A Tribute to Robert Muczynski
Two years ago today composer Robert Muczynski passed away. He left behind a strong output of mostly chamber works and solo piano pieces of tremendous vitality and presence. Muczynski is one of those 20th century composers who are under-performed and under-appreciated because they not fit into the worlds of minimalism, serialism, or experiments in new sounds. His music puts emotion and expression at its core, and in drawing together disparate elements into a cohesive and highly individual style his compositions are daring and traditional at the same time.
Muczynski’s Cello Sonata, op. 25 is perhaps his greatest masterpiece. It highlights his ability to draw forth a brooding lyricism from solo instruments, with sweeping melodic gestures that travel from austere beginnings to powerful heights. Rhythm is one of the most compelling features of Muczynski’s compositions, both in the aims and accents of melodic lines and in his ability to create powerful and pointed near-grooves often in groupings of 5 or 7.
This rhythmic drive together with bold and sometimes percussive dissonances give his music its other most distinctive quality: high-octane aggressive passages that keep you on the edge of your seat. There’s something very Russian about his music—not surprising considering his composition teacher was Alexander Tcherepnin at DePaul University—though Muczynski is one of those composers with a knack for drawing from disparate influences and blending them into his own unique style. His music can successfully move through contrasting ideas—including an almost jazzy, Broadway feel at times—while still making sense in the longer journey it takes you on. The epic quality of his music is furthered by the churning development of motives and stirring transitional material. His piano writing (which I’m admittedly less familiar with) can get quite wild and turbulent, and his harmonic language can go from more tonal to jarringly dissonant all in a way that makes intuitive sense. A flautist friend of mine once characterized his music as “just the right amount of crazy.”
Muczynski composed what is arguably among the best chamber music for woodwinds, most notably his Flute Sonata, op. 14 and Woodwind Quintet, op. 45. I’ve performed his Saxophone Sonata, op. 29 several times and it’s always a favorite with the audience—both among trained musicians and with people completely unfamiliar with 20th century classical music. Its ability to directly communicate and Muczynski’s facility at writing idiomatically for the instruments he selects in a way that enables the performer to make the most of expressive nuance are much of the reason for its success. As Walter Simmons put it on New Music Box:
Without ostentation, pretense, or much alteration of his basic style, Muczynski produced piece after piece of authentic musical expression, without hiding behind any of the compositional smokescreens to which so many composers resort. I am not referring only to the modernist smokescreens of technical complexity, originality, and pseudo-profound obfuscation; Muczynski also shunned empty virtuosity, grandiosity, overpowering emotionalism, opulent sonority, and eccentricity—the kinds of smokescreens to which more conservative composers fall victim in their weaker moments.
Muczynski’s music is often given the label of neo-Romanticism due to the centrality it puts on emotion and expressivity as well as its use of more traditional forms. I’m not so into this term because to me all the best music, no matter what the genre, is that which connects to you on an emotional level. Art music in the Western tradition of course has a more intellectual side, and it is at its best when it can combine experimentation with musical expression. The very use of the term neo-Romanticism to describe composers like Muczynski reflects the fact that to some extent 20th century classical music lost its soul (and not just with serialism and over-indulgent but substantively weak experimentation: minimalism is just as much at fault in this regard).
To his credit, Muczynski’s music is full of expressive capacity, and, while not the most brazenly experimental thing you’ve ever heard, is by no means conservative or traditional. It seems that it’s often overlooked by professional performers because it’s not experimental or virtuosic enough (though to be clear the technical demands are no cakewalk and interpretive ability is a skill of its own). As such, when Muczynski’s compositions are performed, it’s often at student recitals and contests. I mention this because there are a lot of second-rate youtube videos of his music, and while they all get an A for effort, it’s not the best representation of this first-rate composer.
A number of good recordings do exist of Muczynski’s works that make for an excellent introduction. Laurel released Muczynski’s own performances of his piano compositions. His cello sonata and several chamber works for clarinet, cello, and piano are given stirring renditions by Trio D’Echo. American Classics released the composer’s complete flute works poignantly rendered by Alexandra Hawley, and this disc also includes a fine performance of his Woodwind Quintet. These are just the recordings I’m personally familiar with, and I’m sure many others do a fine job at presenting his music. Speaking of introducing new audiences to his music, a year from now would be a good time to put together some strong performances of Robert Muczynski’s works. His compositions are certainly worthy of that kind of tribute, and concerts like that could contribute to showing that 20th century classical music can be communicative and audacious at the same time.
David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC.