Bagatelles, Op. 5 and Expressions (A. Tcherepnin)

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A starting note...

I hope to upload a professionally recorded personal performance of Op. 5 very soon. The work will be posted at, which I will link below. Two movements are currently available, with the rest of the set coming soon.

Brooks Popwell - Tcherepnin's Bagatelles, Op. 5:[1]

Diversity, Uniformity, and Tonality: A Comparative Analysis of the Bagatelles, Op. 5 and Expressions, Op. 11

by Brooks Popwell

Note: For the examples that are indicated in the text, look here: []

Outline: I. The background of the bagatelles and Expressions shows their place as representatives of the composer’s early and late styles.

1. Each work embodies a major period of the composer.

2. The forms of the pieces manifest similarities and differences.

II. An analysis of the bagatelles and Expressions shows their stylistic similarities and differences.

1. Form: both partitioned, but in different arrangements.

2. Harmony: both chromatic, but in different saturations.

3. Melody: both segmented, but used in different concentrations.

4. Rhythm: both highly rhythmic, but within different structures.

The volcanic changes of the twentieth century presented composers with new options for creative expression. Some visionaries, such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, dramatically altered their musical language in ways that mirrored their turbulent times. Other artists, such as Alexander Tcherepnin, spurned the “so called music of ‘tomorrow.’” Tcherepnin’s Bagatelles, Op. 5, and Expressions, Op. 81, provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of unified diversity cultivated by a traditional composer.

Alexander Tcherepnin’s home life saturated him with musical ideas. His father, Nicolas Tcherepnin, was a noted composer and influential pedagogue. After his birth in 1899, Alexander spent his first two decades in his first home of St. Petersburg. In 1918, conditions of near starvation in the city forced the family to settle in Tiflis, the capital of nearby Georgia. Wartime disturbances soon prompted the Tcherepnins to relocate to Paris.

Guy Wuellner, author of an encyclopedic treatment of Tcherepnin’s solo piano works, reveals that Tcherepnin originally composed the Bagatelles, Op. 5, as individual gifts. The set includes pieces compiled from 1913-1918 in St. Petersburg. The unifying description “bagatelles,” offered by Tcherepnin’s Parisian piano teacher, Isidore Pornichet, fits the work well. The bagatelles are, as one scholarly work defines the term, “short piece[s] of music in a light vein” that are not tied down to a “specific form.”

Tcherepnin himself used the set with its present ordering and title in a London recital in 1922, and later arrangements for both strings and full orchestra (with an unchanged solo piano part) confirm that the composer considered the bagatelles to be a coherent set. As a souvenir from the composer’s teenage years, the bagatelles provide the listener with diverse snapshots of Tcherepnin’s early compositional output.

Three decades later, in 1949, Tcherepnin embarked on what he called “the great change in [his] life” by moving to the United States. This period, during which Tcherepnin composed Expressions, Op. 81, produced what the composer called a “new musical language…[that] synthesized all the technical devices of the past…and became combined with new research in form.” Wuellner reveals that Expressions resulted from a publisher’s request for “new piano pieces comparable to the Bagatelles, Op. 5.” He describes Expressions, Op. 81, as “particularly fine,” noting that the work displays the composer’s gifts “at high inspiration and full maturity.” An examination of both of these works will detail the precise ways in which Tcherepnin’s late style matured while preserving characteristics of his early style.

The formal structure of the bagatelles is almost completely uniform; Wuellner notes that every piece manifests some sort of “three-part” structure. The relationships among the various pieces of the set manifest close relationships (noted in the chart supplied in the appendix); all the movements connect by whole-step, dominant, or mediant relationships. Expressions employs the same relationships throughout its tonal movements, with the exception of the lengthy no. 7 (related by a half-step to the previous piece).

Wuellner notes that Expressions represent the composer’s endeavor to “create ‘endless forms’ wherein the initial material is never heard again.” Nonetheless, he admits that coherence does exist within each piece, displayed in “developmental, varied repetitions of material and rhythms.” The specific type of coherence employed in each movement of the set will become apparent through examining other elements, such as melody and rhythm.

As a beginning point of stylistic comparison, one can note that the textures of the bagatelles involve varying degrees of simple accompaniment and polyphony. Nos. 1 and 6 present a continuous statement of two voices. The former includes identical melodies stated an octave apart, and the latter juxtaposes two independent melodic figures. In contrast, nos. 3 and 10 consist entirely of melodic material and sporadic chords. While no. 5 involves unusually varied contrapuntal textures, each remaining bagatelle alternates between a two-voice texture and melodies accompanied by chords.

Although the textures of Expressions cannot be easily summarized, the pieces present more diversity than the neatly partitioned bagatelles. Nonetheless, five of the pieces still employ continuous two-voice counterpoint or melody-accompaniment textures. In addition, the bagatelle-like alteration between these two textures characterizes three more pieces. Nos. 6 and 7 prove more groundbreaking, consisting of stream-of-consciousness shifts between diverse textures. Example 1 illustrates the contrast between the degree of abrupt change present in each set. Bagatelle no. 4 maintains two prominent voices by shifting to a simple sequence of octaves, but Expressions no. 6 changes rapidly between different registers, dynamics, and voices.

From the early period of the bagatelles, harmony provided Tcherepnin with grounds for experimentation. Guy Wuellner asserts that “roughly fifty to sixty percent of Tcherepnin’s music contains chromaticism in some form or other,” leading him to designate the minor second as “Tcherepnin’s interval.” The vast majority of the bagatelles display some instance of modal or chromatic colorings, and no. 7 appears forward-looking in its chromatic saturation. The set also manifests the composer’s early interest in quartal and quintal harmonies. In spite of these innovative early trends, however, none of the bagatelles ventures outside traditional tonality; each possesses a clear tonal center and appropriate key signature.

Tcherepnin’s harmonic language expands noticeably in Expressions, leading the composer to incorporate three movements without a key signature. Two of these movements also lack a clear tonal center. Although bagatelle no. 7 contains a level of chromaticism comparable to these two pieces, a cursory comparison with Expressions, no. 5 will illustrate the clearer tonal quality of the bagatelle. The end of the chromatic scale in the bagatelle reestablishes a clear center around E-flat (stated by the key signature) while the extreme low register of the later work and unrelated right-hand pattern erase any implied center around A (Example 2). Other pieces in Expressions contain rapid-fire modulations or polytonal inflections that create a similarly unstable feeling foreign to the world of the bagatelles.

Dodson observes that Tcherepnin’s use of “simple, lyric” melodies relates inversely to the progressively increasing role he assigned to rhythm. Thus, the early bagatelles display a very predictable and often vocal melodic structure, employing either imitative lines or small, easily recognizable units. In Example 3, bagatelle no. 4 readily divides into four-bar melodic units which continue through the whole piece, except for the introduction, two phrase extensions, and an ending figure. Although Expressions, no. 2 is also marked lento and possesses a similar cantabile character, the melodies have a rhapsodic, recitative quality and appear in irregular lengths throughout the movement. Once again, however, Tcherepnin’s style change does not yield radical disorganization. Instead, general melodic contours and character preserve the later work’s general unity within sections or individual pieces.

Rhythm, which is perhaps the most noticeable element of Tcherepnin’s style, manifests a final example of changing stylistic function between the bagatelles and Expressions. Like melody and harmony, rhythm in the early pieces fits a more uniform mold, demarcating discrete sections with signature rhythms. Dodson speculates that such a “motivic” use of rhythm in the composer’s early works could have been a response to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, composed in 1912, shortly before the bagatelles. The march-like quality of bagatelle no. 8 displays this tendency through a pervading march-like rhythm with staccato rhythm and accentuated pulse (Example 4). The excerpt from Expressions no. 6, although similarly energetic, presents a panorama of rhythmic ideas suggestive of the piece’s energetic title: “At the fair.” Rhythms in other pieces of the set sometimes congeal into larger units or sections, but increased use of hemiola and meter changes defies a sense of regular pulse.

As an example of stylistic metamorphosis, the bagatelles and Expressions reveal the extraordinary amount of variety available within Tcherepnin’s style of traditionalism. Though other pieces by the composer display further nuances and extrapolations of additional ideas, Tcherepnin’s works never departed completely from his roots. Because they encapsulate Tcherepnin’s early and late styles, these two contrasting sets provide a convincing exposition of the abundant musical material available within a conscientiously tonal context.

Appendix: Key relationships between Op. 5 and Op. 81

(Movements are indicated with numbers and 'b' for Bagatelles or 'e' for Expressions)

1b. Allegro marciale, C minor 1e. Allegro, F major→F major 2b. Con vivacita, D minor 2e. Lento, C minor→C minor* 3b. Vivo, D major 3e. Andantino, C major→C major-minor 4b. Lento con tristezza, F-sharp minor 4e. Allegretto, A major→A major* 5b. Dolce, F-sharp minor† 5e. Presto, unclear key* 6b. Allegro con spirito, G-flat major 6e. Animato, D major→D major* 7b. Prestissimo, E-flat major 7e. Lento, E-flat major→E-flat major 8b. Allegro, A-flat major 8e. Allegretto, G major→G major 9b. Allegretto, E minor 9e. Andante, unclear key* 10b. Presto, C minor 10e. Allegro commodo, C major→C major (no modulation) C overall

* These key designations represent the author’s own departures from Wuellner’s analysis. Nos. 5 and 9 are chromatic to the point of obscuring tonality and possess no key signature throughout. The author retains Wuellner’s analysis of key but suggests that Tcherepnin may have intended no key center. In all other instances, Wuellner interpreted the keys as mixed minor-major tonalities.

† Wuellner gives C-sharp minor as the key here, but key signature and clear tonal implications lead the author to believe this a notational error.

Works Cited

Arias, Enrique Alberto. “Alexander Tcherepnin’s Thoughts on Music.” Perspectives of New Music 21, no. 1 (Autumn 1982-Summer 1983): 138-144. (accessed October 27, 2009).

Brown, Maurice J.E. "Bagatelle." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed December 4, 2009).

Dodson, Anita. “The Early Piano Works of Alexander Tcherepnin.” Master’s thesis, University of Kansa, 1984.

Slonimsky, Nicolas. “Alexander Tcherepnin Septuagenarian.” Tempo New Series 87 (Winter 1968-1969): 16-23. (accessed November 1, 2009).

Tcherepnin, Alexander. Bagatelles, Op. 5. Paris: Heugel, 1964. ———. Expressions, Op. 81. New York: MCA Music, 1951.

Wuellner, Guy Snyder. “The Complete Piano Music of Alexander Tcherepnin: An Essay Together With A Comprehensive Project in Piano Performance.” DMA diss., University of Iowa, 1974.

Other Works Consulted

Arias, Alberto. Alexander Tcherepnin: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Slonimsky, Nicolas. “Alexander Tcherepnin Septuagenarian.” Tempo New Series 87 (Winter 1968-1969): 16-23. (accessed November 1, 2009).

Tcherepnin, Alexander. “A Short Autobiography.” Tempo New Series 130 (1979): 12-18. (accessed October 27, 2009).

———. “Master Class—A Lesson on Two Tcherepnin Bagatelles by the Composer.” The Piano Teacher 5, no. 4 (1963): 2.

———. “Music in Modern China.” The Musical Quarterly 21 (1935): 391.

Tcherepnin, Ming. “Tcherepnin’s Chinese Bagatelles: A Master Lesson.” Clavier 22, no. 7 (1983): 26.

Wuellner, Guy S. “Alexander Tcherepnin’s Bagatelles Op. 5.” The Piano Quarterly 99 (1977): 46.