Roslavets twice at a deadlock

Being in a position to talk about Nikolai Roslavets (1881-1944) today is the fruit of a long road that Russia covered in order to rehabilitate its history.

Roslavets was one of the many composers that constituted what we nowadays call early Soviet avant-garde: a string of progressive musicians who gradually sensed during the 1920s that they were reaching a deadlock – they would either give in to the political demands of the times or have to face the perils of the ocean. The ones thought to be too provocative, Roslavets and Mossolov, came up against the wall and were crushed (there had to be some scapegoats anyhow). The rest (Myaskovsky, Protopopov, Feinberg, Popov, Lyatoshynsky, Zhivotov, Deshevov) retreated and survived, though far from unscathed.  In 1932 the Decree on the Reformation of Literary and Artistic Organizations was published (Shostakovich would face his special portion in 1936, the year when Prokofiev resettled in Russia). In 1933 Gorky’s pamphlet Socialist Realism was released. In 1937 the Great Purge of the Yezhov Régime broke out.

There are works-watersheds of these men, which we in retrospect can gaze at as a symbolic “nec plus ultra”: Feinberg’s 1st piano concerto op. 20 (1931); Myaskovsky’s 13th symphony op. 36 (1933); Popov’s 1st symphony op. 7 (1935); and Shostakovich’s 4th symphony op. 43 (1936), although the latter was not even premiered at the time. Their music written after these watersheds is of a new self.

Roslavets came to the deadlock already in 1930, died in 1944 and his posthumous destiny (and Mossolov’s alike) was harsh: his grave lay unmarked; his name vanished from sight in an Orwellian manner and a large portion of his work lies dormant for good.  What has been unearthed of it since the 1980s is largely due to Marina Lobanova, who, meeting with grave difficulties, gradually reconstructed/edited various compositions, which received posthumous première performances during the 1990s and were subsequently recorded.

Today, Roslavets seems to have found his place in history. He stands out for his system of tone-organization, a ‘synthetic harmony’, which Scriabin had set the pace for since about 1910 with his so-called “Prometheus chord”: Scriabin journeyed fixedly in his late style till his death in 1915 but left no explanations of his harmonic thinking (besides some discredited Sabanyeyev-hearsay evidence), thus we will never find out exactly to what extent his harmonic language was instinctive or rationalized.

Scriabinism was a remarkable phenomenon in late Tsarist and early Soviet Russia: Already during his life Scriabin was hailed as a genius from composers as different as Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Prokofiev[1] – though he himself reportedly disliked the latter two, whose marked individuality soon discarded the old hat: Scriabin’s 9th piano sonata, Le Sacre du Printemps and Prokofiev’s 2nd piano concerto (or his 2nd piano sonata) couldn’t have been farther from each other, though they were written in the same period (1912-13). A posteriori we would glibly claim that Stravinsky and Prokofiev were on the brink of something new while Scriabin belonged to the past, but back then his idiosyncratic, omni-tonal venture sounded revolutionary.

Scriabin’s death in 1915 signified the start of his serving as a model in Russia: Myaskovsky, Feinberg, Lyatoshynsky, Protopopov, Mossolov built their music evidently under his spell while the notorious expatriates Lourié, Wyschnegradsky and Obouhow landed at Paris with Scriabin as excess baggage[2]. But Stalinism advanced victoriously in the 1930s so as to erase these traits as the essence of decadence and self-defiance.

Roslavets, just as most of the aforementioned, grew up musically with Scriabin in the air. He was a 1912 composition graduate, and works of his like the 1st string quartet, the 1st violin sonata and the (reconstructed) symphonic poem In the Hours of the New Moon were written in 1913, while Scriabin was polishing his last piano sonatas. Roslavets seems to be not only inspired by Scriabin, but literally at Scriabin’s heels: the symphonic poem is clearly modeled on Le Poème de l’extase (note the prominent role of the trumpet), while the quartet and the violin sonata sound like Scriabin’s chamber music, had he cared ever to write any.

More striking is the fact that all the main features of Scriabin’s late style were duly adopted by Roslavets: next to the “synthetic” harmonic approach that is of course very ‘exclusive’ and distinctive in color, because of the nature of the constructed chords (that is, due to an aesthetic choice, and not to the system per se), one notices

  1. radiant trills
  2. continuous rhythmic hemiolas (vertical 3:2) that lend this floating feel, this ‘gravity loss’ to the music
  3. pianistic figurations such as the arpeggiated, widely spaced movement across the keyboard
  4. the successive transposition of thematic gestures upwards as a rhetorical figure
  5. the overall rhetoric of the music; that is, discontinuous statements, repeated, intermittent escalations (with the aforementioned transpositions) etc.

Roslavets also employed the same forms as late Scriabin, as if intending to repeat what he did, composing e.g. Trois Études in 1914 (cf. Scriabin’s Trois Études op. 65 from 1912), Deux Poèmes in 1920 (cf. Scriabin’s Deux Poèmes op. 63, op. 69 and op. 71 from 1911-14) and Cinq Préludes in 1922 (cf. Scriabin’s swan-song, Cinq Préludes op. 74 from 1914)[3].

His early scores abound in the same type of (at times sensuous) expression markings like extatique, ondoyant, avec langueur, voix joyeux, comme des éclairs, impérieux, avec une douleur profonde et voilée, fremissant – though not to such a degree as do the scores of Obouhow, who shared Scriabin’s mystic/Messianic tendencies.

Roslavets composed six piano sonatas, three of which survive (nos. 1, 2 and 5): written between 1914 and 1923, these three works are very clearly linked up with Scriabin’s last six sonatas (from 1907-13) since they are all one-movement works, taking each 10-12 minutes to play and requiring an idiomatic, Scriabinesque virtuosity.

For two artists of essentially the same age (their age-difference brings Schönberg’s relationship with Berg and Webern to mind), living in the same cultural milieu where the new-comer seemingly carries on the elder’s musical vision, it would be half-baked to speak of epigonism or worse, of plagiarism. Given Scriabin’s untimely death, Roslavets acted rather as the ‘reincarnate composer’ or as if he was first in succession to the throne, keeping up the house by writing music of an admittedly supreme craftsmanship and a crystalline beauty, though doubtfully his.

There was a single occasion, however, whereon Roslavets was about to break Scriabin’s spell: in 1914 he composed the enigmatic Trois Compositions that allow us a glimpse of what he could have done had he gone further into experimentation. In these short piano pieces, the musical texture reaches an abstraction (which the title also implies) and a fragmentation unheard of, that can only be paralleled to Arthur Lourié’s Synthèses and Formes en l’air, similarly radical piano music from exactly the same period. Both men’s affiliations with the Futurists at that time perhaps helped them take a step forward, a leap in the dark – but Roslavets stepped back to Scriabinesque radiance shortly afterwards[4].

Roslavets was during the early years composing largely for the piano, and in any case single-movement works (apart from his piano sonatas, his aforementioned 1st string quartet and his 1st and 2nd violin sonatas are also cast in one movement) or series of miniatures comprising a set. At the close of the 1910s however, he seems to draw his attention to chamber music, showing fervid productivity: from the years 1920-1927 there are one string quartet (the 3rd), one violin sonata (the 4th), one viola sonata (the 1st), three piano trios (the 2nd, 3rd & 4th) and two cello sonatas preserved.

Most importantly, there are various traits in these works that betray a gradual shift toward (neo-)classical (or should we say neo-romantic?) principles – as if Scriabinism for Roslavets ultimately functioned as a vehicle for going backwards rather than forwards:

  1. The Scriabinesque gravity loss slowly gives way in favor of a more ‘canonical’ (i.e. regular) pace, prominent in e.g. the 3rd string quartet (1920), the 1st violin concerto (1925) and the 4th piano trio (1927).
  2. Writing becomes more melodic, broad and thematic; fragmentation disappears (cf. the 3rd piano trio from 1921 for instance).
  3. Rhetoric appears often rhapsodic, declamatory, essentially befitting post-romantic sonatas set in the Germanic tradition (expressionistic pages occasionally slip into the 1st violin concerto).
  4. Multi-movement works are launched: the 1st violin concerto follows the archetypal tripartite form of the genre (fast-slow-faster) while the 4th piano trio is typically Beethovenian, cast in four movements (allegro moderato-scherzo-lento-allegro). After the Stalinist oppression in the 1930s, of course, the multi-movement practice became the norm (cf. the 6th violin sonata and the 2nd viola sonata) and Roslavets’ former self was hardly recognizable anymore.
  5. His treatment of sonata form and casting of tameable Scriabinism in classical moulds shows a mild academicism.

Soviet composers (with Roslavets first and foremost) came to a deadlock in the early 1930s, roughly called to sacrifice their freedom of expression and secure their survival. Roslavets’ chamber music from the 1920s shows, however, that he had reached another deadlock earlier: his advancement on the Scriabinist idiom must have been agonizing, and as soon as he felt excelling in his system of tone organization, he was eager to resume his bonds with tradition and emulate the past masters[5]. This attitude reveals a rather conservative nature, and brings strongly to mind Schönberg, who, after his experimental, Expressionist venture too near the edge of the cliff during the years 1908-13, fell silent for a decade[6] in search of how to mould again the old forms out of the new language, and thus stand up on his dignity. He came back in 1923 (NB: during the same period as with the Roslavets-shift) with the twelve-tone method, himself first introducing a neo-baroque sensibility (there was such a precedent in Pierrot Lunaire) and then writing in sonata and rondo form like in the good, old days (it is not so thoughtless that Roslavets has been called the “Russian Schönberg” after all…).

The end may justify the means, but the means by no means justify the result (so as to play on words): The fact that Roslavets’ works from the 1920s were still constructed according to his systematic harmonic approach cannot withhold or give reasons for their retrogressive posture. At the same time, his music fails to present an individual touch detached enough from his precursor, while others than Roslavets mentioned earlier, who had had Scriabin as a starting-point as well, went their own way (let us only compare him with Wyschnegradsky or Mossolov; moreover, Obouhow’s music from 1915 is already very idiosyncratic, foreshadowing Messiaen).

While Roslavets’ historical significance has been by now secured and his tragic doom known, let us but render unto Caesar the distinction of merit that is Caesar’s. Music is sound.


[1] Scholars assert that Scriabin’s influence on Stravinsky and Prokofiev is evident in their respective cantatas Звездоликий (Star-face) from 1912 and Семеро их (Seven, They Are Seven) from 1917, because of both being settings of poems of the Symbolist Konstantin Balmont (given Scriabin’s spiritual affinity to Russian Symbolism). These works, however, are very original and have little in common with Scriabin musically speaking.
[2] Via Paris, Scriabinism was essentially transplanted into the U.S. in 1916 by the Frenchman Dane Rudhyar (though Scriabin himself had already visited America in 1907 as a touring pianist): his ideals, writings and piano compositions from the 1920s show a profound affinity. This is also evident in the early 9 Preludes (1924-28) of Ruth Crawford-Seeger, while Aaron Copland registered as “very Scriabin-conscious in those days” (in his conversation with E. T. Cone from 1967) before settling in France in 1921. The Ukrainian Pole Szymanowski had also been greatly indebted to Scriabin in the early years, spreading this knowledge throughout Europe – Métopes, 3 Poèmes for piano op. 29 (1915) remains an exquisite example. Let us note that he obviously modeled his Symphony no. 3 “Song of the Night” (1916) upon Scriabin’s Prométhée (1910) by means of instrumentation and tone. Scriabinism is also traced to the early work of the controversial cult-personality Sorabji, himself a Szymanowski fan as well (cf. his piano sonatas nos. 0-2 from 1917-20 for instance). After the neoclassical boom of the 1920s, Scriabinism’s spirituality and sonorities seem to revive in the late 1930s in “La jeune France” formed by Jolivet and Messiaen (the latter was also supporting Wyschnegradsky and Obouhow).
[3]Writing Préludes, Études, Mazurkas etc. was of course, as part of the Chopin heritage, widespread in Russia, but the Poème for piano was Scriabin’s individual invention and contribution to the passing fad; Lourié followed suit during the years 1908-12 (cf.  Deux Poèmes op. 8, Quatre Poèmes op. 10 etc.).
[4] Lourié left another striking indication of this era behind, before plunging his hand into Parisian neoclassicism in the 1920s: his inexplicable and unclassified 1st string quartet from 1915, fortunately recorded by the Utrecht String Quartet in 1996.
[5] It’s interesting to note that during the same period in his writings he appears looking on Scriabin’s achievement with a critical eye. He also abandons the Scriabinesque expression markings discussed earlier in favor of more conventional markings in Italian.
[6] Schönberg did finish the Vier Lieder für Gesang und Orchester op. 22 in 1916, to be precise, but 1913, the year when he completed Die glückliche Hand is a milestone of his fervent creativity of the previous years. In 1914 WWI breaks out: this would bring a crisis in his development.