Recorded in December 1991 & February 1992 at Moscow Conservatory - The Moscow Trio
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Nikolay Andreyevich Roslavets was, like many of the other representatives of the early Russian avant-garde, one of the tragic victims of suppressed musical history. The fate of his music was both absurdly political and politically absurd. That his name was erased from Russian musical history for half a century, that any attention paid to his music in the West aroused a no longer rationally comprehensible degree of strident hostility on the part of the Soviet authorities, that musicological analyses of the dodecaphonic structures of his early works were confiscated at the personal bidding of the chairman of the Soviet Composers' Union - these are, from today's point of view, farcical elements in the perverse amalgamation of politics and aesthetics, but which nevertheless did shape and leave its mark on the history of music for half a century and which even today has not entirely disappeared from the mentalities of those who regard themselves as being competent to evaluate and judge Russian musical history.
Roslavets was "an enemy", "not one of our composers", his music was "harmful", were the stereotype observations. "Roslavets - is he a composer at all ?", was the question that western publishers interested in his music heard in Moscow to their disconcerted astonishment. As recently as 1985 the official periodical, Sovietskaya Muzyka considered the very mention of his name in a monograph on Shostakovitch as a blasphemy. Similar animosity has been met with by several Russian musicians during the last ten years in their efforts to reintroduce his work to the public, among whom may be mentioned the music historian, Marina Lobanova, who has been giving performances and lectures in the Moscow Composers' Club since the early 80s, the Briansk Festival, founded in 1986 by the cellist, Mark Belodubrovsky, and the Festival Nasledie (heritage) founded in 1989 with the aim of reviving respect for the music of Roslavets and other ostracized composers of the past.
The origins of this kind of cultivated ignorance go back to the 2Os, to the conflicts between the "Association for Contemporary Music" (ASM) that performed the function of a Soviet section of the ISCM, and the conservative "Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians" (RAPM) that looked upon the ASM and particularly its spokesman, Roslavets, as opponents, because he defended the New Music of the west, that the RAPM despised, and interceded for Stravinsky, Prokofiev and even for Arnold Schoenberg to whose Pierrot Lunaire he wrote the first Russian introduction. At the time the Soviet State Publishing House, the "political" department of which was led by Roslavets, patronized and commissioned avant-garde works like the Second Symphony of the then twenty-year-old Dimitry Shostakovitch on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Roslavets was attacked as the "corrupt product of bourgeois society", and from the 30s he was utterly eliminated from Russian musical life. A guest performance in the Uzbek National Theatre in Tashkent was followed by a life in complete oblivion in Moscow, lucky to be permitted to give classes in conducting at an institute for army musicians. His name was expunged from musical dictionaries and, at most, reprovingly mentioned in musical literature - and many western writers unhesitatingly adopted these assessments.
This absurd fate befell a musician who had consciously embraced the doctrine of Marxism and the ideals of the October Revolution and had even expressed them as the composer of an imposing number of revolutionary songs, who had, in the name of the Marxist ideology of progress, striven for the acknowledgement of technical progress in the field of music as well. Admittedly, his works of chamber music had little in common with revolutionary "simplification" and were sometimes shrugged off as "crossword puzzles" by his contemporaries. Somewhat parallel to the direction Schoenberg was taking, the transition from fulsome post-Romantic forms of expression to new, highly concentrated structures was accomplished in these works. They were not based on any accidental procedure, but on the notion of a "new, fixed system of tonal organization", as Roslavets called it, theoretically put into practice, and believed to be destined "to replace the classical system that we have totally outgrown and to provide the 'intuitive', but, in fact, anarchical creative methods employed by the majority of present-day composers, with a solid foundation." This system, however, has as little to do with the political events of the 20s as it does with the model of the Schoenbergian twelve-tone row system - as is sometimes imputed to him - which we know was only formulated in 1921. The atonal and occasionally dodecaphonic structures of Roslavets's compositional system are still much more deeply rooted in the Russian avant-garde movement of the 1910s that was associated with Futurism and its notion of a new "pantonality" (as it was called in the manifesto Futuristic Music in 1911 by Francesco Balilla Pratella). The designation, "Dodecafonia" was coined in 1911 by the composer and theoretician, Domeni-co Alaleona in the Rivista Musicale Italiana, and the ideas expressed by Ferruccio Busoni in his Sketch of a New Esthetic in Music in particular had a determining influence on Russian musicians. The messages of the Italians were eagerly seized upon by musicians in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but they were also affected by their native Russian traditions of the Byzantine tonal system in which major and minor were never very firmly established and the arrangement of the tones of the scales constantly created a field for experimentation and attempts at new arrangements.
It was in this light - and not so much as a rupture with all traditions that Roslavets understood his "new, fixed system of tonal organization" that would not exclude the possibilities of classical harmonic principles, but include them. The point of departure of his procedure, begun in 1913, generally consisted of complexes of six to eight notes that he designated as "Synthesis-Chords" and from which all melodic and sound events are derived, and which, like the three and four notes chords of the traditional system, may be transposed at the different degrees, and not merely at the usual seven, but extremely methodically at all twelve degrees of the chromatic scale. By 1915 he was arranging such tone complexes into tone rows the transposed formation of which was avoided before all the others had been used. At the same time the principle of employing the tone row in inversion and in retrograde (cancrizans) was evolved and later expanded. While his compositions of the 1910s bore a powerfully expressive, eruptive character, precisely the character of Futuristic revolt (he set poems by Futurist poets like Konstantin Bolshakov and Igor Severyanin, and Futurist artists like David Burlyuk designed the bindings of his publications), at the turn of the decade his style evolded in the direction of a new classicism, emphasizing polyphonic structures and a return to traditional, distinct forms. The B-A-C-H motive in the first bars of the Third Quartet (1920) may be regarded as symbolic of this change. This did not, however, signify a retreat from the ideals of Futurism, since the Futurists themselves had inaugurated this turning towards a new objectivity of the work of art. The works performed on this record - the Third Trio (1921), the Sonata for Cello and Piano (dated "March 1921" from Kharkov, where Roslavets was the director of the conservatory at the time), and the Fifth Piano Sonata (1923) - all date from this "classicist" period ; but it was a peculiarly individual type of classicism, a retrospective classicism bearing the stamp of his own signature in which the achievements of the avant-garde decade from 1910 onwards have been retained.
This was by no means self-evident - quite the contrary ! The transition of the avant-garde period of the 1910s that had developed out of post-Romantic traditions, to the "Neue Sachlichkeit" (New Objectivity) of the 20s, with its rediscovery of the major and minor tonalities, its enjoyment of the trivial, was inconceivably radical. The daring musical ideas that the 1910s had brought forth now fell into contempt and oblivion. Roslavets was, after all, not the only composer who experimented with dodecaphonic and serial structures during those years ; twelve-tone works were also composed by Arthur Lourie, Nikolay Obukhov, Yefim Golyshev, Ivan Vyshnegrad-sky, Leo Ornstein, and even by Alexander Scriabin in his last years. After his pioneering Formes en /'Air (1915), Lourie turned to other preoccupations, Golyshev abandoned music for painting, and as regards Obukhov and Vyshnegradsky in Paris and Ornstein in America, who stuck to their principles, this development was disregarded. In the course of the musical events of the time they were looked upon as odd, uninteresting outsiders whose works remained in the drawer to be rediscovered only in the 1950s.
Roslavets remained true to his principles, too, - to his deliberately and methodically evolved "new, fixed system of tonal organization" - and in the course of the expansion of Soviet cultural policy was violently eliminated, as at the some time Arnold Schoenberg was from German culture. What he composed during the 30s and 40s could not be ascertained ; none of his works were published and his manuscripts in the Central State Archives of Literature and Art in Moscow were kept inaccessible to western researchers. The full score of his Violin Concerto of 1925, the culmination of the principles of his "new system", only came to light in 1989, thanks to Marina Lobanova. Since then many other unpublished works have been discovered. Did he, as a convinced Marxist, resign himself to the ostracism of his "un-popular" music, as Anton Webern has during the "Third Reich" ? Refections of this nature were put forward by Yuri Kholopov. Or was his Marxism merely a camouflage ? Marina Lobanova pointed out that his proclaimed "proletarian background" was a fiction : the Roslavets family belonged to the bourgeois middle classes who were committed supporters of a parliamentary democracy and whose members therefore became victims of large-scale repressive measures.
The Sonatas for Viola and Piano- performed on this record - very recently came to light among the surviving manuscripts. The Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2, written in 1925 and 1926 were recently published in a revised and reconstructed form, as the manuscripts the editor - the composer Alexander Mikhailovich Raskatov (b. 1953) - was confronted with were incomplete in many places and required interpreting.
These pieces, too, reveal the hand of Roslavets in their stringency, generating an entire piece out of a single sound or motivic nucleus, analogous to the Inventions and Fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach. Kinetic motifs provide the sustaining material of the musical action.
Roslavets's polyphonic technique has become more refined. After the Violin Concerto (1925) in which he had worked with complementary tonal complexes that added up to the full twelve-note series, but excluded one another, in these Sonatas the treatment of the parts is sometimes purely diatonic, but it is only an apparent diatoni-cism, because the full atonal spectrum is deployed in the counter voices. The simpler the technique seems, the more complex it really is.
Both Sonatas are in one movement, thereby continuing the "post-Romantic" tradition rather than venturing on a "neo-classical" multifid architectural structure. In fact, the First Sonata reaches back towards the strongly emphatic, dramatic type of expressive utterance of his early works. The movement evolves out of horizontally extended and developed sound complexes. On the other hand, the Second Sonata is based more on the principle of symmetrical tone-rows that develop around a central point, yet still in a horizontal manner : they steer towards the central point and then shrink back into themselves.
In a certain sense Roslavets takes up a principle of contrasts that had determined his memorable piano miniatures. Deux Compositions of 1915, in which the first movement grows out of a musical "cell", and the second out of linear procedures. One could conceive of the two Viola Sonatas as forming a pair of complementary, related works.