Piano Sonata No. 2

Solo Piano (2005)

I. Prelude
II. Psalm
III. Postlude

Written for Geoffrey Burleson and is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Commercial recording on Brian Banks: Sonatas and Preludes, Centaur Records CRC2893, 2007. Geoffrey Burleson, piano.

Score Sample

Duration: c. 22 minutes

Categories: , Tags: ,

During the time I was writing the Sonata the world was commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps: between the dates of the liberation of Auschwitz (Jan. 27), and Bergen-Belsen (April 15) I wrote the bulk of the piece. I was profoundly affected by these events, and moved by reading the firsthand accounts of concentration camp survivors like Primo Levi, Simon Wiesenthal, and Elie Weisel.

My recent work as a composer focuses on crossing and recrossing the boundaries between “popular” and “serious” music. This is nothing new: in fact it seems to be one of the characteristic features of so- called Western music since the birth of polyphony. One thing I admire most about popular musical idioms is the sense of immediacy one experiences upon listening. This music is for the people who are here, now, and it is only of secondary concern if a song or tune survives the ages.

In a comment on the Jewish-German poet Paul Celan, Primo Levi wrote: “The idea of writing poetry ‘for everyone’ flirts with utopianism, but I feel distrust for whoever is a poet for the few, or for himself alone. To write is to transmit; what can you say if the message is coded and no one has the key?” In other words, directness of expression is a virtue to be pursued, and the use of complexity is certainly not a guarantee of profundity or of transcendence.

Normally I would agree Levi’s assessment without qualifications, but through the process of writing the Second Sonata I felt the need to cross another boundary, into the world of codes and keys. Perhaps this was the only way I could confront what had become a meditation on the Shoah. I am still interested in addressing a wide audience and, while I do not by any means intend for this work to be programmatic, I do believe it could be useful to mention some features of the Sonata (without giving away ALL of the clues):

The first movement, Prelude, is an adaptation of the klezmer tune Der Gasn Nigun (The Street Tune). Traditionally used as a processional to accompany the relatives of a wedding couple to their homes, I tried to give the tune a darker, more urgent character, using heterophonic textures and thick chord voicings, and a repeated figure that takes on a life of its own in the following movement.

The second movement, Psalm, is proportionally much longer, with high degrees of contrast (texture, tempo, “style”) between its larger sections. Despite these wild mood swings there exists a basic, underlying rhythmic principle that moves through the movement like an undercurrent: it moves the music forward at times very obviously, and at times as a background element or an accompaniment figure.

Postlude is the title of the third and final movement, and it contrasts long notes in the extreme ends of the piano with irregular, muttering lines in its middle register. The pitch center of the movement is D (as in the Prelude), and it utilizes some of the heterophonic processes that are present in the previous two movements.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 was written for Geoffrey Burleson, and is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. May the generations who follow read the accounts of the survivors and make the words “Never Again” a true call to action, rather than merely a cliché.

Se questo è un uomo

Voi che vivete sicuri
Nelle vostre tiepide case,
Voi che trovando tornando a sera
Il cibo caldo e visi amici:

Considerate se questo è un uomo Che lavora nel fango
Che non conosce pace
Che lotta per mezzo pane
Che muore per un sí o per un no.
Considerate se questa è una donna, Senza capelli e senza nome
Senza piú forza di ricordare
Vuoto gli occhi e freddo il grembo
Come una rana d’inverno.

Meditate che questo è stato:
Vi comando queste parole.
Scolpitele nel vuostro cuore
Stando in casa andando per via,
Coricandovi alzandovi;
Ripetetele ai vostri figli.

O vi si sfaccia la casa,
La malattia vi impedisca,
I vostri nati torcano il viso da voi.

—Primo Levi