Oswald Russell to the left, beside him his brother Neville. His mother Ivy and father James Russell in the middle; and his sister Marion Russell to the right.
Young Oswald on the piano (1960)
Danielle and Oswald at Devon House with Ice cream (1997)
Danielle and Oswald (1971)
The portrait of young Oswald (1960)
Alexandra and Oswald
Paraphrased and edited by Paul Shaw with permission from Danielle Russell, author of the original French and English translation
Oswald (Ossie) Russell, christened Selbourne Oswald Alfred Russell, was born in Kingston, Jamaica on August 16th, 1933. His mother, Winifred Russell, was a respected teacher, engaged in shaping the minds of Jamaica’s future. His father, James (Jim) Russell, was Registrar of Births and Deaths in the parish of Kingston & St. Andrew, literally recording the comings and goings of society in the then British Crown Colony’s capital.
Oswald Russell’s path to a distinguished international career in music began with piano improvisation at age three. His mother immediately sent him to noted Kingston music teacher Ena Helps with whom he studied piano and keyboard harmony. He attended high school at St. George’s College concurrently, successfully completing British overseas examinations in academics and music administered by the University of Cambridge and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, respectively. By 1951, he had earned a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music (LRSM), and had served as pianist for a high school production of Robin Hood in which his classmate, Lawrence Burke (later Archbishop of Kingston), played the title role.
Beginning his overseas studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England in 1951, Oswald Russell worked with pianist Eric Grant – a musical descendant of Tobias Matthay, and composer Lennox Berkeley – a disciple of Nadia Boulanger and close friend of Benjamin Britten, winning the Walter Cecil MacFarren Gold Medal for pianoforte playing and the Worshipful Company of Musicians Medal upon graduation in 1956.
Oswald Russell’s pursuits then led him to Paris where he not only acquired French as his second language, but studied for two years with Jacques Février – celebrated exponent of the music of Maurice Ravel. In 1959, Russell enrolled at The Juilliard School in New York City on full scholarship. For three years, he worked with Edward Steuermann, noted Arnold Schoenberg disciple and champion, garnering yet another award – the prestigious Harriet Cohen International Music Award.
Decorated with accolades and equipped with the finest Western European music education, Ossie Russell returned to his beloved Jamaica in 1962 to teach at the Jamaica School of Music and direct the Holy Trinity Cathedral Boys’ Choir. It is no accident that the pianist, composer, teacher and conductor was to become a trailblazer in the quest for a Jamaican musical idiom in the newly independent nation.
At age 19, Ossie had already composed the music for the Ivy Baxter Dance Group’s performances of Fishing by Night at the five-day Military Tattoo celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II from June 2-6, 1953. An audience of nine thousand showed up for the dress rehearsal alone, and it is estimated that fifteen thousand Jamaicans were in attendance each night at the official event. So it was inevitable that, in 1962, he was commissioned by Rex Nettleford, co-Founder and Artistic Director of the nascent National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC) to compose the music for two seminal choreographic works, Legend of Lovers’ Leap and A Time to Rejoice. Again in 1963, he was engaged to compose the music for Games of Arms.
Blessed with a musical talent unfettered by geographical and cultural bounds, Oswald relocated to Switzerland in 1964 to live with his aunt, Marion Russell, who was then posted at the Jamaican High Commission (Embassy) in Geneva. He wasted no time in enrolling at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève to study with pianist Louis Hiltbrand and composer André-François Marescotti. He was awarded the Premier Prix de Virtuosité avec distinction in 1965.
A dazzling flurry of artistic achievement marked the next five years: a solo appearance with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva performing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor in 1965; a piano recital debut in London at Wigmore Hall, also in 1965; first prize in both classical and jazz categories at the First International Improvisation Competition in Lyon, France in 1967; second prize at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Mozart Piano Competition in 1968; a subsequent tour of Africa as soloist with the Collegium Academicum de Genève Orchestra playing the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major that would launch a concert career on the stages of Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Yugoslavia, Italy, Spain, the Republic of Zaïre, Canada, Russia, and the USA, both as soloist and in chamber music ensembles.
In the field of composition during this five-year period, Oswald Russell wrote the music for producer Daniel Farhi’s Les Vieilles Lunes, receiving Honorable Mention for his film score at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. He composed his most well-known and performed pieces for piano solo, Jamaican Dances, in 1970; and completed a ballet score for D’Alpha en Alpha (1970), commissioned by the historic Institut Jaques-Dalcrozede Genève.
In 1971, Oswald Russell met the 26 year-old Danielle, a native of Geneva, who would become his partner and confidante for the next 41 years. They were united in marriage on October 30th, 1971 by their Pastor, the Reverend Dr. Philip Potter, Secretary General of the World Council of Churches.
Ossie and Danielle immediately immersed themselves in family life as well as the cultural life of Geneva. Six years later, after four miscarriages, they were blessed with their only child, ‘Sunshine’ and Ossie’s ‘Best Sonata’ – Alexandra Caroline Odile Russell – on January 3rd, 1978.
In a most touching hommage, Danielle describes her Ossie as an irreproachable husband and a more than attentive father. She continues,
Profoundly religious, he is constantly preoccupied with the well-being of others, and that of his little family in particular.
Thanks to his legendary kindness, his uncommon modesty, his innate sense of moral values, Oswald Russell inspires general admiration. He has an impressive social network in the musical and cultural world as well as in the
diplomatic world where his family has moved for several generations, and
he wants his wife and his daughter to be integrated in it. He also regularly
invites them both to restaurants, to art exhibitions; he takes them to the
Opera, showers them with gifts, organizes trips abroad.
They are the center of his life.
Both at home and in the public sphere, Oswald Russell demonstrated exemplary citizenship, balancing devotion to his family with a life-long dedication to music and to humanity. Participating with Danielle in the nurturing of their daughter, Alexandra, she would grow up to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Geneva, defending her thesis on the emotional reactions of infants to music; and she would land a position as principal violist of the Orchestre Symphonique Genevois. Alexandra would then go on, to pursue post-graduate studies in International Human Rights at the University of London; and eventually, to record her father’s Rhapsody for Viola and Organ (1988) on the compact disc entitled Russell par Russell.
Oswald, in the meantime, not only substituted for his piano professor, Louis Hiltbrand, on occasion, but created and instituted ground-breaking courses in Keyboard Harmony and Piano Improvisation at the Conservatoire de musique de Genève for classical musicians and future professional music teachers. In addition to the pianistic virtuosity displayed in his numerous concert tours with family by his side, he became a highly respected professor and international adjudicator, appreciated for his exceptional pedagogical competence at the Conservatoire de musique de Genève and the Institut Jaques-Dalcrozede Genève.
Among Oswald Russell’s commissions in the seventies and eighties, were Cantique – “Si haut dressés que soient nos murs” (1974), written for the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches; five orchestral works created specifically for Marcelle Moynier’s Puppet Theatre of Geneva – L’Etrange Pays d’Oz (1974), Pamplemousse le Tigre (1978), Trente Bougies (1980), L’Etoile de Paille (1982), Poucette (1986); and Caraïbes (1989), a piece for Wind orchestra ordered by the City of Geneva for L’Harmonie Nautique.
Ossie’s life was soon hanging by a thread. In her first book, Le Loup Blanc (The White Wolf), author Danielle Russell writes that as early as 1982 – a dark year for their family, Oswald Russell had to undergo five successive surgeries, including two cranial trepanations, due to a medical error. If it were not for her unwavering support and efforts to preserve him from all kinds of stress, he might not have survived “several dramatic interruptions in his professional life.”
Oswald Russell wrote his last work in 2009, a Fantasy for English Horn and Organ. He died in Geneva on July 2nd, 2012 from an aortic dissection at the age of seventy-eight. He is resting at the Cimetière de Saint-Georges in Geneva, Switzerland in hopes of the Resurrection in which he firmly believed.
A critical essay by Paul Shaw
For all those who did not experience Oswald Russell in the flesh, there are recordings, and the live recording is the most transparent, allowing an unfiltered glimpse into the performer’s soul.
In Robert Schumann’s Piano Sonata in G minor Op. 22, recorded live on October 20th, 1998 at a concert performed in the Grande Salledu Conservatoire de musique de Genève, Russell, with a certain narrative honesty, integrates the utterances of Schumann’s alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius, into the classical framework, proving that Robert was not as inept at mastering classical forms as his wife Clara might have complained. More remarkable as the four-movement work unfolds, is the slow urgency with which Russell traverses the score, giving the listener a clear vision of the innige motions of the restless Schumann, all contained by the all-wise Raro.
The second movement in Oswald Russell’s hands is part prayer to God, part pleading with humankind. The Scherzo plays, but with the heaviness of life’s pain; and the coda of the last movement makes a wild dash for the final exit. G minor, after all, is the key of uneasiness and discontent.
The typical pianist reaches for the crazy and wild Schumann, but Russell, with acute sensitivity to voice-leading and harmonic coloration, seizes on the gravity of the moment, constantly searching for the true self. This is Schumann Romanticism and keyboard virtuosity at its best: histrionics, no; life-force, yes.
From keyboard virtuosity to the original score, Oswald Russell maintained his artistic integrity. An overview of his works shows a distinct emphasis on theatrical musical essays written for larger forces, no doubt dictated by the important commissions that he received for auspicious events throughout his career. However, it is on the smallest canvas that his compositional genius reveals its true magnitude.
Jamaican Dances, composed in 1970 and originally published as Jamaican Dance by the Swiss company Éditions Henn in 1976, consists of three short vignettes for piano solo that take a total of approximately five-and-a-half minutes to play. Nevertheless, these dances embody the direct simplicity of indigenous folk-song melodies clothed in the sophistication of European craftsmanship. From a cultural and sociological perspective, the work leads the way in resolving the dilemma of the Caribbean voice “educated” to speak with a European accent – a dance that every Jamaican must master.
In the syncopated ostinatos, tri-partite choral lines, mischievous dissonances, clever tonal modulations, and of course, the melodic and textual subject matter, Russell remains true to his Jamaican heritage. These pieces are the musical equivalent of Anancy stories. (Anancy, or Anansi, is a central character in West African and Caribbean folklore originating with the Ashanti people of Ghana.) At the same time, they are character pieces in the Romantic piano tradition, depicting Jamaican instead of German characters.
Trumping all that could be said about the symbolism behind Jamaican Dances is the pure artistry of Maestro Russell, or perhaps more appropriately, Doctor Russell. Dominique-René de Lerma comments on the printed score’s cover thus:
"The cover, by the way, contains an illustration of the Long-tailed Bird of
Paradise, which might be an illusion[sic] to a statement made by a critic to
the effect that Russell is "a bird of the Caribbean isles, made in England."
In fact, the bird, described in error, is the National Bird of Jamaica — an iridescent variety of hummingbird known in Jamaica as the ‘Doctor Bird’. When one listens to the haunting and deeply affecting hum of Jamaican Dance No. 2 especially, one is more inclined to regard Russell as “a Doctor Bird of the Caribbean isles, made in Heaven.”
The world is very fortunate to have known this beautiful and talented person made in Heaven named Selbourne Oswald Alfred Russell. Thankfully, it is also possible for succeeding generations to soar, as his initials remind us, by studying and interpreting, in the legacy that remains, the inspired life that he led.
The world needs more gentillesse.
LIST OF WORKS
PUBLISHED COMPOSITIONS (ÉDITIONS HENN GENÉVE)
Three Jamaican Dances (1970)
Humoresque N° 1 for piano (1983)
Elegy for violoncello solo (1984)
[In memory of James Russell, dedicated to P.Mermoud]
The Beachcomber for flute solo (1984)
ADDITIONAL CLASSICAL MUSIC
Rhapsody for Viola and Organ (1988)
Caraïbes (1989) [Commissioned by the City of Geneva for l’Harmonie Nautique]
Fantasy for English horn and Organ (2009)
Les vieilles Lunes, produced by Daniel Farhi (1969)
[Created for the Théâtre des Marionnettes de Genève]
L’étrange Pays d’Oz (1974)
Pamplemousse, le Tigre (1978)
Trente Bougies (1980)
L’Etoile de Paille (1982)
MUSIC FOR DANCE
Fishing by Night (1952) [Commissioned by the Ivy Baxter Dance Group]
Legend of Lovers’ Leap (1962) [Commissioned by the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, NDTC]
A Time to Rejoice (1962) [Commissioned by the NDTC]
Games of Arms (1963) [Commissioned by the NDTC]
D’Alpha en Alpha (1970) [Commissioned by l’Institut Jaques-Dalcroze de Genève]
Cantique (1974), based on a poem by John S. Mbiti; French translation by Etienne de Peyer (1975); German translation by Michael de Vries (1975) [Composed on the occasion of the 5th Assembly of the World Council of Churches; published in the RISK collection, Editor: WCC Publications Office, Geneva]
Abba Father (1981) [Celebration Hymnal Vol. 2 - Mayhew – McCrimmond Limited, England; Edited by Robert B. Kelly]
LES VIEILLES LUNES
Music by Oswald RUSSELL
Film by Daniel FARHI (Les Films de l’Aube)
Orchestral Conductor: Daniele PATUCCHI – Production G. Giacchi
(AM-SAG 9016, CA.DI., Campi Distributione, Via Virglio 8, 00192 Roma)
Gaspard de la Nuit (Maurice Ravel)
(AVE 30701 Stereo/Mono Audio Visual Enterprises)
Concerto for two pianos and orchestra in E-flat Major K. 365
Concerto for three pianos and orchestra in F Major K. 242
Denise DUPORT – Muriel SLATKINE - Oswald RUSSELL, piano
Collegium Academicum de Genève – Dir. Robert DUNAND
(Guilde Internationale du Disque – Concert Hall - SMS 2742)
MUSIC FOR PERCUSSION
Sumire YOSHIHARA, percussion
Sébastien RISLER and Oswald RUSSELL, piano
Thomas FRIEDLI, clarinet
(Guilde Internationale du Disque – Concert Hall - SMS 2854)
Music by Oswald RUSSELL
Commissioned by the City of Geneva for l’Harmonie Nautique (1989)
RUSSELL PAR RUSSELL
Works by Oswald RUSSELL for piano, organ and viola interpreted by Oswald and Alexandra RUSSELL (viola)
OSWALD RUSSELL IN CONCERT (Double CD)
Concert recorded live in la Grande Salle du Conservatoire de musique de Genève (October 20th1998)
Interview of Oswald RUSSELL with Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in E Major (TSR, Carrefour, 19.10.1965, 6’45’’)
Devine qui vient ce soir (TSR, 15 broadcasts from 18.12.1976 to 2.1.1977, with each airing a different piece interpreted by Oswald RUSSELL)
Solitude et joie du créateur (TSR, Vespérales, 13.4.1980, 8’40’’)
Table d’Hôte (TSR 23.12.1980)
Blue Monday Blues (TSI février 1981: Oswald RUSSELL plays Gershwin)
Moments volés à Michel Soutter (TSR Champs Magnétiques, 15.10.1985: Oswald RUSSELL plays Schubert)
An Evening of Music, on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Conservatoire de Genève, Oswald RUSSELL et Henri CHAIX play “4th Avenue, Their hearts were full of Spring” (TSR, 5.10.1985)
Viens voir la musique (TSR, Téléscope, 30.12.1987, Oswald RUSSELL presents his instrument)
About Oswald Russell
LE LOUP BLANC [Perret-Gentil, Genève 1987]
Hommage à OSWALD RUSSELL: Un ocean d’amour a l’occasion de son 6oe anniversaire [Éditions Danielle Russell, Genève 1993]
AU NOM DE L’AMER [Éditions Danielle Russell, Genève 1989]
LA REALITE DES FAITS QUE L’AUTORITE IGNORE [Éditions La Clef des Champs, Genève]