These eight mazurkas were composed between the years 2016 and 2020 as a kind of response to a personal study of the Chopin mazurkas, for which I have developed a genuine fondness. My “mazurkas” then deserve quotation marks, as they stand removed from the mazur tradition from which Chopin drew. To be sure, each of my mazurkas bears some of the basic defining metric and rhythmic elements of the dance—e.g. triple meter, emphasis on beat two or three, and syncopated accents—though at times these defining elements are rather latent or obscured. Mazurkas 1 and 8, which serve as bookends, are the most extroverted, celebratory and even bombastic pieces of the set. The short, pithy Mazurka 2 is marked by sharp staccatos and hidden quotations of two chorale tunes within its brittle texture. Mazurka 3 features a quiet passacaglia bass line above which an angular canon occurs. Perhaps the least mazurka-like of the set is the fourth piece in the set with its obscured triple meter and syncopated rhythms. Metric clarity returns in Mazurka 5 as pulsing harmonic seconds accompany patterned melodic gestures, although a much slower and delicately expressive middle section broadens these dance elements considerably. Mazurka 6 is the only piece in the set that explicitly draws from Chopin as the left-hand fifths that pervade the piece are taken directly from the sparkling middle section of Chopin’s Op.68, No.3. The dark, almost sinister character of the short Mazurka 7, marked by a low register “bass drum,” prepares the exuberant final number.
Pictures at an Exhibition – Modest Mussorgsky
It is difficult to conceive that the piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition written in 1874 by Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881), had to wait until after the composer’s death to be published. The origin of Pictures at an Exhibition goes back to 1873. That year saw the death of Victor Hartmann, architect and artist, who was a close friend of Mussorgsky’s. The composer expressed his sorrow at the loss to Russian critic Vladimir Stassov, who had first introduced them. The following year Stassov helped to arrange an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann’s watercolors and drawings in St. Petersburg. From this collection, Mussorgsky chose eleven works on which to build his suite, introducing some of the movements with a recurring “Promenade” theme. The “Promenade,” as explained by Stassov, represents the composer “walking now right, now left, now as an idle person, now urged to go near a picture; at times his joyous appearance is dampened as he thinks in sadness of his departed friend. . . .”
“The Gnome” is the sketch of a nutcracker in the shape of a deformed gnome. “The Old Castle” (following a “Promenade”) portrays a medieval Italian castle with a singing troubadour in the foreground.
“Tuileries” (following another “Promenade”) shows a crowd of children and nursemaids in the famous Parisian park. Mussorgsky’s subtitle reads: “Dispute of the Children after Play.” “Bydlo” portrays a Polish peasant wagon with giant wooden wheels drawn by oxen. “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” (following a “Promenade”) was based on a design for a child’s ballet costume, which is a shell from which only the head and limbs protrude. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” contrasts strongly with the previous section and stems from two pictures the artist gave to Mussorgsky (now lost). “Limoges — The Marketplace” shows a group of women gossiping by their pushcarts amid hustle and bustle.
“Catacombs,” a picture of the Paris catacombs, led Mussorgsky to inscribe, “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me toward skulls, apostrophizes them — the skulls are illuminated gently in the interior.” “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” (With the Dead in a Dead Language), a continuation of the catacombs motif, reworks the “Promenade” theme into an eerie character piece.
“The Hut on Fowls’ Legs” is a drawing of a clock in the shape of the hut of Baba-Yaga, the Russian witch. Toward the end of the section, Mussorgsky suggests the witch flying. When she lands, it is squarely on the downbeat of the final section, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” This was Hartmann’s design for an ancient-style gate, complete with decorative cupola and a triumphal procession marching through the arches (represented by the “Promenade” theme). The full mass of the piano’s resources comes together here to give Pictures at an Exhibition a majestic conclusion.
Four French Recital Pieces Capriccio by Jacques Murgier (1912-1986) is the work of a violinist and former director of the Conservatoire Nationale. The piece’s main theme is in the “capricious” sounding 5/8 meter. It is actual a series of variants on a central musical idea. The piece’s central section is smoother and more dreamy.
Pavane by José Berghmans (1921-1992) is actually more of a comic cakewalk than a classic pavane. Its composer was also a musicologist, so the Pavane’s title and quirky dance rhythms must be tongue-in-cheek.
Serenade by Robert Planel (1908-1994) contains strong elements of Spanish Gypsy Flamenco dance. The outer sections of the piece give us the feeling of rhythmic heel-work, while the lyrical middle is reminiscent of a copla, or sung verse. Planel had a distinguished career that he began by winning the coveted Prix de Rome.
Romance by Henri Barraud (1900-1997) is the most dissonant piece of this set. Smoothly lyrical and controlled, however, the music makes pleasurable sense. In his career, Barraud organized performances of contemporary music and was music director of the French Radiodiffusion for over 20 years.
Gaubert: Two Pieces
Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941) was one of the most versatile French musicians of the early 20th century. After winning the Paris Conservatoire’s premiere prix in flute and second place in the Prix de Rome (composition), he went on to perform with the Paris Opéra and the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, eventually becoming principal conductor to both. All this he did while teaching the flute at the Conservatoire and forging an active career as a prolific composer and arranger.
Gaubert’s writing style has been described as “somewhere between Fauré and Dukas — colorful in harmonic language, with elegant melodic lines and brilliant, rhapsodic passagework” (The New Grove Dictionary). The Two Pieces fit this description very well, and idiomatic flexibility could be added. Besides the original publication for the oboe, the pieces have been adapted to the flute and to the clarinet.
No. 1, “Romance,” begins with a long cantilena, mostly in the oboe, against a waltz-like piano accompaniment. The contrasting section that follows departs from the waltz feeling and turns more overtly emotional. The music becomes more subdued for a quiet ending.
No. 2, “Allegretto,” is much briefer but more virtuosic for the oboist. “Arabesque” comes to mind when describing the oboe’s fanciful melodic lines. This second piece provides pleasant relaxation following the more intense previous composition.
Nielsen: Two Fantasy Pieces, Op. 2/3h
We are used to thinking of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) as a symphonist only. However, especially in his early years, he contributed seriously to the chamber medium. Nielsen completed five string quartets, a string quintet, a woodwind quintet, three violin sonatas, and some shorter works.
In 1889, Nielsen became a second violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra. The steady income enabled him to compose. About two years later he wrote his Two Fantasy Pieces for solo woodwind and piano. Nielsen’s first conception was for the clarinet. However, the music is flexible enough and sufficiently modest in range to adapt well to the oboe.
The Romance is astonishing for so young a composer. The engaging melodies and then-modern harmonies make for a memorable listening experience. The piece’s central section differs subtly from the reprised first section, and Nielsen even cleverly inserts some counterpoint, which actually has an emotional impact.
In the character of a strutting folk dance, the Humoresque raises the listener’s spirits. As in Brahms’s folk-inspired dances, Nielsen knows to occasionally relieve the bright rhythms with some smooth lyricism. It all works to provide the listener with a buoyant miniature.
Altogether, the youthful Two Fantasy Pieces give us a brief yet brilliant foretaste of the masterful music still to come from the mature pen of Carl Nielsen.
Povolotsky: French Sonata (Exercise in Spirit of Poulenc) for Oboe and Piano
Born in Odessa, Russia in 1962, Yuri Povolotsky completed his education in 1986 at the Gnesin Russian Music Academy in Moscow. His chief teachers were Heinrich Litinsky and Alexei Muravlev. About five years later, Povolotsky moved to Israel, where he has made a successful career as both a composer and keyboardist.
Povolotsky’s symphonic and chamber works in several styles and genres have been performed in Israel, countries of the former USSR and in more than two dozen other countries around the world. Several of those performances have been part of festivals. His concert works have earned him two prestigious Israeli awards: the Jerusalem Olive (2007) and the Yuri Stern (2009).
Povolotsky is also active as a composer-performer of “Jewish Soul Music,” that is, Klezmer. He is artistic director of the Jazz-Klezmer band APROPOS.ART, in which he plays keyboards.
The Oboe Sonata was written in 2010. Its first movement captures Poulenc’s spirit beautifully: alternations and combinations of lyricism and playfulness. The music flirts with neo-classicism; nonetheless, the composer’s personality shines through.
The Misterioso second movement begins rather like an action film, only to be momentarily interrupted by a feeling of film noir mystery. Then, the chase continues.
In Con elegia, a long plaintive melody by the oboe is answered at intervals by the piano. Emotional tension increases until an oboe cadenza brings back the tenderness of the opening.
In the finale, we hear a bouncy, often humorous dance with a punchy piano part, but the oboe has one passage of refined lyricism (a last reflection of Poulenc?) before a drive to the bubbly finish.
About this work, Povolotsky has written:
The title and the subtitle of the piece reflect its structure, which, however, serves only as the background for the development of the author’s original ideas. Even the composition’s form is not traditionally comprised of three parts, but of a complete four-part cycle, in which the neoclassical aura successfully coexists with modern rhythms and sounds. The world premiere of the sonata took place on January 30, 2013 in Moscow, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Francis Poulenc.
Barlow: The Winter’s Passed for Oboe and Orchestra (adapted for oboe and piano)
The Great Depression of the 1930s was an extremely difficult time for Americans. However, one positive aspect of this period was a heightened sense of patriotism. In music, this was expressed in the birth of American Nationalism, in which composers used or adapted American folk music. Two famous examples are Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid ballet (1938) and Roy Harris’s Folk Song Symphony (1939).
Some composers absorbed elements of folk style to the extent that their original melodies seemed like actual folk material. That was the case with Wayne Barlow (1912-1996) when he wrote The Winter’s Passed for oboe and strings. This piece is based on a single original theme, but a theme that contains strong echoes of Appalachian hymns and songs. The opening makes an expressive exposition of the theme — first by the piano, then by the oboe, and finally both instruments in counterpoint. A faster section develops the melody. Then, the plaintive slow tempo returns, reprising the theme in the oboe, then the piano. A modest coda joins the oboe again with the piano for a soft, reflective ending.
Composer Wayne Barlow, together with Howard Hanson and others, helped to put the Eastman School of Music on the map. Educated at Eastman, Barlow taught composition there 1937-1978, eventually chairing the composition department and becoming Graduate Dean. Interestingly, along the way, Barlow’s musical interests shifted toward serial and electronic music — a far cry from The Winter’s Passed.
Hindemith: Oboe Sonata (1938)
The year 1938 was a focal one for Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). It was the year in which his great opera, Mathis der Maler, was premiered. This masterwork represented a new cosmopolitan direction for his musical style. Hindemith was searching for a music syntax and tonal organization that might be a worthy successor to the major-minor system of previous eras. Gradually during the 1930s, Hindemith had evolved his new style, and in 1938 he was in the midst of writing The Craft of Musical Composition, a multi-volume theoretical work that detailed his new discoveries.
The year 1938 was also the time when Hindemith composed his Oboe Sonata. In the course of his career, Hindemith wrote solo sonatas for every instrument in the orchestra, the majority of these works coming from the period 1937-1949. The Oboe Sonata was, therefore, one of the earliest composed and published in the series.
Rhythmic interplay characterize the opening section of the first movement. While the oboe exposes the first theme in 2/4 time, the piano accompaniment continually shifts its metrical accents, giving the impression of 3/8 time. In the transition to the middle section, the meter changes freely and the piano part takes on more significance. A smoother, less rhythmic middle section leads back to an abbreviated reprise of the opening section.
The second (and final) movement alternates between slow and fast sections. The somewhat baroque-style slow opening introduces a lively gigue-like section. A variant of the slow section returns, leading to the final section. This time Hindemith transforms the gigue into a quick concluding fugue, beginning in the piano but soon taken up by the oboe. As the end approaches, the piano recedes into the background leaving the spotlight on the oboe.
Bozza: Fantaisie Pastorale, Op. 37
To international audiences and musicians outside France, Eugène Bozza (1905-1991) is known for a remarkable number of chamber works for woodwind and brass instruments. However, in his native land, he also had a long and successful career as a conductor at the Paris Opéra-Comique and as director of the Ecole Nationale de Musique. His awards and honors included the Légion d’Honneur, in which he was made a Chevalier in 1956.
Musicologist Paul Griffiths has summarized Bozza’s compositional style as displaying “… a high level the qualities characteristic of mid-20th-century French chamber music: melodic fluency, elegance of structure and a consistently sensitive concern for instrumental capabilities.”
The opening Lent might have also been designated misterioso or exotico. The piano having laid down a rumbling introduction, the oboe plays melodies, runs, and flashy ornaments in exotic scales. This extensive middle section finally melts into dreamy impressionism before the movement ends with a reprise of the very beginning.
A true valse triste or gymnopédie, the moderato central movement gives the oboe extensive opportunities for lyrical expression against unusual harmonies in the piano part.
The finale is jolly and scherzando. Bozza gives us some rarely heard oboe figuration and turns of phrase that might re-define the traditional character of the instrument. As in the previous movements, oboe and piano are here tightly connected musically, giving us a clearly drawn 20th-century French composition.