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Back in The USSR

Jonathan Golove and Eric Huebner

Cellist Jonathan Golove and pianist Eric Huebner take us back in time

UB Department of Music faculty members Jonathan Golove, cello, and Eric Huebner, piano, will present an intriguing program in Slee Hall on Friday, February 24 at 7:30pm, of works, with one exception, by composers from the Soviet era.

Born in 1881, and still little known in the United States, Nikolai Roslavets became an important modernist composer, beginning in the pre-World War I period and continuing until the purges of the early1930s, when he suffered political persecution and his music was suppressed. Controversies about the nature of his music continue in Russia up to the present day. Rosalvets became identified with the Futurist movement in pre-war Russia, and after the Soviets seized power, he became one of the most prominent proponents of a truly revolutionary “leftist art.” This set him increasingly at odds with the growing “proletarian musicians”movement in the USSR, which demanded that all new music be readily accessible to the masses so as to serve the needs of the increasingly intolerant regime. As the 1920s drew to a close, Roslavets was attacked as a formalist and a bourgeois artist, a counter-revolutionary and even a saboteur. Stripped of any official positions, he probably only escaped execution by suffering a severe stroke in 1939 that left him a semi-invalid until his death in 1944.

Roslavets composed his Sonata No.1 for cello and piano in 1921, and Eric Huebner offered a few thoughts about the music: “To my ears Roslavets has much in common with Scriabin, another Russian composer active around the same time that he started composing. The trills in the piano part at the start of the piece seem straight out of Scriabin’s op. 68 Piano Sonata, the so-called ‘Black Mass.’ The piano and cello often have to fight it out for supremacy in the Roslavets sonata, with large chords and dense harmonies figuring prominently in the piano.

“The piece comes from a time when composers across Europe and the Soviet Union were looking for ways to break free of the Germanic tradition and structural approach to harmony. Roslavets creates his own harmonic language to serve the intensely expressive nature of the piece.”

Jonathan Golove agrees that Roslavets was “highly original, especially in the works from the early post-revolutionary, Leninist period, when being an avant-garde artist was seen as praiseworthy. I do think that he seems to have picked up where Scriabin left off in some ways. In the Cello Sonata No. 1, he’s working with some very complex chords, and seems to be using these in both linear (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) ways. So there would seem to be some substance to the idea that he was a ‘Russian Schoenberg.’”

Dmitri Shostakovich is a better known example of a composer who suffered during the Soviet era, and Golove has this to say about his Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40: “I think it’s significant that he wrote it in 1934, not long before the condemnation for ‘formalism’ that he received from Stalin. And it’s only several pieces before the Fourth Symphony, which he withdrew for fear of further condemnation, or worse. The piece has both those elements of distorted and of acidly satiric music that make me think of Chagall’s paintings in the second and fourth movements, and in the third movement, the beautiful but bleak feeling of cold, open spaces that you find in his late string quartets.”

Huebner says, “The cello sonata is probably one of the composer’s more optimistic works. All the imprints of his later style are there—the piece seems especially close in structure to the Piano Trio No. 2 from 1944—but the music seems to speak outwardly, particularly the soaring cello line that opens the first movement of the work. There is a romanticism to the work, uncolored by the dark events yet to come in the composer’s life.”

Sofia Gubaidulina turned 80 last October, and she has lived long enough to see her unique musical language gain worldwide admiration, despite early censure by the Soviet authorities. Golove, who will be performing her Ten Preludes for cello solo (1974) for the first time, says “The Preludes are somewhat more conventional than other pieces of hers I know, with intriguing uses of various playing techniques. They’re quite fun, in fact!”

Tchaikovsky died in 1893, long before the cataclysmic events of 1917 that ushered in the Soviet era. The Andante Cantabile movement of his String Quartet No. 1, based on a melancholic folk song that he had heard whistled by a house painter, has taken on a life of its own, both as a piece for cello and string orchestra, and as a recital hall favorite, arranged for cello and piano.

Tickets are $10 general admission; $5 for faculty/staff/alumni, senior citizens, and non-UB students; free for UB students. For more information, call 645-2921 or visit

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