Piano Sonata ('Choral') (2008)

for solo piano

  1. Agitated
  2. Strepitoso
  3. Misterioso
  4. Flowing
Dedicated to Daan Vandewalle
Commissioned by SAMRO Endowment for the National Arts
Bardic Edition Score BDE 1024
Duration: 30'00"

Première

First performance: Sunday 20 July 2008; Belgium; Daan Vandewalle pianoperformance details.

Programme note

Two circumstances led to the composition of my first piano sonata. The more recent one was a request from Daan Vandewalle (who I first met in 2005 in Bratislava) to compose a virtuoso piano sonata for him of about 15 minutes duration. He had given me his remarkable CD recording of the Ives Concord Sonata and so I needed little convincing; I knew at once that this would be a long-awaited opportunity to pay homage to the Ives, a piece I first got to know more than thirty years ago.

The other circumstance went back further, to a lecture-recital I gave in Buenos Aires in 2001 (around 9/11). I wanted to present a programme of South African piano music spanning both the length of the country and the depth of the 20th century, but inevitably ran into problems seeking out repertoire by so-called black composers. That's when I hit on the idea of making some transcriptions of choral pieces for piano solo, specifically pieces by Michael Moerane ("Ruri") and Reuben Caluza ("Umantindane").

I always intended to make further transcriptions, and I remembered this when I was thinking about writing a piano sonata for Daan Vandewalle. Eventually I decided on a 'double' homage (two for the price of one): pianistically to the Concord, materially to the choral composers, and conceptually to both. I consider the Ives work to be one of the pillars, if not the pillar, of the 20th century piano repertoire. It continues to inspire composers, challenge performers and affect listeners.

I tried to forge a parallel between the monumentalism of the Ives work and the enormous breadth of the so-called African choral tradition and the composers themselves, especially those composers who lived and worked in the earlier 20th century. These were the pillars of the Southern African choral tradition, our Palestrinas, Lassos, Tallis's and Byrds.

Like Ives I wanted to have a four-movement structure, but ended up with three: two substantial outer movements, and a very short central movement, all quite unrelenting. The first movement pays homage to Michael Moerane and quotes his song Ruri ("Truly") somewhat obliquely, the second to Reuben Caluza, quoting distorted fragments of his ragtime song Umantindane ("Tokoloshe"), while the last is a homage - in his centenary year - to Joshua Mohapeloa and takes his song Senqu ("Orange River") as a theme for variation.

The first movement is permeated throughout by variants of the figure - a pair of chords - with which it opens, rhythmically varied and extended over the course of the movement, but with the pitches more or less unchanged. This material is intercut with passages of high or low bell sounds, a lyrical melody with a very jittery accompaniment, and so on. Both Moerane's Ruri and fragments of Ives's Concord Sonata are quoted and/or paraphrased.

The second movement takes two elements from Ives's Concord - extensive use of clusters and the quasi-'deconstruction' of ragtime - and applies these to Caluza's piece. The reminiscence of Nancarrow's set of so-called 'boogie-woogie' etudes for player piano (No 3) is deliberate, and the quotation here even extends to the first piece I wrote for Daan Vandewalle in 2004. Their souls go waltzing on paid homage to both Ives ("Three Page Sonata") and Schoenberg ("Five Piano Pieces Op 23"), a specific request from the 2004 edition of 'Evenings of New Music' in Bratislava - involving some 40 composers.

As far as we know Caluza and Ives never met, and I don't know if Caluza ever heard anything by Ives while he was studying in America at Hampton University, but I like to think of this movement as something of an imaginary exchange (or perhaps a collision) between the two men.

In 2009 I returned to the idea of a four-movement structure. There seemed to be a need for a slow, more reflective movement after the frenetic second and before the mammoth final movement. It was also an opportunity to reflect on the hymns of the Xhosa prophet Ntsikana and the works by Benjamin Tyamzashe and others that they inspired.

The last movement follows a very particular scenario, which grew out of two interesting circumstances. The first was becoming acquainted with Senqu, a piece of Mohapeloa's that I did not know. Particularly unusual was the rarely used 9/8 metre - rarely used in Southern African choral music that is. The second was a visit to his sparsely furnished, and sadly crumbling, former home in Morija. One of the few remaining items on his bookshelf was a vocal score of Lucia di Lammermoor. With Kagelian fervour I pressed these circumstances into service and contemplated the possibility that Mohapeloa might have attended opera performances during his period of study with Percival Kirby in Johannesburg during the late 1930s and early 1940s, with the possible result that he may well have become the great Southern African opera composer we have never had.

Senqu and other choral compositions by Mohapeloa intimate the possibilities of an operatic language and so in my third movement I used fragments of Senqu as scene-setting, and then having presented the theme, I composed an operatic fantasy on that theme. I worked backwards from the 21st to the 19th century, culminating in a paraphrase on Liszt's Reminiscences of Lucia di Lammermoor, with the accompaniment closely modelled on Liszt's.

At two structural points in the music I used, as a connective tissue, two further pieces of material - both with riverine connotations: Ives's setting of At the River and Rzewski's Ives-inspired Down by the Riverside (one of his "Four North American Ballads") based on the popular song of the same name. As a final tour-de-force I combined the theme of Senqu with the melody of At the River in a kind of Lisztian apotheosis, and left Liszt (the world of the late piano pieces now) and Busoni (his "Sonatina No 6: Fantasy on Carmen") to pose the final questions in the coda.

The Choral Sonata was commissioned by SAMRO Endowment for the National Arts for Daan Vandewalle to whom it is dedicated. He gave the first performance on 20 July 2008 at the Gentse Feesten in Belgium.