Analysis of Denisov Sonata

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An analysis of Denisov's Sonate pour alto Saxophone


Sonate pour Saxophone Alto et piano by Edison Denisov David Oschefski

Edison Denisov was a Russian serial composer born in Tomsk, Siberia 1929. He had gone to Tomsk University for mathematics, where he also took piano lessons. After he graduated he was pushed and supported by Shostakovich, a major influence of Denisov's, to study composition at the Moscow Conservatoire, which he later attended in 1951 under Vissarion Shelbain. As his style developed he would eventually be asked to write many well known pieces for well known performers, and become a respected composer.Before Denisov enrolled at the Moscow Conservatoire he had sent his favourite composer of the time, Shostakovich, a few compositions (Classical Suite and Romances, and Failure) asking for opinions and thoughts. Shostakovich replied with a detailed analysis of each work and interest in and encouragement to apply to the conservatoire. "...your compositions have astonished me...I believe that you are endowed with a great gift for composition. And it would be a great sin to bury your talent." (letter from Shostakovich to Denisov, March 22, 1950.)[footnoteRef:2] [2: Yuri Kholopov, and Valeria Tsenova, Edison Denisov, (Harwood Academic Publishers, Switzerland, 1995), 4.]

This correspondence would lead to a friendship between the two composers, and help Denisov's career. After a rejection from the Moscow Conservatoire, Denisov's second attempt of enrolling was successful. He would be influenced by many of the Second Viennese School composers who he had, more or less, disliked before being learning and understanding their styles and techniques. During his studies at the conservatoire Deniov went on a few trips to study Russian folk music, which can be seen in his early works.It was not until the 1970's that Denisov would start to show his on individual style with more unexpected influences such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk, well known jazz musicians of the time.[footnoteRef:3] Denisov's style would have characteristics of highly expressive intonations, acute pointillism, and wide spaces of sound with many melodic lines,[footnoteRef:4] this would also be the time that Denisov would start writing for full orchestras and larger ensembles. [3: Denisov, Edison. Edison Denisov to Jean-Marie Londeix, October 25, 1995.] [4: "Edison Denisov." Gerard Billaudot Editeur.]

From the 1980's and later Denisov's influences would grow to include Mozart, Brahms and Schubert.[footnoteRef:5] He would start to experiment with unusual combinations of instruments, a more pictorial aspect of music, with some of his music would become a spiritual art having symbolism of beauty, good and light, along with a much more lyrical style later into the 1990's.[footnoteRef:6] [5: Denisov. Edison Denisov to Jean-Marie Londeix] [6: "Edison Denisov." Gerard Billaudot Editeur.]

In 1970 Denisov's style would entice well known saxophonist Jean-Marie Londeix to commission a piece for saxophone. Denisov was ecstatic as he loved the saxophone for its expressive and technical possibilities, but he had not written for saxophone before and asked Londeix to send a recording of all the possible techniques a saxophone could perform, which would lead to the composition of Sonate pour Saxophone Alto et Piano. It was premiered December 14, 1970 by Jean-Marie Londeix and pianist Milton Grainger at the second World Saxophone Congress in Chicago. This piece uses multiple twelve tone rows simultaneously, micro-polyphony, and quite a few extended techniques for saxophone and even includes some jazz influences. After playing the piece Londiex would comment "The Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano by Edison Denisov opened the saxophone to avant-garde contemporary music in a way that no other piece had ever done,"[footnoteRef:7] and that it "has become one of the most significant works in the saxophone's repertoire."[footnoteRef:8] [7: Ora Paul Harr, "The Influence of Jazz," 1.] [8: VanPelt, "A Performer's Guide," 117-118.]

Within my analysis of this piece I would like to look at a note from Denisov's personal archive describing this piece overall. "The Sonata for Saxophone and Piano was written at the request of the French saxophonist Jean-Marie Londeix and is dedicated to him. Denisov had a great deal of love for the saxophone, because it possesses considerable expressive and technical possibilities, both in the domain of jazz and classical [music]. Furthermore, Denisov had great esteem for the saxophones very large, sonorous, and dynamic amplitude.

Sonata form is not present here. It is more a cycle of three movements, which have an analogous meaning to the three-part cycle of the 19th century sonata.

The first movement has the function of the allegro of the sonata-cycle. Very energetic, it alludes to a jazz improvisation. The syncopations, the uneven rhythms found in the swing [style], disrupt the regular beat. The meters are constantly changing: 6/32, 4/32, 11/32, 17/32, etc. The principal theme is constructed in the manner of jazz: the melodic line is almost improvised, syncopated. The piano accompaniment is also typical of jazz: the chords which occur in the gaps left by the soloist sound isolated and heavily accented.

The second movement is a monologue for solo saxophone. It is only at the end [of the movement] that the piano emits some very delicate chords, bringing a new sound. This movement is very free in its development, which gives the impression of improvised music. It also acts as a long prelude to the third movement.

In the finale, all the musical material becomes imprinted with the jazz element that takes center stage at the beginning, when the piano imitates the movement of the boogie woogie. Here, a concertante and virtuosic style dominates the writing.

Denisovs Sonata is very popular among saxophonists throughout the world. It appears as a required work in the majority of saxophone competitions, and has been recorded about fifteen times."[footnoteRef:9] [9: Zachary Cairns, "Multiple-Row Serialism in Three Works by Edison Denisov," 119.]

As is stated in the notes Sonate pour Saxophone Alto et Piano is not actually in sonata form but more of a cycle of three movements, similar to his earlier writing during his studies at the conservatoire. Denisov does use some twelve tone serialism technique in the first and third movements, however, Denisov sometimes will only use portions of a row rather than the entire row. All three movements, Allegro, Lento, and Allegro moderato, Denisov shows his influence of jazz. This can be seen especially in the first with syncopated rhythms, constantly changing rhythms as to avoid a regular beat, and the piano and saxophone sort of playing off of each other, filling in the gaps the other leaves with accented chords or somewhat similar lines, as seen in measure 49-52 (figure 1).

Fig. 1Another strong of possible jazz influence is the ostinato bass line in the piano of the third movement. It is very much like a string bass, and is also doubled at times and written with a pizzicato marking. The saxophone line also has some recurring melodies seen at the beginning of the movement (figure 2). It also contains a strong rhythmic pulse, dominant seventh and blues chords," and as described by Londeix it is reminiscent of "a jazz trio for saxophone, piano, and string bass, with the piano assuming the two latter roles."[footnoteRef:10] [10: Cairns, "Multiple-Row Serialism," 120.]

Fig. 2

The second movement is quite contrasting to the first and third movements. Aside from the different tempo marking, and the major dynamic difference it is also mainly saxophone playing until almost three quarters of the way through. It is also the movement that contains most of the extended techniques for the saxophone, such as multiphonics and quarter tones. As it was described earlier it is a monologue, almost giving a sense of free development and improvisation.SectionLocationFeatures

ABeginningMultiphonics are used twice

aAfter the 3 beats plus a 16th note rest.Quarter tones are used and the dynamics reaches up to a f

BAfter the 9:8 run and the 3 beats of rest.Quarter tones are still being used but the main feature is the tremolos. A multiphonic is also used.

bBefore the return of the tremolos after the 3 beats of rest.Tremolos are used again, quarter tones, and the piano is added.

The overall form of this movement is an AaBb, with the sections being divided by large areas of rest in the saxophone, the introduction of different aspects, such as the piano, or quarter tones, and rhythmic changes (fig. 3). The A section and the a subsection share some qualities with the B section but a large difference is in the rhythms, rhythmic groupings and even the number of larger intervals. The similarities between the A and a section relies much on rhythmic groupings, such as 5:4 and quarter note triplets, and they also share smaller intervals, the widest being a major third, with no large leaps happening in the melodic line until the end of the a section. The large B section and the subsection b also share similar qualities with a major focus being on tremolos. The b subsection also seems to mirror the beginning of B by beginning with tremolos and ending with a passage of quarter tones. The major difference between these two sections is the introduction of the piano.Fig. 3

SetNormal OrderPrime FormInterval Vector
































Recurring melodic ideas are not used very much in this piece, there may be short familiar passages but Denisov uses rhythms much more. Major recurring rhythms help define the form as stated earlier, not only between the major sections but also the subsections. Denisov uses irregular rhythmic groupings often within this piece such 5:4, 9:8 and 7:8, with 5:4 occurring in every section. In addition he uses two specific rhythmic techniques for each major section, for the A section he uses the rhythmic acceleration and ritarando with eighth notes, as can be seen in figure 3. Within the B section the prominent rhythmic technique used is a passage of ascending tremolos.While there may be no recurring melodic ideas Denisov does show a preference towards certain prime forms and intervals. The most frequently occurring prime form is (012), followed by (013). The frequency of these prime forms show that Denisov used many semi-tones and whole tones in his writing, with a semitone being used 93 times and a whole tone being used 73 times. There is no correlation as to when he uses these intervals as (012) occurs in almost every set. There were four sets that were found to be transpositions, these include (012), (013), (0123567), and (01234). These sets are only transposed by the intervals of 5,7,9 and 10, however, the only set of transpositions that have a pattern is (012) which seem to end or begin short phrases.0C8EF-flat16 G-sharpA-flat

1C-quarter sharpD- 3 quarters flat9E-quarter sharpF-quarter flat17G- 3 quarters sharpA-quarter flat


3C- 3 quarters sharpD-quarter flat11F-quarter sharpG- 3 quarters flat19A-quarter sharpB- 3 quarters flat


5D-quarter sharpE- 3 quarters flat13F- 3 quarters sharp G-quarter flat21A- 3 quarters sharpB-quarter flat


7D- 3 quarters sharpE-quarter flat15G-quarter sharpA- 3 quarters flat23B-quarter sharpC-quarter flat

The sets I included in the table did not include quarter tones. Quarter tones are not taken into consideration with twelve tone music and are even excluded in some analyses, or treated as the closest note. If we take each quarter tone into consideration we get a 24 tone set. When we use this system to analyse a few sections within the second movement we can see that the prime form (013) occurs much more frequently and can play a bigger role in the overall movement. If we mix using both systems the A, a, and B all start with (013). Figure 4 and 5 show this at the beginning of the a and B sections. When we Fig. 4

(2, 5, 4) (23, 0, 21) (21, 19, 18) (18, 19, 16) (013) (013) (013) (013)Fig. 5

(16, 19, 18) (013)compare the quarter tone sections between the two main sections we can see that (013) is more frequently used in the first half of the movement while (012) is used in the second half. Figure 4 shows a good portion of the quarter tone section for the A section and figure 6 shows the stretch near the end of the movement.Fig. 6(0, 1, 23) (23, 22, 2) (14, 13, 12) (012) (014) (012)

The second movement was described earlier as a "prelude" to the third movement, at first it seems as though there are very few similarities between the two but when we compare the very end of the second and the beginning of the third we see that between the saxophone and the piano we hear an E, B-flat, A, C, D-flat, and a B. These are the same notes, minus an E-flat, as the ostinato bass line that begins the third movement. This shows a clear connection between the two, and how the second movement can act as a direct prelude into the third.The final small detail to analyse is how Denisov shows his influence and friendship of Shostakovich. Shostakovich was known to include the notes DSCH, which are the German names for D(2), E-flat(3), C(0), and B(11), and Denisov would include them in his own compositions as a respectful nod to Shostakovich.[footnoteRef:11] We can see this motive transposed by 9 semitones in set 10 (11,0,9,8) , igno...


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