Roslavets String Quartet no. 1

performed by the Novosibirsk “Filarmonica” String Quartet

(cover image by Zach Reiner)

Roslavets again, this time in what I find to be a far more compelling piece.

We discussed last week that Roslavets, as if nearly disappearing from the face of the earth weren’t enough, sort of, to many people, exists under Scriabin’s shadow. But today that isn’t the case. More on that shortly.

The usually very resourceful, informative Edition Silvertrust tells us only very little about today’s piece. It dates from 1913, and briefly discusses the composer’s “new system of sound organization,” which I suppose we didn’t actually talk about in any detail last Friday. Silvertrust says:

Roslavets “new system of sound organization” for the most part consists of chords of six to nine tones. In the 1920s Roslavets developed his system further, expanding it to encompass counterpoint, rhythm, and musical form while elaborating new principles of teaching.

Most of that writeup is about the composer himself. The only bit of information we get about today’s piece is as follows:

Although the work is in one movement, there are eight sections within it which comprise the whole. Mood and tempi vary from mysterious to dramatic and from slow to fast and back again.

I wish I could have look at the score for this piece (and granted, I didn’t even attempt to find it), because I suspect that the ‘eight sections’ mentioned are perhaps just tempo indications, rather than independent sections, because I feel that overall, the piece is unified by a certain contour, a shape, that gives purpose to the entire piece.

I wish the Novosibirsk recording weren’t so resonant. There’s a hollowness to the acoustics that I think robs this piece of some of the warmth it would otherwise have.

I wonder, though, if instead of the eight sections that Silvertrust mentions, we could perhaps hear the piece, or see it, or analyze it or whatever, in much the same manner as a Scriabin sonata, a single-movement approach to the form with that memorable motif at its core.

Whether that’s how you hear it or not, the music is busy, dense, layered, complex. It crawls and writhes, at times orbiting so closely around that main theme, and at times receding from it. In that density and texture, it reminds me a bit of Schoenberg’s first string quartet (the D minor one) for how much there is going on at certain times.

For me, though, focusing on that theme, that idea, as the engine of the piece, is more than enough mental imagery to appreciate this piece. Again, Scriabin never gave us a string quartet, so if Roslavets’ piano works don’t strike you as unique, give some attention to this work.

Pay attention not only to that thread of the main idea and how it reappears and shapes the piece overall, but to the contrasts between sections, the overall momentum of the piece. If the actual sound of the music is a challenge for you, then warming up with middle/late Scriabin or something from Schoenberg might help.

There’s a real exciting energy, a sort of propulsive forward motion about the piece. It might not be a march, or a hunting piece or anything, but even in its rounder, softer, more supple moments, there’s still this sense of growth and development. Like with Scriabin or Schoenberg, or even Mozart, really, you don’t have to know the intricacies and academic terms for what’s going on to know that something is going on, and that you like it, or are at the very least interested in, perplexed by, or curious about it.

This will not be the last we see of Roslavets, for sure, but it’s the last we’ll see of him for quite sometime. Stay tuned tomorrow, though, for another Russian dude, and thanks so much for reading.


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