Quintet for Piano and Winds
I: Sonate (0:00)
II: Ballade (6:52)
III: Rondo (13:19)
Recorded at Clare College Cambridge, Saturday 5th May 2018
Flute: Jack Reddick
Oboe: Pip Elmer
Clarinet: John Tothill
Bassoon: Zac Moxon
Piano': Toby Hession
This work was never conceived as any sort of explicit pastiche – rather, it serves as a point of confluence between the languages and styles of several different twentieth-century composers, but in particular, four: Malcolm Arnold (1921 – 2006), Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963), Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937), and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975). From this list alone, it is possible to see that the piece was influenced most strongly by French music – and this becomes even more apparent upon listening. Additionally, these French pretentions are reflected in the spellings of the movement titles – Sonate, Ballade, and Rondo.
The opening movement is robust and heavy, with a generally serious outlook. Its French influence is certainly never far away (the harmony is imbued with fluctuating levels of octatonicism throughout, most prominently in the ‘development’ section), but there is also a nod towards the English folksong trope, as captured especially in the resolute peak of the first subject group. The exposition and development sections are clearly demarcated in the music, but the ‘development’ section perhaps resists playing such a typical role – less-inclined to focus on high-intensity invention, it is instead tasked with sustaining the high musical energy of the quartal codetta.
Rather than being a ‘ballad’ in the textbook poetic sense (i.e. a narrative poem of short stanzas), the second movement is simply a gentle, nostalgic song. It draws upon the etymology of the word ballade, too, from the Provençal ‘balada’, meaning ‘song to dance to’ – and is closely aligned through its lilting 12/8 meter with the Loure, a slow French-Baroque dance originating in Normandy. The Chorale is not consciously based on any pre-existing tune, but adds to the bucolic, folk-like transparency of the music; however, a very conscious tonal scheme does exist in the movement. The opening in D-flat major is followed by a new melodic idea initially in F minor; the Chorale, being in A major, leads back to a restatement of the opening in D-flat major by virtue of a pivot about C-sharp / D-flat. These three tonal regions outline an augmented triad, in which each region is separated from the other by an equal distance. Furthermore, the augmented triad can be extracted from the whole-tone scale – a characteristic mode of early-twentieth-century French music.
To call the last movement a Rondeau (with French spelling) would have been an oversight, since the term refers specifically to one of the forms fixes of fifteenth-century French poetry, and bears very particular structural connotations; Rondo is a term more common in musical usage, and universally understood. The main Rondo theme is practically a homage to the lighter side of Shostakovich, but the movement overall draws more heavily than ever on Poulenc, not just in its harmonic language but also in its patchwork-like structure. It draws together themes from both of the first two movements into a four-minute frenzy of almost unstoppable energy – only the triumphant return to the first-movement theme can succeed in curbing the tempo – and, in direct contrast to the opening movement, the Rondo is deliberately jovial, light and humorous. The return of the ‘B’ theme almost completes a sonata-rondo form – but alas, it is not to be, as at the music breaks down into a final push towards its conclusion.