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Modernism in Russian Piano Music; Skriabin, Prokofiev, and Their Russian Contemporaries, 2 vols.

Peter Deane Roberts plants a fertile seed in Modernism in Russian Piano Music, opening up a host of unfamiliar Russian composers and compositions to those eager for an introduction to the works of this historical period. The first of the two volumes contains Roberts's text and the second provides musical scores to illustrate its arguments. Roberts introduces this lost era by describing the artistic and political scene in Russia around the year 1910, marked by Vasili Kandinsky's abstract paintings and Aleksandr Blok's Russian Symbolist writings. This was a time when composers began to depart from the old nationalist school, finding their way into the avant-garde and creating innovative compositions until 1929 when opposition to Modernist experimentation essentially marked the end of this era. As one who has been fascinated by the Russian Symbolist movement, I discovered in this book a wealth of fine literature that I was unaware existed (for more on the period see my "Alexander Scriabin, A Russian Symbolist" [Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1990]). Only since the 1960s have we even heard much of Aleksandr Skriabin's music and his strong appeal and influence. For pianists, there is an abundance of good music coming from these lesser known or completely unheard of composers, such as Arthur Lourie, Leo Ornstein, Nikolai Roslavets, Vladimir Kriukov, Aleksandr Krein, Joseph Shillinger, Samuel Feinberg, and Vissarion Shebalin. In regard to the music, however, it may be clearer to say that the book's contents are more a presentation of Modernist techniques than of the music itself.

Roberts describes the influences of Modernist music as stemming from three primary sources: the music of Skriabin, the linear style of Sergei Prokofiev, and Russian folk music. To a large extent, composers of this period rarely left the traditional roots of tonality, but are found to wander from its path through the weakening of tonality or the expansion of it through various techniques. Roberts begins with a discussion of Skriabin's early style and how it developed into the complex harmonies of his post-1910 period. He also demonstrates Skriabin's modal coloring, his use of octatonic scales and symmetry, as well as minor third and major third bass sequences, found in examples of music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov that are most strikingly Skriabinesque (see examples 2-26 in vol. 2). Skriabin was one of the few composers to bridge the gap between a traditional use of harmony and atonality, a circumstance that makes this music especially rewarding to study.

Roberts provides some excellent examples that describe the various Modernist techniques, citing a wide variety of Skriabin's smaller works. Skriabin was able to work out technical innovations and structural procedures in these compositions (see The Music of Alexander Scriabin by James M. Baker [New Haven: Yale University, 1986], ix). Despite their importance here, I would like to have seen Roberts also illuminate some of these techniques in Skriabin's piano sonatas. I believe this would bring the material to a larger audience--that of pianists who are often eager to learn the larger works. Also on a practical note, the examples provided are difficult to read, and not very "user friendly"--there are many passages I could not reproduce at the piano because of the miniscule print. Furthermore, while a few measure numbers were inserted, it would have been far more practical to have had all sections more adequately numbered.

In his discussion of Prokofiev, Roberts ventures a helpful comparison with the music of Skriabin (see vol. 1, pp. 27-28), which describes the former's loyalty to an enlarged diatonic system, and the departure from it by the latter. The author also sums up Prokofiev's skills by claiming that "he achieved the ideal synthesis of folk idioms, expanded tonality, Western form, and Modernist techniques". Another chapter addresses several techniques associated with the Russian school: the ostinato principle, neighbor-tone techniques, pattern-making, compression for harmonic or rhythmic effect, expansion of phrases by insertion, and other general aspects of technique. Roberts also takes considerable effort to explain how the Modernist composers expanded tonality and tonal structures simultaneously through definition and the weakening of tonality; an entire chapter, for example, is devoted to the use of symmetry as structural definition. There is also discussion on layering textures through the use of bichords, bitonality, and polymodality, often closely related to folk elements. The Modernist composers also used surface features such as trills and favorite fixed intervals and interval-sets as structural elements. Within these chapters and those addressing scale origins, I found the discussion on roots in Russian folk music to be most interesting. As I worked recently on Claude Debussy's L'Isle joyeuse, it occurred to me how many of these folk-based modal variations found their way into this music (and Roberts confirms this on p. 74, note 10). This supports the insightful nature of understanding techniques and methods used by the Modernist composers, their forerunners, and followers. Readers, however, should be prepared to work hard because the examples are numerous and involved.

An interesting theme that readers may wish to ponder is Roberts's idea that Russian music from earlier years influenced Western--particularly French--composers, and returned the flow of Western influence back to the Modernist movement in Russia. As Roberts states, "The situation is complex, with many cross-currents: some of the exotic scales used by Western composers, including [Ferruccio] Busoni, appear to be of Central Asian origin; and Russian musicians continued to combine Western techniques with the idioms of native folk song" (vol. 1, p. 123). This fascinating idea deserves attention and could have been developed more thoroughly--and earlier in the text, rather than momentarily in the final chapter.

There are additional instances where Roberts might have expanded discussion or made his points clearer to nonspecialist readers. For example, he never clearly states what "octatonic" is, though it appears at least four times before he footnotes its origins in chapter 9. "Anhemitonic" is another term whose implications deserve exposition within the text or notes. Also, in his discussion of Skriabin's Tenth Sonata Roberts creates a highly complex reduction and clarifies his analysis with references to measure numbers, but never includes examples from the score. This approach seems dry and unappealing--like eating without tasting. The analysis was, in fact, rather tedious at times, and difficult to wade through. In his attempt to cover a large quantity of material, Roberts may overwhelm some readers.

Lastly, the summary does not really knit together the book's disparate strands because it includes new information, as if the author were trying to squeeze in his last arguments. On page 125 there is a comparison of Skriabin's output with Olivier Messiaen's first published work. While this conveys Skriabin's influence on Messiaen, it seems this information would have been appropriate for earlier discussion. Roberts should have completed his presentation of technical material in the body of the book in order to focus attention in the summary on the significance of this era and its representative composers and compositions. These remarks, however, are not meant to deter. A number of innovative Russian composers contributed greatly to a piano music tradition that has very nearly been forgotten--that is, until Roberts set them in their proper context.

PATRICIA STOWELL Orono, Maine
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Author:Stowell, Patricia
Publication:Notes
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Words:1188
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