Idylls & Bacchanals

Here are the full notes on the works by Bax, Maconchy, Jacob & Rawsthorne on EMCD007-8

Arnold Bax: Sonata for Viola & Piano
Molto moderato – Allegro – Più lento – Tempo primo
Allegro energico ma non troppo presto
Molto lento – Tempo of beginning of first movement

The Viola Sonata of 1921-2 is one of Bax’s most marvellous creations. The piano marks out the ground before the viola plays a note, the bottom notes of its serenely distant pentatonic chords spelling out a bird’s eye view of the work ahead. G – down a third to E – up a fourth to A – down a second to G. An immediate variation on the idea adds a note, thus: G – down a fourth to D – up a second to E – up to A – back to G. From the new note, the D, the harmony changes its B naturals into B flats until the G returns.

The viola enters to muse on these materials, adding ideas of its own, most importantly with its very first note, an upbeat. Just as the piano did, the viola presents two versions of its motive: the thematic rising fourth rising a further second, and then, its longer upbeat intensified by a characteristic repetition of the low D, rising two successive seconds, making a rising third in all. The melody is spun out in the Mixolydian mode, (the conceptual space between the two instruments defined by the very unMixolydian harmony in the piano), with its second phrase again marked by two bites at every cherry: a rising third amplified to a fourth, and the apex thus defined, revisited.

It’s not possible to analyse the whole piece here in this sort of detail, but nothing that has been pointed to is insignificant. Bax’s unsurpassed constructive understanding is not without danger. He’s so good at it that the player, let alone the listener, frequently doesn’t notice what’s going on. Sometimes that doesn’t matter: the music can make its effect on us without us knowing why. But the corollary of Bax’s formal brilliance is that it can tempt him to write structures that, he fails to realize, cannot be understood by most people’s unconscious minds. In such cases, the interpretative responsibility of the performer is very great.

Reminded of the importance of the fine detail, the listener may also find some larger signposts useful. The slow melody of the opening is condensed into the main theme of the Allegro, the role of the repeated notes enlarged. An ostinato in the bass introduces the tritone, while the viola makes an onbeat motive out of the repeated notes and the falling third, which eventually blossoms into the second subject, with not two, but three, varied repetitions of its opening bar. This section is in that B flat foreseen long before by the piano introduction, and it’s the piano that states the theme before the viola joins in and then repeats it.

The central section plays with the rising fourth and various seconds and thirds, before stomping tritones bring about the return of the tonic, G major, and the first subject, taking the shape it had when first set out in the slow opening, but at the fast speed, with the rising thirds extended to create an ample Perfect Cadence into the second subject, also in G. The Coda transforms the bass ostinato and caps it with the most beautiful moments from the middle section, before the piano’s opening chords rise out of the depths to hang once more above the viola’s opening – a heavenly return.

The second movement brandishes tritones garnished with menacing trills and rhythmic dislocations to remind us of the mediaeval idea that tritones represent the devil. The viola’s danse macabre – in A minor: A was the note approached by the significant rising fourth in the piano’s first bar – balefully avoids the obvious, shifting its shapes away from any standard phrase length. New melodies crowd in to join the dance, transformed by brief encounters before hurrying on to the next partner. Death stalks onto the dance floor, and the horrified revellers twitch to his command, each melody twisting in turn on the rack of Bax’s virtuosic harmony. By concentrating purely on compositional technique, Bax creates a nuanced and believable Inferno.

How can these Visions of Heaven & Hell be reconciled? The third movement opens with a grotesque inversion of the piano’s opening gambit, harmonious height giving way to discordant depth, the gentle swing of syncopation to some fearful indistinct disturbance. The viola wails a falling phrase, the piano bass rears out of the depths in leviathan sympathy, before settling to accompany a simple lament – a lament which once again dwells twice upon its first bar, tying us back to the melodic shapes of the first movement, with its clamant repeated notes. All this is repeated, with the viola in deeper voice, and with a thoroughly Baxian transformation of the simple lament, whose B flats are no longer harmonised in G minor, but in G flat major. Great gates open upon a bleak vista where the viola obsesses on a pentatonic ostinato and the piano strives to recall its opening bird’s eye view. The theme the piano comes up with, in a modal E minor, is the rising interval of the first movement, widened from a fourth to fifth, and continued in the manner of the lament, rising to an inconclusive climax in the piano alone. The viola calls the piano back to G major, and a magical softening of the movement’s opening wailing seals both instruments into that key, A falling to G as the cadence is achieved in the piano bass, answering the G rising to A in the viola’s first statement, twenty minutes ago. (Bax delays a plain G major tonic chord for another sixteen bars, until the viola falls from A to G for the last time.) A Mixolydian F natural emphasises just how far the music has ranged since the first movement, and it’s at this very moment that the viola reveals the kinship between beginning and ending by changing that rising fifth back into a rising fourth. The first tune returns, and the piano chords shift from dark to light and back again – and back again. G major achieved, the music stops. ‘What I tell you three times is true.’

Elizabeth Maconchy: Sonata for Viola & Piano
Lento tranquillo

The piano establishes a swinging rhythm that pervades the movement. The viola enters with the first of three snippets of melody, which thread in and out of the ostinato rhythm in a stream of consciousness. (The whole piece demonstrates a Joycean technique of a flow of almost everyday detail, subtly subverted.) The tonal centres – one can’t call them keys – shift from G to E to C to A flat, and thence (in a sort of dominant-tonic relationship) to C sharp, where the swinging rhythm withdraws, leaving the piano and viola to imitate each other in a thematic idea drawn from everything else we’ve heard so far. This winds up to a collision between A flat major and D – the tritone – which brings back the rhythm, incoherent at first, but soon regaining fluency as the music settles first in E minor and then, climactically, in G, where the composer places her loudest dynamic mark. G remains the bass note from here to the end, the stream of consciousness playing itself out in one long sentence above. The proportions of the movement are interesting. The opening rhythm prevails for 70 bars, and is then absent for 25. The tritone conflict takes 10 bars, the transition from E to G another 10, and the final G for another 28 (27, if we take the tied, unarticulated, final bar to be a pause.) In round terms (let’s imagine a closing ritardando!) that’s 70 plus 25 + 10 + 10 + 25 = another 70.

The tritone colours the harmony of every bar of the first section of the Lento, and, in conjunction with the semitone, provides the melodic material as the tonal centre shifts from B flat to E – a tritone itself, of course. After 23 bars, the composer writes ‘quasi alla marcia’ – like a march – and the tritone gives way, in alternate bars, to the chord of F minor. A viola recitative brings back the opening material, centred on B (a tritone away from F minor) and then on C (a semitone away from B). In a sort of dominant-tonic relationship, this leads us back to F in the bass, which is then harmonised in B flat, as at the beginning of the movement, whose tonic key is now heard to have been a Lydian B flat. The F sits in the bass until the end, just as the G did in the first movement – 23 bars, if on this occasion we do count the tied, unarticulated, final bar! [So the proportions of the movement are: 23 + 17 + 10 + 23].

The Presto picks up on the B flat from the end of the Lento. Semitones and tritones are thrust together to form a brusque motto in an extended Locrian mode. The motto is in that common musical shape of two similar short bits followed by a longer bit, known as ‘bar-form’ and exemplified, for instance, by the opening of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, or ‘Rejoice greatly’. The motto’s separate halves permeate the movement. The viola presents a figure which at first pays lip service to bar-form, but quickly confuses antecedent and consequent, especially by means of triplet minims. The triplet takes on a thematic role, regardless of the notes it happens to be allotted, and the rest of the movement is a seamless development of the two ideas, again recalling Joycean wordplay.

The mixture of Locrian and Lydian modes obscures any points of tonal arrival (the music seems in a constant state of angry flux). But Maconchy provides two sorts of aural signposts to articulate her form: pedal notes (that’s a fixed note in the bass), and the complete, consecutive statement of both halves of her motto. These are tabulated below.

The multiple symmetries of the table, along with those already mentioned for the two preceding movements, are not so precise as to suggest actual calculation (especially because time signatures are not constant), but close enough to excite an enormous admiration for the young Maconchy’s unconscious formal mind.

Maconchy Last Movement
Note: G to G sharp and C to C sharp are semitones, and G to C sharp and B flat to E are tritones, intervals which have been brought more and more into prominence as the sonata progresses.


Gordon Jacob Sonatina for Viola & Piano
Allegro giusto
Andante espressivo
Allegro con brio – Adagio

Gordon Jacob once remarked to me that he slightly regretted the fact that few people appreciated his serious side. By ‘serious’ I think he meant ‘intellectual’, rather than ‘earnest’, just as in the phrase ‘serious music’. And the intellectual side of classical music, to use another contentious term, is expressed in Form – the meaningful arrangement of sonic artefacts. Some meaningful arrangements are more unfamiliar than others, and some sonic artefacts less fashionable. But those who, quite rightly, exclaim over Messiaen’s achievements in Modes de valeurs et d’intensité or Neumes rythmiques, need not be deaf to much more complex arrangements, and therefore deeper meanings, expressed through things like ‘sonata form’ or ‘key’. But listening beyond the obvious is hard, and there will always be listeners who just don’t get Haydn, for example. And (without implying extravagant comparisons for Jacob’s superlatively professional composing) they won’t get his music either. To the casual ear, this Sonatina makes agreeable noises for not too long. But its formal perfection (not too strong a word) cries out for closer listening.

Jacob’s use of the diminutive ‘Sonatina’ perhaps reflects its literal brevity, but it could also have been a pre-emptive defusing of the critical laziness discussed above. The first movement in fact pays homage to the monothematic sonata form Haydn made his own, the piano’s sprightly opening notes appearing in quick succession in canon and augmented canon, to act as first subject, to top and tail the second subject, to dominate the development, and act as the coda. The slow movement is just an ordinary ternary form, but listen to the questioning depth of the last bars. And what key was it in?

Notoriously, finales pose a problem, much discussed in books about Symphonies. How can they be both ample enough to balance the first movement, and vigorous enough to feel like a conclusion? Bax’s Viola Sonata brilliantly changes the question and comes up with its own answer. Jacob pursues a more deceptive strategy. His finale starts off just as one might expect, with a breezy rhythmic jollity. And yet the (very mild) discords and the nagging repetitions of the viola give it an air of nervousness which makes the D minor of the second idea (the dominant minor – extremely unusual) fit well with the mood. The return of the opening idea in D minor gives the air of a rondo. A smooth episode succeeds, new in every detail except its key, E flat, which was used for 7 strenuous bars of the second subject. The rondo theme returns, in the tonic, and then the second subject in B minor – so it’s a sort of sonata-rondo? – leading suddenly to a funeral-march version of itself in G minor, bringing back the first movement’s first subject to tie everything together at the end. Not at all predictable, and making the piece much more than the sum of its parts. Which would make a good definition of what a Sonata actually is.

It was Alan Rawsthorne who wrote wisely that the essence of good composition is that each new thing should sound inevitable but not predictable.

Alan Rawsthorne Sonata for viola and piano
Maestoso – Molto Allegro – Lento – Andante – Molto Allegro
Scherzo: Presto non assai
Rondo: Allegro commodo

Rawsthorne’s Viola Sonata of 1937 is a work of strenuous modernism not surpassed by his later music. The story of its loss and rediscovery is interesting in itself – it disappeared after a bombing raid, and was found in 1952 in a second-hand shop by, fortuitously enough, the violist Watson Forbes, who took it back to its composer – but is more significant for having prompted a revision which goes to the heart of Rawsthorne’s cultural identity.

The official Rawsthorne bio-bibliography says that the revision ‘adds ten bars of music’, but as Sebastian Forbes pointed out in 1986, the page numbering of the revised manuscript makes clear that the ten new bars (bars 186-195 of the finale) in fact replace six pages of music which have been discarded. Forbes seems to have had access to the missing pages, since he mentions that the new Finale is 36 bars shorter than the original. These pages are not in the RNCM library with the rest of the sonata MS, so the following speculations are made in their absence.

The first three movements of the sonata demonstrate a wilful acidity that is all Rawsthorne’s own, while the finale owes a very clear debt to Hindemith. It incorporates jokes and concludes by capering off into an over-emphatic F major with no precedent in a work that has centred itself wholly on the note C sharp. It is probable that the missing pages went some way to bridging and justifying the gap between these styles, but as it stands, perhaps in response to early reviews that took a poor view of ‘modernism’, the finale is a somewhat egregious crowd-pleaser.

Rawsthorne usually had little truck with such concerns. When Louise Williams and I played his Violin Sonata in an Austrian tour thirty-five years ago, our audiences all tried to convince us that we should re-arrange it so that the slow finale came before the brilliant toccata. So much more crowd-pleasing an ending! And my performances of his Ballade in France a few years later led to similar comments. We wish we could play you the original version of the Viola Sonata. But in this case (and, I’m told by Linda Merrick, also in the case of the Clarinet Concerto, which also turns from C sharp to F, interestingly enough) Rawsthorne’s uncertainty over pleasing the crowds gave him second thoughts.

And this is interesting in the light it casts on Rawsthorne’s relationship with crowds, with the common man. The title of his ‘popular’ overture, Street Corner, perhaps betrays the view of an observer rather than a participant. Vaughan Williams and Britten were able to create and sustain – still sustain – genuine musical communities, albeit overwhelmingly middle-and-upper-class ones (no shame in that, the writer and readers of this note may exclaim). Rawsthorne’s sympathies, like those of his friend and occasional collaborator Alan Bush, were with a more deprived section of society. Bush’s operas may or may not have helped the revolutionary struggle, but Rawsthorne’s radical sympathies seem to have remained wholly theoretical, especially after his move to Thaxted. Properly considered (and there’s no room here to do other than invite the reader to try it), these facts, combined with the empirical fact that Rawsthorne is the most international-sounding composer on these discs (when he’s not sounding ‘international’ he sounds German in a whole-hearted way that would never have crossed Sir Hubert Parry’s mind), tell us a lot about the relationship of Sound to Society. Followers of the English Music Festival, and similar groups of enthusiasts of other musics of other nations, other genres, other roots, whether Jazz, Plainsong, Indian music, fado or G&S – not to mention every genre of pop music – will need no further explanation of this concept. That doesn’t leave out many music-lovers, but the misconceptions of those who are omitted carry disproportionate weight in our musical world. It is a paradox that music, always potentially international, requires local sympathies – a true Internationalism, rather than a bloodless absence of identity – to make its fullest effect. These sympathies can be developed by people from quite disparate cultures, of course. Those who, like me, detect flashes of Englishness in this sonata’s ‘German’ finale especially, will be best placed to know that to consider how this might be, let alone why, would require an impractically long and still inconclusive parenthesis. Listeners will want to hear for themselves how the politically-aware Rawsthorne negotiated the idea of nationhood in the age of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

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