Sonata for cello, piano, seven wind instruments and percussion (1978-9)

The Sonata was commissioned by the BBC for the Nash Ensemble of London who gave the first peformance on BBC Radio 3 in August 1980. The cello soloist was Christopher van Kampen, whose playing I have always greatly admired. The Sonata was written almost entirely in the United States during the twelve months (1978-9) I spent there on a US/UK Bicentennial Arts Fellowship. The two-movement structure of the piece reflects the fact that the work was written part in California and part in New York City. But the music is not literally descriptive of those antithetical environments and the basis of both movements was in any case all written in California.

The whole work is held together not only by the primacy of the cello (the cello cadenza at the end of the first movement either weaves together seamlessly thematic threads from the two surrounding movements of the work or abruptly flashes backwards and forwards between them) but by the references made to certain aspects of jazz and popular music.

The first movement is a set of harmonic variations on the opening slow piano melody. This is a jazz form, with the soloists commenting in constantly evolving ways on a fixed set of harmonic changes. The Duke Ellington ‘chamber music’ combination of piano and a few wind instruments is relevant here; and in one variation (where the solos are shared by cello, bass-clarinet and tuba) a figuration from the Duke’s piano part to Mood Indigo momentarily breaks the surface.

Just before the climax of the first movement, the eight chords on which the second movement is based are heard in the bas register of the piano and wind instruments. When these harmonies reappear, after the cello cadenza, they are massively expanded, functioning as the whole structure of the second movement. The eight chords are in fact four cadences, four resolutions of the same dissonant chord in four different consonant directions. The dissonant chord is quite a complex one consisiting of ten notes and is related to a magnificent ‘apocalyptic’ chord in the first movement of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

The Sonata, after a violent section featuring the percusssion finally resolves itself on to a D-minor-seventh chord-section which I call Disco-Coda, for obvious reasons. (The coda is in fact not a little influenced by Donna Summer’s ‘I feel love’.) In this short peroration the whole harmonic progressions is re-run, like a speeded-up flash-back in a film. Although, as I have said, the Soanata is not descriptive music, nevertheless the two main influences of manhattan (with its fantastically lively and multifarious jazz tradition) and California (with its breathtaking natural beauty) are clearly imprinted on the music.

The Sonata is dedicated to my two daughters, Rebecca and Joanna.

© 1983 Tim Souster