Choral Compositions of Slavko Osterc

  • Tomaž Šegula


The choral opus of Slavko Osterc (1895–1941), one of the most important Slovene composers between the two wars, comprises 35 works in different settings »a capella« (15 four to eight-voice mixed choruses, 6 four-voice male choruses, 11 three-voice youth choruses, and 3 four-voice female choruses). To these can be added 2 compositions for mixed choir with the accompaniment of a string trio, a two-voice song with piano accompaniment and two sacred vocal-instrumental works, where the vocal part has the dominant role. As some more extensive works represent a whole cyclus, the number of individual choral compositions actually exeeds the number quoted. Concerning its extent and artistic quality, the choral opus takes an prominent place among the composer's 170 works. In the choice of texts, Osterc primarily restricted himself to poems by Slovene authors, especially to those with progressive social object matter, but he also made use of narrative fables by Ivan A. Krylov in Slovene translation. A considerable number of texts were taken from the folk songs of Bela Krajina (the south-eastern region of Slovenia), which are distinguished by lively and humorous contents, by a rich dialectic idiom and by a very varied accentuation. With the exception of one composition, which was commisioned, Osterc never made use in his choral works of quotation of folk tunes. He acknowledged their artistic value but was, in principle, against their application as the dominant idea in a composer's work. With regard to the form, we observe a development from a predominantly three-part song form at the beginning to a durchkomponiert form. Occasionally a free rondo form is also applied and in some works the composer even comes near to the classical principle of the fugue. The basis of the melodic construction is rhythm. This rhythm emanates from the metre of the text and even refines it further, which entails a constant change of time. The melody grows from the contents, accentuation and syllabication of the text. Syllabic progressions in seconds prevail, sometimes, if dictated by the expression, also enlivened by larger intervals. The composer uses equally all tones of the semitone scale, but without avoiding the repetition of the same tone nor rejecting the of a major, minor or chromatic scale. We often encounter recitatives or the application of the so-called »Sprechstimme«. Athematic construction is frequent but it is not the only principle of the development of the melodic texture. Throughout the composer's work sequence plays an important role and to some extent so does ostinato. The composer often uses glissando and also employs melismas to underline the meaning of individual words. The expression is intensified with varied dynamics, marked in detail, whereas the number of agogic signs are fewer. Concerning the vertical structure in Osterc's choral works, we observe the transition from an enriched tonality in his early works to later atonality with predominating dissonant structures. In a dominant position is the linear principle of the organisation of the sound mass which prevails over the vertical structure, the latter being rather the consequence of the former. In his theoretical work »Chromaticism and modulation« (1941) Osterc himself says that it is not so important which tones compose a chord but rather the question of their progression. In polyphonic sections imitation plays an eminent role, from a strict imitation, including different kinds of canons, to different possible varieties of a very free one. The predominant linearity occasionally entails bitonality and polytonality which are a kind of middle product of atonal construction. The neighbouring voices are often combined in parallel perfect fifths, fourths or major seconds. Different kinds of chords appear in the vertical structure: chords constructed by thirds i. e. triads, chords of sevenths etc. and their inversions, chords by fourths and chords by seconds and in addition to these many indefinable chordal structures resulting from the linear conception of the composition. Dissonant tones are nearly always added to the chords by thirds. These tones appear in relation to the chordal tones of the neighbouring parts chiefly in an interval of a major second. At the end of the phrases there occasionally occur chordal progressions with the character of an authentic cadence. In the structure a constant or moving tonal centre can often be found. Just as the development of Osterc up to the middle of the thirties led to a saturation of the sound mass, which at the same time by condensing also widened and covered an ever larger space in a vertical direction, so in the last years of his work his concentration of expression was reorientated into a single melodic line. The multivocal structure becomes ever more subordinated to the melodic diction of the leading voice. The polyphonic construction falls rather into the background, nevertheless this new way is difficult to define as homophony. The concentration of the sound goes so far as to give the feeling of a monophonic development of the musical flow at multivocal points. In this way monophony acquires a completely new dimension: the melodic line does not only ascend and descend or remain at the same level, but by means of this new treatment of multivocal sound, which is so subordinated to the melodic line that it becomes, so to say a part of it, it expands and contracts. This line sometimes effervesces to an eight-voiced sound only later to subside to a single tone. Even more: it can also be reduced to a rest, which is sometimes in its expression still far stronger than a dissonant chordal structure, however full this my be.


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How to Cite
ŠegulaT. (1970). Choral Compositions of Slavko Osterc. Musicological Annual, 6(1), 54-74.