Roslavets: Three Compositions

performed by Olga Andryushchenko, or below by someone who is not Olga Andryushchenko

(cover image by Roman Mavrin)

Scriabin’s influence can be heard in earlier works, and a constant search for fresh sound constellations resulted in Roslavets’ invention of influential new compositional techniques, treating the piano with a passionate power and complex sovereignty…

Presto Classical

We’ve seen Roslavets on the blog only once before, already coming up on two years ago, with his first sonata. He hits a few of the high points for my tastes in music, especially a few years ago: he’s obscure, he’s Russian, he’s modern (radical, even), and… at the risk of sounding redundant, having already said obscure, was at risk of disappearing entirely, for a time. Much of his work was confiscated or lost, and only later published or restored or discovered, and there is still much that has never been recovered. That’s alluring in its own exciting (and heartbreakingly tragic) way, isn’t it?

Well, the thing that you’ll read about anytime you do whatever little reading there is to do about Roslavets is his likeness to Scriabin, and this article isn’t immune to that either. First, in case you didn’t read that article from two years ago, here are some quotes regarding the composer’s technique, foundation, and association with Scriabin.

Says Stephen Barber at MusicWeb International:

In the works we have, we find him first adopting, then moving away from, the idiom of Scriabin. He begins by adopting many of the techniques characteristic of Scriabin’s later piano sonatas and short pieces, such as the arpeggiated fourths in the bass, the snatching phrases in the treble, complex rhythms which move the music forward in waves, trills and copious use of the pedal. He also evokes the same haunted and oppressive atmosphere as does Scriabin.

A writer at Hyperion (perhaps Anna Ferenc?) says:

His so-called ‘new system of tone organization’ involves highly original manipulation of ‘synthetic chords’ and transposition throughout the twelve degrees of the chromatic scale. As for so many composers, the genre of the piano miniature became Roslavets’ chosen vehicle for much of this experimentation.

So with those things in mind, we look not only at the three little miniatures in this collection dating from 1914, the year before Scriabin died, but also at Roslavets’ place in the canon.

The three compositions in this set are as follows:

  1. Adagio
  2. Agitato con passione
  3. Allegretto grazioso

The three pieces together play for less than four minutes total, but are, as you might expect from the above description and association with Scriabin, rich and ornate.

The first installment, our adagio, sounds at first (and repeatedly) as much like Schoenberg as Scriabin. It’s sparse in places, with pauses and empty spaces that accentuate the wild contrasts of expression in these short phrases.

The second piece, the ‘agitated’ and ‘passionate’ one, is the shortest, and is a roiling wall, a burst of color. It never explodes or anything, but rolls forth in a torrent of sound only to slow to a quiet trickle and finish, as it were, with a single drop.

The third and final piece is the longest in the set, and is chromatic, languid, fluid; nothing of structure stands out to me, just splashes of color on a rich, captivating palette.

What does strike me, which we may or may not talk more about in a few days, is the excitement of looking at the score, the desire, as I was instructed to do with Schoenberg’s op. 11, to ‘decode’ it, to unravel its secrets, just kind of laid out right there on the page, but alas, I am not doing that with this piece. It’s there, on the score in the YouTube video, if you’d like to go exploring and interval content and all the rest. If I weren’t so behind on writing this, I’d maybe try to find the score, print it out, and see what I could deduct from a cursory glance at it. Truth be told, though, I really haven’t even done that with Scriabin’s work, and if/when I do/did, it makes more sense to focus on the sonatas rather than little character pieces like these. That’s not to say they’re not worth the time, but the sonatas would likely provide more to sink our teeth into.

So, then, to this question of Roslavets’ place in the musical canon. To put it very crudely and antagonistically, you could phrase it as “If we have Scriabin, why do we need Roslavets?” but almost no one would say that of any two other contemporary composers, so why here?

Well, there’s probably some phenomenon for it, that the first person to do something is the trendsetter, the second is the copycat, and all the others then are following a trend, leaving the poor second guy to be the brunt of all the accusations of ‘derivative’ and ‘unoriginal.’ I legit see that as a potential thing here.

If you look up Roslavets online, Google’s “People also search for…” function gives us, not Scriabin, but Mosolov, and four other people I’ve never heard of (Vladislav Shoot, Alexander Vustin, Dmitri Smirnov, and Viktor Suslin). Who else came after these two names (Scriabin and Roslavets) who could be said to have gone down that path? I’m not sure, really, at least not with the dedication and individuality that they did.

A suspicion then, would have been that maybe the world just didn’t have Roslavets for long enough for him to develop into whatever his final form would be, but he lived into his 60s. The answer, then, unexcitingly, is probably just that I am (we are) not familiar enough with Roslavets’ works to appreciate the differences, and I’m okay with that. Someone like Marc-Andre Hamelin, who plays both Roslavets and Scriabin, would likely have plenty to say about the difference. He described Roslavets as “Scriabin on acid.”

In closing then, here’s a statement found in a few places online. I can’t find the original source:

One might say that Roslavets forged a modernist, constructivist expression from the innovations of Scriabin’s mystical legacy.

Stay tuned this weekend for another Roslavets piece, and then our last full week of petite piano pieces as we approach August. Thanks so much for reading.

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