Paper Previews: Symposium on Prokofiev and the Russian Tradition

Date(s) - 02/16/2016
5:30 pm - 6:30 pm

Music Dept. Thesis Room


David Pearson – “Putting the Horse before the Cart in the Music of Nikolai Roslavets”

Nikolai Roslavets developed a unique compositional approach using a “synthetichord” built from an augmented triad and a fully-diminished chord. Some analysis of his music by Inessa Bazayev, Terry Ewell, Anna Ferenc, and Larry Sitsky has, through segmentation, reduced these synthetichords down to conveniently labeled pitch-class sets. What this method fails to understand is how Roslavets treated this synthetichord in compositional practice: as the building block for a “new system of tone organization” in which common practice procedures of suspensions and passing tones were adapted to a non-Tonal context. Furthermore, this synthetichord was transposed in ways akin to tonal procedures, with root motion by fifth as well as cycles by third. Thus a reduction of the synthetichord to pitch-class sets fails to make sense of root motion and what I call “non-synthetichord tones” and their importance to expressive affect. Drawing on Roslavets’ own description of his new system of tone organization, I will present a close analysis of his Méditation for cello and piano to demonstrate how this system works in practice.

Understanding Roslavets’ compositional procedures in this way raises further questions about Russian music historiography. It suggests that Russian avant-garde composers developed their own ways of rupturing with the past different from contemporary Western European musical techniques and cultural trends. Roslavets related his compositional approach in the 1920s to his active partisanship for the Russian Revolution and a historical materialist view of musical innovation, which we risk overlooking if we reduce the 1920s to the story of a repressed avant-garde.


Simon Prosser – “Shostakovich’s Dominants”

Many of Shostakovich’s dominants are unusual in their structure and use of chromaticism, often containing lowered scale degrees like f2 and f4. Such lowered degrees are characteristic of many of the “altered diatonic modes” that Russian theorists (such as Dolzhansky, Mazel’, Adam, and Burda) have identified in Shostakovich’s music, which include unusual lowered degrees like f2, f4, f5, and even f1 and ff7. Following these Russian modal theorists’ view that Shostakovich’s modes are derived from diatonic ones, I represent them as various stretchings “southward” (i.e., flatting) of the basic major-minor diatonic system on an unconformed Tonnetz (a grid that symmetrically arranges the pitch classes in a tonal system, observing distinctions between enharmonically related pitches, and organizing them within the primary functional “spaces” of tonic, dominant, and subdominant/dominant-preparation). Doing so maps the harmonic-functional potential of these lowered degrees. I then show how they can be combined together and incorporated into a variety of unusual dominant-function sonorities that are characteristic of Shostakovich’s music. Drawing passages from symphonic and chamber works written at all stages of his life, I analyze Shostakovich’s use of these dominant-function sonorities in the context of the altered diatonic modality of these passages. This will open the door to a broader systematic consideration of harmonic function in Shostakovich’s music and its relationship to altered diatonic modality, heretofore not pursued in the literature on Shostakovich’s music. It will also show how ideas from Russian modal theory can be productively synthesized with Anglo-American theories of harmonic function.


Xieyi (Abby) Zhang – “A Dialectic of Narratives: Competing Analyses in Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 29, Movement 1”

Recent analyses of Prokofiev’s music generally fall into two categories: Bass, Harley, Harter, and Rifkin have viewed this music through a tonal lens, while Lewin, Minturn, and Tymoczko have treated the music through transformational and pitch-class set analysis.  While each approach has value, the resulting analyses inevitably parse the music into elements that either conform or fail to conform to the theoretical model, with non-conforming events explained away or simply ignored.

In contrast, the bifocal approach I offer in this paper respects the irreducible tension in this music between its more traditionally tonal and its more modernistic styles: the music involves an unresolved conflict or competition between them. Using the Fourth Piano Sonata as my proving ground, I will explore the stylistic and structural tug-of-war between the two hearings.  My analysis focuses in particular on the work’s sonata form.  I argue that the traditional dialectic between tonic and non-tonic is juxtaposed on a higher level with a modernist dialectic of set-classes. The primary theme sets up this tension through the initial chord’s dual-meaning. Then in the secondary theme, this tension reaches a climax: the traditional arrival at the non-tonic key is matched by a coagulation of the atonal set-class dialectic.

The multilevel tension both within and between styles persists through the movement: the post-expositional sections continue to pit the two traits against each other, disfiguring both as a result. In the final V-I cadence, harmonic semitones saturate the otherwise pure tonal closure, distorting both its tonal and non-tonal aspects.



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