Through a Glass Darkly
In 1988 I was asked to write a short piano piece for the sixtieth birthday concert of my friend and sometime teacher John White. What I eventually came up with was not an entirely new piece but, bearing John’s predilections in mind, an elaborate solo piano transcription, in the spirit of Godowski and Busoni, of the Barcarolle from my music theatre piece William Derrincourt (1977- 79). I so enjoyed this experience that I decided to write a more extended piano work in the same vein: the set of twelve Variations on a Theme of Chopin, its theme being principally the first six bars of Chopin’s Mazurka in B flat minor, Op.24 No.4. This passage contains ten of the twelve pitches and eleven of the twelve intervals obtainable within an octave.
These variations proved to be the trigger which set off a whole series of chamber works which are unified in that they are all based on deconstructed fragments of music by Chopin and Brahms. This also means that they all, in their different ways, grapple with the problem of the reintegration of tonality, a problem which I found creatively very stimulating. First came the Piano Trio (1990-91), followed by Poles Apart (a quintet for flute, bass clarinet and string trio, 1990-92), a Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano (1992- 99) and Crepuscule: 15 Variations on a Theme of Brahms (for piano quartet, 1998-99). They were followed by the three works on the present disc: String Quartet No.2 (1999-2000), the Horn Trio (2001-02) and the Piano Quintet (2003).
String Quartet No.2 (track 8) was commissioned by the Australian String Quartet (the players now known as the Grainger Quartet). As I composed it I thought back to my first exposure to the classical string quartet. This was at Dartington Summer School in the mid 1960s where one could experience Hans Keller lecturing on Haydn quartets in the morning and hear performances of them by the Amadeus Quartet in the evening concert. Quite an introduction.
I feel that these memories had an influence on the musical language of the quartet, which is the most “classical” of all the works in the series. It is in a single movement during which motives derived from Chopin’s Mazurka in C minor Op.56 No.3 (bars 181-189) are extensively developed. The form evolved intuitively as the composition progressed and is capable of various interpretations. One such would be to view the three occasions on which the Chopin original floats to the surface of the music as the most important formal subdivisions. As a follow-up to the string quartet I proposed writing a piano quintet in which I would be able to take part as a performer. This was awarded the John Bishop Memorial Commission for 2004 and was first performed by the Australian String Quartet (now the Grainger Quartet) on 10 March 2004 as part of the Adelaide Festival.
The Piano Quintet (tracks 1-4) is in four movements. The first is a vigorous overture, the third an equally vigorous scherzo of the Haydn / Beethoven onein- a-bar type. These two movements are separated by a much more fragmentary intermezzo in which a small number of motives are combined and recombined in ever-changing juxtapositions.
Twice during the course of the scherzo a fragment of Chopin’s Mazurka in F minor (Op.68 No.4, bars 1-8) is heard. In earlier times this piece, published posthumously, was often referred to as “Chopin’s last musical thought”. After its second appearance the scherzo loses momentum and ends inconclusively.
The final movement is the most extended, almost equalling the combined length of the first three. Here the highly chromatic chord progression of the Chopin mazurka is treated as a chaconne (a repeating series of harmonies) over which are woven a series of seven variations. Together they form a suite of character pieces all of which refer to musical types used by Chopin.
The Horn Trio (tracks 5-7) was commissioned by Darryl Poulsen. It is the first work in the series which is not based on a fragment of Romantic period music, but on a melody of my own invention which is played on the harp at the very end of my Concerto for Contrabassoon (1998).
In each of the Trio’s three movements it is treated in a different way. The complete theme (played almost unaccompanied on the horn) is heard at the beginning of the second movement. There follow seventeen variations which lead the theme through many and varied landscapes, eventually arriving at a violent climax marked by descending scales and horn glissandi.
From this point the music gradually unwinds through a violin solo and a variation for horn and violin only, to a nostalgic recall of the original theme as an inverted canon between violin and horn. The notes of the theme are then conflated to form a chorale (on the piano) with which the movement ends indecisively. I gave this movement (retrospectively) the title Mirror-Variations when I noticed how often the theme was accompanied or followed in canon by its own inversion (mirror-image).
The first movement is based on a 12-tone row derived from the theme. In the third movement this tone row is reinterpreted as a sequence of “tonalities”. In fact, the finale began as an attempt to recompose the (atonal) first movement in tonal terms, though it eventually deviated from this plan.
Behind the first movement lies the ghost of a sonata form, including a truncated recapitulation of all the opening material (cf Schoenberg’s String Trio, Op.45). The finale is a complex rondo-like structure, the most obvious manifestation of which is the lyrical episode heard first on the horn and subsequently on violin.