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24 October 2017

Sparring with sonata form

The Sonata Project by Bernadette Harvey

Composer Aristea Mellos and pianist Bernadette Harvey Image: Composer Aristea Mellos and pianist Bernadette Harvey  

Aristea Mellos writes about her involvement in pianist Bernadette Harvey's Sonata Project, and how embracing the sonata form took some soul-searching. Three new sonatas - by Mellos, Melody Eötvös and Jane Stanley - will be premiered as part of this program on 11 November 2017 in Sydney, along with a work by Ross Edwards. The Sonata Project album (Tall Poppies) featuring all these works is available from the AMC Shop.

In early 2014, several Australian composers, myself included, were awarded grants from the Australia Council to compose new piano sonatas for the pianist Bernadette Harvey. At the time, I was living in Rochester, New York, and I had just begun my doctoral studies at the Eastman School of Music. I walked into its fantastic Sibley Library, jotted down a list of my favourite composers for the keyboard: Scarlatti, Beethoven, Janáček, Messiaen, Dutilleux, and Ligeti (to name a few), and walked out with my body weight in scores. And so, my research into sonata form commenced.

The monumental piano sonatas of the past are defined by their use of tonality - they are constructed as a rhetorical battle of elements in opposition. In my Eastman seminar classes, where I was studying The Elements of Sonata Theory by James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy, I found myself beginning to wonder if it was even possible to write a piano sonata any more? What on earth did a form so rooted in an 18th-century Viennese musical language mean to a 21st-century Australian composer?

As I began putting pencil to manuscript paper, the niggling questions about the legitimacy of writing in sonata form lingered. With each laboured note, I found myself searching for permission to stray from the sanctified path of Hepokoski and Darcy's Elements. Of course, as authors like Charles Rosen have observed, the permission had been there all along. From the witty monothematic sonatas of Haydn, to the devious deviations of Beethoven, sonata form was never intended as a musical straitjacket, quite the opposite. Its strength lies in its power to convey a narrative solely through sound, and this realisation set me free.

The word sonata comes from the Italian 'sonare' - 'to sound'. By focusing on the sound, and the process of sound production on the piano, I was able to quieten the voices of doubt that had me wrestling with the form. In 2015 - 2016, I worked on my Sonata, sending Bernadette emails with single-page attachments, as the work slowly took shape. During the same period, Bernadette was corresponding with two other Australian composers, Jane Stanley (based at the University of Glasgow, UK) and Melody Eötvös (at the University of Indiana, USA) as they also wrote their sonatas.

On 11 November 2017, some three years after the initial call to do battle with sonata form, Bernadette will unveil the results: three new sonatas for solo piano that celebrate the instrument's kaleidoscopic wealth of sounds. A fourth work by the renowned composer Ross Edwards completes a program that delights in sonic contrast.

Jane Stanley's Piano Sonata (2016) celebrates the virtuosity of the piano sonata genre. Featuring two central movements that are bookended by a fleeting and agile short movement, the principal section of Jane's Sonata features rich cascades of notes that traverse the length of the keyboard in mesmerising fashion. The mechanics of the piano, and the ingenuity of the instrument's sostenuto pedal play a significant role, as a 'melodic whirlpool' gesture is overlayed with patterns of contrasting texture and articulation. The sonic result is similar to viewing an intricate gown in which different silks, organzas and laces are overlayed to create a rich sense of depth.

Melody Eötvös's The Demoiselle d'Ys (2016) takes an entirely different approach. Drawing from a ghost story by the American author Robert W. Chambers, Melody's Sonata seeks to curate a dramatic narrative of intrigue. The work opens with three distinct subject areas of which only the first subject triumphs in the recapitulation. A menacing bass line growls, searching for the piano's searing mid-register, and acts as the driving force of the first movement. The second movement has an improvisational quality, reaching into the stratospheric register of the piano to explore its brittle and glassy sound world.

Ross Edwards's Sea Star Fantasy (2015) draws its inspiration from the Marian plainsong Ave Maris Stella. Originally commissioned by John Porter in tribute to Ann Wesley-Smith, hints of the plainsong emerge from the piano's texture throughout this work. The opening movement features wistful and plaintive melodic lines that twist and turn playfully, whilst the dance-like second movement 'plunges into the heart of a tropical rainforest, alive with clamorous birdsong and brilliant colours'.

In writing my own Sonata (2016, rev. 2017), I found inspiration in a Roman holiday I took in 2014 with three of my fellow doctoral students from the Eastman School. The opening movement 'We Ate the Stars' is a musical reverie that recalls a rather raucous party we attended. Guitar duos and bel canto arias mingled in the warm evening air of a Roman terrace crowded with students drinking, smoking, and babbling in strange tongues. The exuberance of the opening is quickly cooled in the austere second movement, 'Cardinal Spada's Gallery'. The stifling and grotesque atmosphere of the Galleria Spada is conveyed through a tortured bass line that desperately seeks liberation, whilst the third movement, 'Vanishing Point', revisits the ecstasy of the work's opening.

All four works will be premiered on 11 November 2017 at Verbrugghen Hall, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Information on Jane Stanley's and Ross Edwards's works in this article is based on program notes supplied by the composers for the premiere performance on 11 November.

AMC resources

The Sonata Project - premiere on 11 November 2017 at the Sydney Conservatorium (event details in the AMC Calendar)

Purchase The Sonata Project album (Tall Poppies) from the AMC for $25.30. AMC members receive a 10% discount.

Aristea Mellos - AMC profile

Ross Edwards - AMC profile

Melody Eötvös - AMC profile

Jane Stanley - AMC profile

Further links

Bernadette Harvey - homepage (www.bernadetteharvey.com)


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