An English Le tombeau de Couperin…
“Here the human soul asked mighty questions of its God and had its reply.”
C. Hubert H. Parry
This extempore speech was given by me when one of our invited speakers was delayed at the airport (you will see Gregory informing me that he had just arrived shortly before the end).
Alec Rowley (1892-1958) was a notable English pianist, composer and teacher. He was for many years professor of piano at Trinity College of Music. His compositions include many suites and shorter pieces for piano, intended for amateur performers, much useful and attractive organ music and a few larger-scale works. Alongside these, there are some advanced works for piano, presumably intended for his own performance.
The two Sonatas were published in 1939 and 1949 respectively, and have more than a hint of French style to them, with a distinctly Ravelian spirit particularly evident in the second. Indeed, the slow movement of that work perhaps even has a hint of Ravel’s Bolero. Like all Rowley’s music they are admirably concise, packed with ideas that satisfy without outstaying their welcome. The outer movements contrast brisk ideas with more languid episodes, including much in the way of chromatic harmony and even some steps into pentatonicism. Neither work has been commercially recorded.
The challenge of transcribing Schubert’s chamber music is considerable, for his writing for strings is highly idiomatic and at times certainly not pianistic in design. Yet there are qualities to this music that, when well transcribed, suit the piano almost more than their original clothing, creating what is not a new work, but perhaps one that deserves attention in its own right. In the hands of master transcriber Salamon Jadassohn (whose original piano works have been the subject of several of my CD releases), the “Death and the Maiden” quartet becomes a kind of forgotten piano sonata, with the writing recalling the Schubert of the sonatas D784 and D840 in particular.
The listener will note that, as is my preferred practice in Schubert, all repeats in the work are observed, including those in the da capo section of the Scherzo. The tradition of omitting exposition and other repeats is one that has serious structural implications, and if it has a place, it is in later nineteenth-century performance practice rather than Schubert’s own time and style. Schumann spoke of Schubert’s “heavenly lengths” and in doing so he was pointing out a key feature of this music; its expansiveness and concentration on harmonic change and thematic variation ahead of purely motivic development. This is somewhat at odds with the modern, businesslike, school of Schubert playing that has tended to favour brisk tempi and the minimum of observed repeats. My view is that Schubert is not a composer for the soundbite age; he demands patience and concentration from both interpreter and audience such that, in his finest work, time itself seems suspended.
The second movement is explicitly programmatic, taking as its theme Schubert’s earlier setting of Matthias Claudius’s poem that gives the work its title. The key text is as follows:
“Oh! leave me! Prithee, leave me! thou grisly man of bone!
For life is sweet, is pleasant.
Go! leave me now alone!
Go! leave me now alone!”
“Give me thy hand, oh! maiden fair to see,
For I’m a friend, hath ne’er distress’d thee.
Take courage now, and very soon
Within mine arms shalt softly rest thee!”
It is possible, indeed, to see the entire work as a meditation on death, and more than that, to recognise within this some very human reactions that give the work its emotional power. Whether this was autobiographical we shall never know, but it certainly speaks very cogently to us today.