Commissioned by Bernard Gregor-Smith and Yolande Wrigley for the 2000 Music in the Round Festival, Sheffield.
First performed by Bernard Gregor-Smith and Yolande Wrigley 19 May 2000, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.
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In writing my Sonata for Cello and Piano, I tried to reflect two highly contradictory concerns that seemed to me to be central to the national consciousness in 1999 - first the feeling of optimism and hope for the future, echoed by the mounting excitement and anticipation as we approached the year 2000, and secondly the sense of apathy and trepidation over what the new millennium might have in store for us, given some of the events that occurred in the last millennium. These two feelings are represented in the respective movements of the sonata.
The first movement is in a fairly conventional sonata form. The first subject, dominated by the whole-tone scale, is characterised by nervous semiquaver figuration on the piano. The second subject should, I hope, be fairly obvious - the semiquavers are replaced by much stiller, calmer music, while the whole-tone harmony is replaced by tonal, 'added note' harmony. The semiquavers and whole-tone scale gradually creep in again leading to a volatile development in which the two different types of harmony (whole-tone and triadic) are placed in direct conflict. This eventually gives way to calmer music, a recapitulation of the second subject and a varied reprise of the first subject. In the coda, the music is finally released from the whole-tone material to an optimistic, ebullient ending.
Whereas the first movement conveyed excitement, anticipation and optimism, the slower second movement is a more reflective, less sure-footed piece, riddled by self-doubt and anguish. The opening of the movement, a short piano passage sets the tone for the nagging self-doubt that will keep returning. While the music that accompanies the cello's first entry still basks in the confident optimism of the first movement, this gives way to more introspective music, characterised by fragmentary cello motives, building up into more impassioned music. This sequence of events repeats itself, after which nervous semiquaver figuration takes over, eventually culminating in a despairing climax. An epilogue follows, heralded by a chorale-like idea in the piano that harks back to the opening of the movement. Echoes of ideas from both movements are heard, and an attempt made at forging an optimistic ending. However, this is by now impossible and the music further fragments before finally fizzling out.
In writing this piece, I returned to two technical devices I used in a previous piece for Bernard and Yolande, 'Duo Concertant' of 1997. The first is an insistent, almost obsessive repetition of tiny motivic cells on the cello, which is prominent in both movements. The second is a deliberate layering of the cello part and piano part so that the two instruments are slightly out of phase with each other - the phrasing of their respective parts rarely coincides and cadences and climaxes are 'staggered'. By this means I sought to sustain the sense of anticipation and save the sense of resolution until the very end of each movement.