Sonata No. 2 (2001)
Piano Sonata No. 2 (2001)
Dedicated to Robert Levin, Commissioned by G. Schirmer-Associated Music
My Piano Sonata No. 2 was completed at Civitella Ranieri, near Perugia, in May 2001. It was long in the works.
In 1994 I made a handwritten contract with Robert Levin, promising delivery of a sonata in 1995, at which point he would pay me $1. Much intervened, and the actual time of composition, around the first performances of my opera The Great Gatsby, was a turbulent period. New work for hire being scarce, I was able to work on various volunteer enterprises- a song cycle (North and South), a set of solo viola pieces, and most intently, this sonata.
It was a source of joy and confidence when Susan Feder, Vice President of G. Schirmer, proposed that my publisher become the commissioner of the Sonata. The piece then became a talisman of two essential, long-lasting friendships; with its first performer and its commissioner(s).
In January 2001 I sent off a copy of the sonata with an odd feeling that something about the piece was missing. But such a feeling is not so unusual, and I went off to Civitella Ranieri intending to work on my Fourth String Quartet. During very late nights I began to hear what the Sonata was missing- no less the heart, the mysterious center of the piece. The final variation movement does not "resolve" the sonata, but it opens it up by taking it inward.
[My last day at Civitella Ranieri I remarked to a friend there how wonderful the all-hours privacy of the old granary was, my perfect dream of working unheard. "Are you kidding," she said, humming a fragment from the Variations, "for days every time we went by we heard that bit!"]
I think of the Sonata as a not-always open letter to its first performer. For some years I have been interested in integrating my choral vocabulary--close points of imitation, canon, word-painting--into an instrumental setting emphasizing a long line with very few sectional divisions. I though this fusion would interest Bob Levin, who is always acutely aware of every structural nuance from the most fleeting sonority to the most far-flung allusion and connection. Since Levin is also a phenomenal improviser I wanted even the fanciest details to sound quasi-improvised, so that his cliff-hanging, risk-friendly performance style could flourish.
This piece includes immediate, rhetorical, explicit music with more reticent, conflicted music, and its character derives from the tension between them.
In entrusting it to a dear friend and musician of incomparable gifts I had a singular sense of its being complete even before it is heard.
-- John Harbison