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ClassicsOnline Home » OSWALD, H.: Piano Music - Feuilles d'Album / 6 Morceaux / 3 Romances / 6 Pezzi (Velloso)
Henrique Oswald was born in Rio de Janeiro but spent a large part of his life in Europe. His career started at the Music Institute of Florence; he rose to become one of the great names in 19th-century Brazilian music and director of the National Institute of Music. His music retained its European character, with lyrical Italian melodies and a refined, often dreamlike style somewhere between Romanticism and Impressionism. The influences of Chopin and Schumann can be found in albums such as the Six Pièces, and from amongst Oswald’s attractively varied pieces the Le Figaro prizewinning Il neige has emerged as his most popular.
Henrique Oswald (1852–1931)
Henrique Oswald was born in Rio de Janeiro and was raised by a Swiss immigrant father and an Italian mother. He was only one year old when his family decided to move to Sao Paulo. Oswald began to show interest in music and began practising with his mother, and then with a teacher, Giraudon, showing a special talent for music. In order to improve and further his musical development the family moved to Italy, where Oswald enrolled in the Music Institute of Florence. There he advanced so quickly that the director gave him a position as a substitute piano teacher, a rare appointment for a foreigner in the Institute. As a piano teacher Oswald was able to perform his works to Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, when he visited Florence. Impressed with his talent, Dom Pedro granted him a fifteen-year stipend to allow him to continue his development as a musician in Europe.
Oswald later continued his studies at the Venice Conservatory of Music with Grazzini (composition) and Giuseppe Buonamici (piano). After concluding his studies, he travelled throughout Europe, meeting a number of musicians and acquainting himself with the works of other composers such as Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Grieg, Liszt, Massenet and Brahms. In 1900, when, after the proclamation of the Brazilian Republic, his stipend could no longer be continued, he was appointed vice-consul of Le Havre and Genoa by the Brazilian government. By the time he returned to Brazil, at the age of 46, Oswald was an honorary member of the Academy of Music in Florence. In June 1899 he gave his first performance of his own compositions in Sao Paulo. Four years later he was appointed director of the National Institute of Music. In 1931 he was granted by the French government the insignia of the Legion of Honour, but died in Rio de Janeiro before he was able to receive it.
Having lived most of his life in Europe, Oswald assimilated traditional European musical trends, the influence of which was so strong that, even back in Brazil, he made only a few attempts to incorporate national rhythms into his compositions. In this he was largely unsuccessful—the use of syncopation, so well expressed in the compositions of Ernesto Nazareth, seemed artificial in Oswald’s musical treatment, while his melodies had an Italian style. For this reason Oswald was not involved in the nationalist movement emerging at that time, having spent so long in Europe and enjoyed such wide contact with foreign musicians, but also from a personal perspective he failed to adapt to new trends which did not correspond with his own form of expression.
According to the musicologist Luiz Heitor Correa de Azevedo, the work of Oswald combines German, French and Italian characteristics. From Germany he was able to acquire a detailed form. From France he incorporated refinement, clarity, and careful choice of harmonies. From Italy he revelled in full-bodied melodies, which were also continually innovative and harmonious.
According to Correa de Azevedo these characteristics led to “a moderate strain of romanticism, Parnassian-style, without the excesses of the golden age; and without the bleak pessimism and heaviness of the German masters. It is important to note that even though Oswald lived most of his life in Italy, he did not dedicate his entire repertoire to opera, of which he wrote only three, Il Neo, La Croce d’Oro and Le Fate. He also composed a symphony, a concerto for violin and orchestra, a suite, chamber music and sacred music. It is in this last category, the result of his profound faith, that Oswald left us his greatest masterpieces.
Most of Henrique Oswald’s works consist of little piano pieces collected in albums. They include free musical forms, common at the time, such as the berceuse, barcarolle, album-leaf, impromptu, romance, nocturne and waltz. With rare exceptions the titles are in French which reflected a certain level of elitism. This could also be seen in Brazil with other composers from that period such as Leopoldo Miguez. Since the compositions were intended for the elite, it was easier to attract the publishers’attention and approval.
Among almost all his piano output Oswald remained true to the European style as a result of living many years abroad. Most of his pieces express a certain nostalgia and can be located and categorized as between Romanticism and Impressionism. The themes are refined and carefully developed according to French taste, employing subtle modulations. At that time Debussy had already introduced a new a musical language in French music. Oswald, however, remained influenced by the style of Fauré and Saint-Saëns. This fact does not detract from his originality because he was able to create a delicate musical language favouring dreamlike moods with delicate elements, rather then set forms with rigid formal elaboration.
Six Morceaux, Op 4 (circa 1887)
I. Waltz. The waltz reflects its French form more than the Viennese style.
II. Rêverie. In triple metre Rêverie uses an undulating triplet movement in its accompaniment and is occasionally filled with tiny chromatic oscillations, so that it gives the impression of a Nocturne.
III. Menuet. The composer uses the old form of dance.
IV. Berceuse. The first part suggests the movement of bells more than a cradle. The central part has a simple melody filled with rich modulations.
V. Barcarolle. The undulating movement of a Venetian gondola is depicted here with a nostalgic melody in thirds in the right hand accompanied by arpeggios in the left hand. In the central episode the major scale disrupts the original mood of nostalgia.
VI. Impromptu. In duple metre and with its own rhythmic accents, the Impromptu evokes Robert Schumann’s musical universe.
Trois Romances, Op 7
I. Romance No 1 in E major. The first impression is of a piece modelled on Schumann.
II. Romance No 2 in E flat major. The second piece resembles a Chopin Nocturne.
III. Romance No 3 in F minor. In the first part the simple and unpretentious melody is entrusted to the left hand and its accompaniment to the right hand. The allegretto central part, in the dance form, disperses the initial melancholy.
Il Neige (1902)
Henrique Oswald’s most popular piece, Il neige, won first prize in the Le Figaro competition among six hundred competitors from various countries. The jury included Saint-Saëns (chairman), Gabriel Fauré and Louis Diemer (pianist). The original title was Il pleut (It rains), but Oswald’s wife suggested Il neige (It snows), its definitive title.
Six Pièces, Op 14
I. Berceuse. Unlike the Berceuse, Op 4, No 4, this second Berceuse piece has a uniform and constant rhythm, providing an atmosphere of serenity.
II. Mazurka. Oswald approached Chopin’s style with a Polish Mazurka. Although the first four beats sound like a waltz, the following dotted rhythm reveals the character of the dance. As in Chopin a theme is presented in a major key and repeated in a minor key in the next bar.
III. Tarantelle. Tarantelle is the longest and most brilliant piece of the album. Oswald did not write many works with a presto indication. This a rare example.
IV. Barcarolle. Unlike the earlier Barcarolle, Op 4, No 5, the undulation of the water is shared by both hands. In the central part the left hand takes up this movement by itself.
V. Nocturne. The Nocturne reminds us of Chopin.
VI. Scherzo. The Scherzo uses a sharp presto rhythm that resembles a waltz. Its rhythm consists of a dotted note followed by quavers throughout the entire piece.
Feuilles d’Album, Op 20
I. Inquiétude. Two melodic lines are expressed by both agitated hands as defined by the composition’s title Inquiétude (Restlessness). The passionate melody uses a single uninterrupted movement of a back and forth short duration.
II. Chansonette. The clear and simple melody of Chansonette is subtly revealed.
III. Feux follets. Oswald tried to represent a figurative image of the ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp. In the nineteenth century other composers, such as Liszt, had evoked the same theme.
IV. Désir ardent. The agitated duple metre Désir ardent develops without any interruption or pause which gives the idea of restlessness and passion.
Sergio Bittencourt Sampaio
Translation: Marcela Lanna
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