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Nikolai Roslavets

January 5, 1881 - August 23, 1944
born in Dushatino, Ukraine, composed during the Modern period
Among Russian composers declared "non-persons" by the Soviet government, Nikolai Roslavets has enjoyed the most spectacular revival in terms of new recordings and concert programming.

Roslavets was born to a peasant family in the Ukraine, growing up in a community that was primarily illiterate. His boyhood talent for the violin paid off when he was accepted into the Russian Music Society in Kursk in a class for indigent pupils. Roslavets studied with Arkady M. Abaza, entering the Moscow Conservatory in 1901. He studied orchestration with Sergei Vasilenko, graduating from the Conservatory in 1912. At this early juncture his music still retained picaresque, popular elements, and this led to the creation of works such as the popular Dance of the White Women (1912). A piano prelude, Largo (1915), written as a memorial to Abaza, is one of Roslavets' finest creations.

Completely independently of the Second Vienna School, Roslavets developed his own form of non-dodecaphonic serial composition. Roslavets derived his series from "sintetakkord," synthetic chords inspired by the "Prometheus Chord" of Scriabin. These were large chords that also contained a note row, which was used to create harmonic fields of greatly varying character. Roslavets did not use the "sintetakkord" as a basis for creating melody. His organized music is structurally terse, succinct, and profoundly workmanlike; yet wildly colorful, otherworldly, and crystalline. In early pieces that utilize this technique, such as the String Quartet No. 1 (1912), Roslavets alternates the organized material with tonal bridges and other points of reference. With the Violin Sonata No. 1 (1913), Roslavets began to fashion whole works in this medium, but not to the total exclusion of other, more conventional pieces. By 1919, Roslavets reached the conclusion that his "sintetakkord" system is perfected, synthesizing its most characteristic gestures into the Five Preludes for piano (1919-1921). Roslavets wrote a manual for use of the "sintetakkord" in 1927, which has since disappeared.

The watchful eye of the Soviet government was focused upon Roslavets beginning in 1924, as Roslavets suddenly undertook the composition of mass songs for the public taste in great numbers. These are reputedly awful works, dreary agitprop texts winding through a soulless, banal, and repetitive folk melody setting. In a 1931 document, Roslavets officially repudiated his early work, deriding them as mere "experiments." He might not have bothered; the Soviet government continued to watch him closely anyway, as he moved through a soul draining progression of dull positions within the Soviet musical bureaucracy. He continued to compose Soviet Realist music until he suffered a stroke in 1939. Afterward, Roslavets lived on a military pension as the Soviets gradually erased his name from all encyclopedias and documents. When Roslavets died at age 63 he was buried without a headstone.

Many works of Roslavets are believed lost, but previously unknown manuscripts continue to turn up. Roslavets composed three symphonies, two violin concerti, and numerous symphonic poems. His chamber music is exceptionally fine, consisting of a chamber symphony, five string quartets, three piano trios, and assorted works for violin (five sonatas), viola (two sonatas) and cello (two sonatas). In his early phase, Roslavets also set songs by Russian "futurist" poets such as Elena Guro and Alexander Blok. Roslavets also left a considerable body of piano music, including five sonatas, although the scores of numbers 3 and 4 remain yet to be discovered. Roslavets' Nocturne for harp, oboe, two violas and cello (1913), written in a French impressionist manner, is immediately appealing. The "sintetakkord"-based works are less so, and are best appreciated by open-minded listeners; Roslavets' mature style can be tough going for the uninitiated. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis , Rovi
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