top of page

R O G E R ' S  M U S I C A L  S T Y L E 

Roger’s musical style is a testament to the fascinating and changing musical atmosphere of which he was a part. His teacher Karl Weigl, a notable lieder composer in the tradition of Wolf and Mahler, confirmed Roger’s natural leanings towards lyricism, and from his other teacher, Schoenberg, he acquired a sense of formal construction and the ability to create complex motivic connections and dense polyphony. Whilst Roger could not be called a Modernist, and his style is indicative of Schoenberg’s more Romantic early works, he nevertheless shared the Modernist’s fascination with the past. As such, his works are often based on traditional or archaic forms enlivened by new combinations and adventurous harmony.


Many of these characteristics are found in Roger’s Clarinet Quintet, his last work, written shortly before his death in 1966. The general atmosphere is dark, poignant and nostalgic, though the modally inflected harmonies hint at a quasi-pastoral nature.  In many similarly scored pieces the wind instrument takes on a soloistic role, but here, as in the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, it is fully integrated into the ensemble. Moreover, the clarinet’s characteristic sonorous qualities make it especially suited to such integration; in its low register it blends with the rich colours of the viola and cello, and in the high register, matches the soaring melodies of the violins.


Integration is also fundamental to the motivic design, and the Clarinet Quintet demonstrates Roger’s mature mastery of thematic unity. It is a motivically dense work, though no less emotionally moving for its complexity. Within each movement the motives are combined in an ornate web of polyphony, but they also have movement-spanning connections: the martial-like theme first heard in the cello at the opening of the first movement, returns in an altered form in the second movement, though here its nature is subdued by the slow tempo and legato counter-melody. This same counter-melody, with its characteristic falling seventh ending, finds its way into the Finale, as do hints of the martial theme.  


Similarly rich in motivic associations is Roger’s Piano Sonata, written in New York in 1943. As with many of his works, the Sonata evokes a variety of old and the new styles, using Baroque, Romantic and Modern elements in inventive combination. The first movement lives up to its anachronistic ‘Toccata’ title in its display of manual dexterity, but the style is more lyrical than a traditional Toccata. The chief motivic element of the movement is the semitone interval: first heard in the listless opening theme, the rocking semitone figure gradually expands to a tone, then to staccato scales, before flowering into extended lyrical passages in an intense duet between the two hands. At a deeper level, the large scale ternary form also explores the semitonal relationship between F sharp minor and F minor. 


In the Interlude gently undulating chords, evocative of the first movement’s rocking semitone, are juxtaposed with a deep, ominous bass figure. This colouristic effect, reminiscent of Debussy, gradually gives way to a section in which the bass and treble become more integrated. The Impressionistic atmosphere returns at the end, but here the firmly rooted tonality of A flat major gives a greater sense of tangibility.


A similarly portentous bass to that of the Interlude opens the Sonata’s final ‘Phantasmagoria’ movement. The Phantasmagoric style, generally defined as a medley of shifting fantastical images, is evidenced in the striking contrast between the movement’s Agitato and Tranquillo sections, which are in turn linked by material based on the semitone.


Roger was a man who felt emotions intensely; he was deeply moved by any instance of human suffering, but at the same time he lived for life’s more jovial moments. Highly varied in mood and style, the three movements of the Piano Trio, written in 1953, encompass an equally wide emotional range. The music shares an affinity with the Classical forms of the great Viennese masters but is nonetheless innovative with its free harmony and adventurous contrapuntal development.


Such counterpoint forms an important part of the first movement’s construction: it is used at the opening where the lively E flat major theme is presented canonically through the three parts, but it is also serves as a means of developmental intensification. The counterpoint at times lends an academic air, but this is dispelled in the tender second movement where a plaintive, quasi-improvisatory melody is taken up by each instrument in turn. The melody’s wide intervals allow a particularly beautiful means of exploring the tone colours of each instrument.


The final movement bursts onto the scene with a flurry of piano arpeggios moving across the instrument’s range. The main theme is a cheeky, rustic melody in which F sharps jokingly interrupt the E flat major tonality. A series of light-hearted, developmental adventures ensues, but finally E flat major establishes itself more firmly and the movement merrily romps to a close.   


Where the Piano Trio displays Roger’s Classical Viennese roots, the Variations on an Irish Air, composed in New York in 1948, bear witness in a nostalgic sense to his visit to Ireland in 1939 where he met his future wife while awaiting passage to the USA.  This ancient Air is commonly known as Down by the Salley Gardens because of W.B.Yeats’ inspired poem. The Trio opens with a haunting flute solo before the theme itself is introduced and explored in a set of twelve variations ranging from quiet introspection to virtuosic brilliance. The mastery of such a wide stylistic scope is noteworthy and there is immense beauty in the delicate interweaving of the instruments.  Finally the ethereal voice of the solo flute returns and gradually fades away, bringing the work to a close.


This impressive variety in his treatment of thematic material is one of the many qualities which make Roger’s music so interesting. His works are both traditional and forward looking; reflecting an affinity with the composers he most revered and yet retaining a strong sense of originality. At a time when many composers were asserting their ‘newness’ above all else, Roger’s was a compositional voice that remained true to his own aesthetic calling.    

©Sonia Stevenson

The Musikverien in Vienna

The Musikverien in Vienna

Kurt Roger and his wife Joy

bottom of page