In the hours of the New Moon [11'40]
As late as 1982 Soviet musicologists claiming any significance for Nikolay Roslavets were vigorously suppressed. Only in 1990 was his unmarked grave identified. How many scores were lost when his flat was ransacked just after his death in 1944? The ruthless vengeance of a reactionary proletariat—branding Roslavets, himself born of peasant stock and a fervent 1917 revolutionary, a mere pedlar of bourgeois ‘art for art’s sake’—has fortunately now given way to a gradual recognition of the very real significance of this ‘Russian Schoenberg’.
In the hours of the New Moon is an early work, probably dating from Roslavets’s student days at the Moscow Conservatory. Already present is a developed musical awareness, as French Impressionism and the heady orchestral textures of Richard Strauss are subsumed into a Scriabin-esque unity of considerable stature.
The Chamber Symphony of 1934/5 (not to be confused with the 1926 fragment of the same name which was reconstructed and recorded in the 1990s, before the manuscript of the present work was discovered) is without doubt Roslavets’s most significant symphonic work. Here recorded for the first time, this major work employs nine solo woodwind, two horns, trumpet, piano, string quartet and double bass to great effect. The closest analogy is perhaps to Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony (similarly scored), but alongside elements of conscious homage Roslavets adds his own magical sprinkling of Russian folksong, sardonic worldliness and symphonic jazz.
On his appointement in 2003 Ilan Volkov was the youngest-ever Chief Conductor of a BBC orchestra. His recording of works by Janácek (CDA67517) with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 2005 caused something of a stir: ‘The gifted young Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov masterminds a laudably disciplined and full-throated account of this bracing rarity … Hyperion’s glowing natural sound-frame (courtesy of the Keener/Eadon production team working within Dundee’s Caird Hall) sets the seal on a first-rate anthology’ (Gramophone).
This new recording is their second collaboration for Hyperion.
Other recommended albums
Elgar: String Quartet; Bridge: Idylls; Walton: String Quartet
Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War ICDH55218
Long forgotten, even actively suppressed, Nikolay Andreyevitch Roslavets has emerged as one of the most fascinating figures in Russian music from the first half of the twentieth century. Unlike most of his contemporaries in the early Soviet period, he genuinely came from a peasant background. In autobiographical jottings dating from 1924 he described his birthplace—Dushatino in the Ukraine, where he first drew breath on 4 January 1881 (Old Style 23 December 1880)—as ‘a godforsaken, half-Ukrainian, half-Byelorussian hole’. At first self-taught, Roslavets began to study music during the 1890s by attending classes in Kursk, the nearest large city, and was eventually accepted as a student at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied the violin as well as composition under Sergei Vassilenko and Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov. He graduated in 1912, gaining the Grand Silver Medal for his cantata Heaven and Earth, inspired by Lord Byron’s poetic drama. Even this early Roslavets was associated, along with Alexander Mosolov and Arthur Lourié, with Russia’s artistic avant-garde. He engaged in the vigorous artistic debates occasioned by Futurism, Symbolism and other new ideas, and was close to visual artists such as Kasimir Malevich. In 1915 and 1916 he had pieces published in Russian Futurist journals: the only music that appeared in them.
Roslavets welcomed the revolutions of 1917 and after the Bolshevik Revolution in October he was made director of Kharkov Conservatory, a post he held until 1924 when he returned to Moscow and took up a position in the State Publishing House. Describing himself as ‘extreme left-wing’ and ‘an intellectually creative proletarian’, Roslavets directed its Political Department, edited the journal Muzykalnaya Kultura, and was one of the leaders (with his contemporary and friend Nikolay Myaskovsky) of the most progressive of the various new musical bodies competing for attention in the USSR, the Association for Contemporary Music. His colleagues included Myaskovsky, Mosolov, Popov and Shostakovich. The tenth anniversary of the October Revolution was celebrated in 1927 with a concert featuring the premiere of Roslavets’s cantata October in the same programme as those of Shostakovich’s Second Symphony ‘Dedication to October’, and Mosolov’s Iron Foundry.
Nevertheless Roslavets was a committed modernist. The direction of his artistic sympathies is apparent from his support for performances of music by the Second Viennese School and his authorship of articles including one entitled ‘On pseudo-proletarian music’. For several years his works had already been under attack from the adherents of ‘proletarian music’, especially RAPM (the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians), who claimed them as counter-revolutionary and bourgeois art for art’s sake. The endless political warfare sapped Roslavets’s strength. In 1929 he was denounced as an ‘enemy of the People’ and in 1930 he was forced to publicly repent of his former artistic convictions. He spent some years in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, as musical adviser of the Opera and Ballet Theatre. However he returned to Moscow in 1933 where he lectured at the Polytechnic Institute and was later required to train military-band leaders. He made a living out of this and other comparatively menial tasks until he was finally admitted to the Composers’ Union in 1940. He suffered a severe stroke in the same year and was semi-invalid until his death from a second stroke in 1944.
While still a student Roslavets was already producing music that was very daring for its time and place, as we see in In the hours of the New Moon. Deeply influenced by the later works of Scriabin, his harmonic idiom tended towards extreme chromaticism. His quest for a personal language began in 1909 and led in 1913 to his propounding a new harmonic system based on ‘synthetic chords’ that contain both the horizontal and vertical sound-material for a work (a concept close to that of Schoenberg’s early serialism). These principles are enshrined in the remarkable sets of Études, Poems, Preludes and Compositions for solo piano that he composed during the immediately pre-Revolutionary years. (A selection of these has been recorded by Marc-André Hamelin on.)
By the early 1920s Roslavets was sometimes being referred to as ‘the Russian Schoenberg’, but in an article published in 1925 the critic Yevgeny Braudo pointed out that this was no more helpful than to call Schoenberg ‘the German Debussy’. Though his music is often highly dissonant, Roslavets’s principles did not encompass twelve-note formulations—except, like late Scriabin, in passing. After his fall from grace, while in Tashkent, he turned for a while to working with folk material, producing among other works the first Uzbek ballet, Pachta (‘Cotton’). The works of his last years in Moscow show a simplification of his characteristic language to admit a more classical conception of tonality, but are still individual in orientation, such as the late cycle of twenty-four Preludes for violin and piano (1941–2).
Immediately after his death his flat was ransacked by a group of former ‘proletarian musicians’ who confiscated many manuscripts, though others were saved by his widow. For thirty years afterwards Roslavets’s name, expunged from the music dictionaries, was hardly mentioned in Soviet musical literature, except in derogatory terms. His name reappeared in a Soviet music dictionary in 1978 but scholars who attempted to claim some importance for him were still being attacked in the press as late as 1982. In the wake of perestroika, however, Roslavets was among the creative figures who were substantially rehabilitated. His grave in the Vagankovo Cemetery, which had remained unmarked, was identified in 1990, and many of his compositions have now been revived, published and recorded.
The symphonic poem In the hours of the New Moon (Russian: V chasi novolunya) is one of Roslavets’s earliest surviving works, written (or at least begun) while he was still a student at Moscow Conservatory. (Dates suggested for the work range from 1910 to 1913.) There is no evidence that it was ever performed in the composer’s lifetime, and very little is known about it except what can be deduced from the score itself. It is not even clear if the title is merely descriptive, or a quotation: but it is certainly appropriate for a work which seems to present itself as an ecstatic but perhaps ultimately rather sinister nocturne. The manuscript of the symphonic poem languished for many years in the Central State Archives of the USSR, and is here recorded based on the reconstruction and editing work carried out by Dr Marina Lobanova.
Written for a large orchestra, it clearly manifests a number of contemporary influences, above all that of Scriabin, whose Poem of Ecstasy had been premiered in 1908; but also the French Impressionist composers, particularly Debussy and Ravel, and perhaps, too, the heady orchestral textures of Richard Strauss and Franz Schreker. If the latter were not direct influences, they were contemporary parallels—and for another we should remember that In the hours of the New Moon is an exact contemporary of Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. The magical, nocturnal, Impressionistic aspects of that work derive much more from Rimsky-Korsakov, of whom there are few traces in Roslavets’s score. In purely Russian terms, therefore, Roslavets here shows himself the more cosmopolitan composer.
The work has a clear ternary form, beginning and ending with slow-moving but lustrous Lento music. The initial quiet brass chord, of two perfect fourths separated by a tritone, is the harmonic foundation of the piece. The rustling string figurations, tremulous flutes, rising trumpet-calls (shades of Poem of Ecstasy) are joined by shimmering harp and celesta in a sonic fabric of remarkable delicacy, showing Roslavets’s sure command of a large orchestra. Ostinato figures build to a tumultuous but harmonically static tutti climax, which then dissipates into a languorous episode centred around woodwind solos, especially from the cor anglais. This gives way to an Allegro, soon increasing speed to Presto, which forms a central scherzo-like episode. This is certainly a dance (of elves, moon-sprites or more sinister figures) in a lively 3/8 time—the most Impressionistic music in the work but reminiscent particularly of Debussy’s ballet Jeux (1912), a work Roslavets presumably could not have known. There is a return to the opening Lento material, its various elements heard now in similar but slightly different relationships, rising once again to an overwhelming climax, a varied intensification of the climax in the first section. It is broken off abruptly; the quiet, hushed conclusion unwinds back to the soft brass chord with which the work began.
For all the picturesque and free-form aspects of this piece, it has a firm structural basis and indeed much of Roslavets’s output is concerned with his personal treatment of sonata-based genres. In addition to string quartets, piano trios, violin sonatas and so on, Roslavets made a number of attempts on the grandest sonata-style genre of all: the symphony. Apparently an early symphony exists from 1910, and two more were sketched in 1921–2 but not completed. In 1926 he began composing a Chamber Symphony, but left this project (which seems to have been planned in two movements) unfinished, as a single movement in short score, lacking a coda. That highly interesting fragment was completed and orchestrated by the composer Alexander Raskatov (for an ensemble of eighteen players), and was performed and recorded in the 1990s as ‘the Roslavets Chamber Symphony’. However, it was merely the realization of a fascinating abandoned torso.
It was not then realized that there existed a complete—and immensely larger—Chamber Symphony by Roslavets, whose manuscript has emerged subsequently. It was not published until 2005, and its first recording now appears on the present disc. Also scored for eighteen players—nine solo woodwind, two horns, trumpet, piano, string quartet and double bass—this major work, undoubtedly Roslavets’s most important symphonic utterance, was composed between May 1934 and February 1935, not long after he had returned to Moscow from Uzbekistan. It is known that he showed it to Myaskovsky (who was impressed), but he was unsuccessful in securing a performance, which was probably out of the question after the notorious Pravda denunciations of Shostakovich in January 1936.
Here the opulent Impressionism and texture-centred writing of In the hours of the New Moon have entirely disappeared in favour of strong lines and almost continuous polyphonic development. The music is not marked by the pungent dissonance and vertical/ horizontal systematization of Roslavets’s ‘synthetic chord’ technique, but it is uncompromising in its motivic working—the themes of the various movements are closely related to each other—and it shows him not so much harking back to traditional tonality as arriving at an accommodation of it. (Overall, despite its fluidly chromatic language, this is a ‘Symphony in C’.)
If the Chamber Symphony has a single clearly audible precursor it is surely Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, Op 9. Not only are the two scored for a very similar instrumental line-up but the harmonic idiom, the highly contrapuntal textures and the supercharged melodic expressiveness are all similar. Roslavets’s work even begins with an ascending bass-clarinet theme featuring perfect fourths, later taken over by the horn, that obviously recalls the famous ‘chain of fourths’ horn-call that is such an important leitmotif in Schoenberg’s Symphony. In the main, though, the influence of Schoenberg’s work is generalized and distilled through the fabric of Roslavets’s score, even if there are a number of places where one suspects Roslavets may be paying covert homage to it.
But whereas Schoenberg fuses the elements of a four-movement symphony into a single movement lasting about twenty minutes, Roslavets—who had used such concentrated structures in, for example, his Third String Quartet—generously (and unexpectedly) expands outwards to create an almost hour-long structure in the traditional four separate movements. The result is a major addition to the Soviet symphonic canon, to be ranked with such close, though very different contemporaries as the epic-tragic First Symphony of Gavriil Popov, Shostakovich’s blistering Fourth Symphony, and Myaskovsky’s recondite Thirteenth. Indeed along with the Schoenbergian echoes there are elements that suggest the imprint of Russian folksong, an air of fantasy (especially in the scherzo) foreign to Schoenberg, and sardonic, even occasionally jazzy elements that find parallels in such contemporaries as Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and the young Shostakovich.
The first movement is a broad sonata-form with clear first and second subjects, prefaced by a slow introduction which sets out the basic materials, notably the bass-clarinet theme mentioned above and the pervasive dotted rhythms which provide so much of the movement’s propulsion. The main part of the movement (Allegro risoluto) embarks with the rising theme transferred to the horn. There is an extensive and exhaustive Allegro agitato development leading to a fairly orthodox recapitulation and coda. Throughout, Roslavets uses his ensemble with masterly feeling for tone colour and clarity of line, whether in strenuously polyphonic passages involving the entire ensemble or in lyric episodes for just a few instruments. The piano has an occasional brief solo but is wholly integrated with the other players, often merely reinforcing lines or providing harp-like arpeggio material.
The long and intensely atmospheric slow movement has a more rhapsodic form, something like a slow rondo, passing through a kaleidoscope of moods and punctuated by a sinister three-note chromatic bass motif which itself becomes the source of several themes. After an introductory passage featuring bell-like descending chords the principal theme unfolds in polyphonic imitation, heard first in the woodwind before transferring to the strings. Though the tonality is fluid there is a persistent suggestion of F minor about this idea. The transparency and expressivity of Roslavets’s scoring (which Myaskovsky praised on seeing the piece) are especially marked here. One of the few extended piano solos in the work, while incidentally revealing that Scriabin’s influence remained strong for Roslavets, introduces a brief fast episode, Allegro moderato, delicately scored. A return to the slower tempo moves to the movement’s plangent climax, and the chromatic motif has the last word in a coda that settles on an extended pedal F, resolving the previous tonal uncertainties.
The brilliant scherzo is a fantastic dance, pungently scored, that could well serve as ballet music for some cautionary Russian fairy-tale. Its initial subject is an assemblage of motifs—including a chromatic muted trumpet-call apparently developed from the previous movement—over bubbling triplets, and it features a warm contrasting horn theme in folksong style. This folk influence then becomes unmistakable in the central trio with its almost oriental melody sung by woodwind against frosty tremolando strings—perhaps a souvenir of Uzbekistan. In an unusual move, Roslavets has the scherzo’s motifs infiltrate the closing portion of the trio before the return of the scherzo music proper. The scherzo then returns in full, and there is a brief recall of the trio before the coda wittily sends its denizens scurrying off into the shadows.
Like the first movement, the finale opens with a slow introduction (they are, in fact, thematically related) leading to the main Allegro non troppo movement. This is a dynamic and resolute utterance in a march-like 3/4 time, whose main theme, treated with much contrapuntal resource, is a variant of one of the main slow-movement melodies. There is also a more hesitant and pleading subsidiary idea. After these materials have been fully worked, the strings lead off a broad self-contained central episode with a much more lyrical melody. This passage—the most ‘romantic’ music in the work—rises to an ecstatic climax and then subsides. The faster music presses in again, urgently, and is reprised with great bravura, leading to a decisive, even dismissive coda.
Calum MacDonald © 2006