylle and Pierrot also feature contrasting middle sections that modulate to keys a major third away from the home keys, illustrating Oswald’s interest in symmetrical pitch collections as popularised by Liszt. This harmonic idiom is featured prominently in the final cadence of Idylle, where Oswald harmonizes a four-note segment of the octatonic scale before arriving at the home chord of A flat (D flat–G flat–F flat–B double flat).

Album, Op. 36

In the Album, Op. 36, published around 1905, we encounter Oswald’s full assimilation of the French impressionist idiom, markedly apparent in the use of leaner textures, static harmonic movement, and the extensive use of pentatonic and whole-tone scales. The prevalence of whole-tone harmony found in Chauve-Souris (The Bat) is probably a reference to the lengthy whole-tone introduction of Saint-Saëns’s Scherzo, Op. 87, for two pianos—also nicknamed The Bat—of which Oswald gave the première in Brazil with Saint-Saëns at the piano in 1899.

Valsa lenta (obra posthuma)

Published posthumously in 1932, the Valsa Lenta in F minor is a poetic work with virtually no trace of the technical passage-work often encountered in Oswald’s piano music. The simple melody in the Aeolian mode recalls the “folk-style” lyricism of Dvořák and Grieg.

En Nacelle

En Nacelle (On a boat), a stand-alone piece, is dedicated to the Russian composer and pianist Vladimir Rebikov, admired by Oswald as a “musical revolutionary”. Rebikov’s theory of musical “psycography”, in which the traditional rules of form and harmony are abandoned in the service of portraying human emotions, fascinated Oswald, and the harmonic ambiguity of En Nacelle may have been inspired by his interest in the music of this experimental composer.

Trois Études • Estudo para a Mão Esquerda • Estudo (obra posthuma)

These five etudes, all in ternary forms, tread on the familiar ground of the nineteenthcentury piano etude established by Chopin and Liszt. The Trois Études were some of the only solo piano pieces Oswald composed during the tumultuous years between 1906 and 1912, and his time spent teaching piano lessons from home might have provided the impetus for the technical scope of these demanding pieces. Some critics have understood the syncopated motive of the second of the Trois Études as Oswald’s attempt to integrate the rhythms associated with Brazilian popular music into his piano pieces. The Estudo para a mão esquerda (Étude for the left hand), dedicated to Sigrid Nepomuceno (the daughter of the composer Alberto Nepomuceno, born in 1897 without a right hand), is a masterful specimen of the left-hand étude genre, and spotlights both Oswald’s lyrical gifts as well as his ability to eloquently navigate through elaborate tonal plans.

Cory Gavito


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