The nine Arabesques
, Op 42, are studies in psychological states, mainly in ABA form. Ornstein’s titles don’t offer much help. When Godowsky wrote such pieces, they were usually deliberate picture-postcards (as in ‘The Chattering Monkeys at the Sacred Lake of Wendit’ and ‘In the Streets of Old Batavia’ from the Java Suite
), but Ornstein’s labels seem at best to offer allusion rather than specific reference. No 1, ‘The Isle of Elephants’, is a tranquil Szymanowskian nightscape, unrolling under a constant treble ostinato that seems to threaten danger until it again recedes into the distance. (The original Breitkopf publication carried French titles as well as English, revealing that ‘The Isle of Elephants’ is simply a mistranslation of ‘L’Île d’Elephantine’—Elephantine Island, an important archaeological site, which sits in the Nile in front of Aswan.) No 2, ‘Primal Echo’, sets out over another ostinato, a pungent chordal sequence that is soon swept aside in a maelstrom of figuration from which a fanfare-like figure tries in vain to emerge. In No 3, ‘Chant of Hindoo Priests’, a repeated-triplet pattern drops through the texture like a fleck on the surface of the eye; and the brief No 4, ‘Shadowed Waters’, might hint at sprites at play or lights flickering on wavetops. In stark contrast with the sections of manic rhythmic regularity in some of these pieces, the fifteen bars of No 5, the Scriabinesque ‘A Melancholy Landscape’, bring twelve changes of time signature. The relatively explicit title of No 6, ‘Pompeian Fresco’, is difficult to relate to the content, unless the superposition of the playful figure in the upper register on the tonal ambiguity of the bass reflects happy times under an unsuspected threat. There’s no such problem with No 7, ‘Passion’, whose eight bars of music (the ninth and last is silent) are unambiguously passionate. ‘Les Basoches’, commemorated in No 8, were a medieval French guild of law-clerks based in Paris who were instrumental in developing the farce—which may explain the satirical, Alkanesque bite in the music. Ornstein admitted that it contained ‘a touch of irony, a commentary on empty solemnity’. The turbulent passagework of the final Arabesque
sustains the most directly self-explanatory of these titles—‘The Wailing and Raging Wind’.
from notes by Martin Anderson © 2002