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When Peter Maxwell Davies first mentioned that he was planning to write a large-scale piano piece for me, the work, as he then described it, bore no particular relation to the sonata tradition. The piece that eventually surfaced almost a decade later had undergone a fundamental transformation: not only was it possible to call it a sonata, but I don’t think the composer would have seriously considered any other title. And clearly the term denoted for him a conscious link with the classical piano sonata, and everything this implied about concentration of thought, tightness of structure and seriousness of utterance.
Maxwell Davies indicated as his principal stimulus the late Beethoven sonatas, in particular the penultimate one in A-flat major, opus 110. Anyone familiar with that work will readily perceive its operation ‘inside’ the new sonata: the short, quiet introduction, which serves as a concentrated nugget of musical material from which the whole work grows; the reiterated low B-naturals at the end of the fifth movement, a direct reference to the repeated chords at an equally crucial structural point in Beethoven’s finale; and the dissolution of strict three-part counterpoint into a whirl of pianistic figuration at the sonata’s climax, consciously modelled on the Beethoven, where a three-voice fugue dissolves into pure melody and accompaniment.
But there is one aspect of the work it is difficult to reconcile with its otherwise demonstrable sonata ancestry. In the last Beethoven sonatas, the number of movements decreases from four to two. In the last quartets, however, the movements increase from four to seven. In this regard, the seven-movement Maxwell Davies sonata reminds us most strikingly not of a Beethoven sonata but of a quartet – the one in C-sharp minor, opus 131. And this is no accident: the last Beethoven quartets are written against a background of the baroque suite and the classical serenade, which serve as an important second principle in the new sonata.
The serenade in particular often exhibits a symmetrical grouping of movements around the centre, and this occurs explicitly in the Maxwell Davies. At the work’s core, lies a tripartite Cantabile con moto of intermezzo character. Grouped around this are a pair of slow passacaglias, then a pair of very fast scherzi (complete with trios and varied da capos) and finally, a pair of large-scale sonata-structures. The outermost shell of the symmetry is provided by the introduction to the first movement and the epilogue to the last, which recaptures, without literal restatement, the rapt calm of the work’s opening.
It is the deceptively simple Cantabile con moto, in itself the least sonata-like movement of the seven, that ensures the work’s deeper existence as a sonata despite its surface life as a suite/serenade. During the first three movements the suite and sonata principles act in tandem. From the fourth movement, they diverge, creating between them a meaningful conflicting duplex form which gives the work its third dimension.
At this point the suite turns back on itself to complete the concentric symmetry outlined above. But Maxwell Davies has too much musical conscience to rely solely on such a scheme. His awareness of the limitations of palindromic construction leads him to seek other, equally powerful motivations which will propel his sonata forwards just where his suite begins to go backwards.
The first of these is found within the simple tripartite nature of the central movement, which allows the composer to cloud the music gradually over, like a photographer using progressively darker filters. The result is that the Grave fifth movement arrives at the culmination of a dynamic process, which is why it is necessary to play it attacca.
We now perceive that the fourth movement, though central by virtue of its position, has needed to fulfil itself in the fifth, which exhibits all the solidity and stability that a structural centre must possess. As a result, we experience the palpable sensation that the work’s centrepost has been pushed to the right, and that its second half has been compressed by one movement.
But the movement effects a further compression. The fifth movement is also concerned with a dynamic process – the conflict of the work’s tonal dominant, C, with its modal one, B. When this conflict, clearly enunciated at the outset of the Grave, finally resolves in favour of B at the movement’s end, we feel even more strongly that we have only now reached the crucial fold in the structure.
In short, by implanting a series of tensions which impel the music constantly forward, the composer creates the illusion that the sonata arrives over the brow of the hill two movements later than the suite. This means that the sonata has correspondingly less time to make for home, which provides the motivating energy for its two final movements. This subtle yet absolutely audible exercise in duplex form can be encapsulated for the listener in a single graphic image: that of an aeroplane making its gradual descent, while below, a train speeds towards the point of landing.
With so much emphasis on thought and structure implied by the word ‘sonata’, it would be easy to overlook the presence of the word ‘piano’ in the work’s title. But although the sonata lasts more than half an hour, and makes the strongest demands of concentration on both performer and listener, it is directly and powerfully conceived for the instrument, and its sheer physical relish of the piano is matched by the composer’s exuberant references to keyboard literature. These range from the ‘black’ passacaglia of the fifth movement, which looks virtually like an Elizabethan ground out of the pages of Musica Britannica, to ‘quotations’ in the very next movement of two Debussy preludes, Feux d’artifice and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest.
I commissioned the work with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain, and gave its first performance, at the Bath Festival, on May 23, 1981. The sonata is inscribed ‘for Stephen Pruslin to play and to the memory of Charles Senior’. Charles Senior was a poet, runic scholar, and keeper of the bookshop in Stromness, Orkney, where his tough northern intellect sparked off many a bracing discussion. The sonata is prefaced by some lines from his Elegy:
The cries of gulls
curling in shoalward whirlwinds
around the surging firth,
are muted by croak of raven
and bleat of lamb
from silence to silence.