Sonata for Violoncello and Piano in G minor
Andante comodo – Allegro non troppo
Lento (for the Dead 1939 – 45)
Allegro non troppo
This sonata is dated 1945 and was written during Burgess’s time in the Army Education Corps. While training in England in the early part of the war he acted as musical director of a six-piece dance band, arranging popular songs and jazz standards and amusing himself by ‘fulfilling my boyhood ambition of wanting to have written ‘L’Apres-midi d’un Faune’ by adapting it for the group, but the rhythms of jazz took over and sweating privates and their doxies danced to it.’
Later, Burgess was posted to Gibraltar, which provided a fertile ground for his musical activities. ‘One hundred quires of thirty-stave manuscript paper were found gathering dust in a quartermaster’s store,’ he records. ‘These had to be filled with dots.’ Burgess provided arrangements for a large dance band as well as composing marches for the military band, and otherwise spent his time organising musical appreciation societies, presenting gramphone concerts, and writing various pieces including a symphony in A minor, a cello concerto, an orchestral overture called Gibraltar and a choral setting of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. Whether or not these pieces were completed is unclear, as this sonata is the only work to have survived from this period.
The sonata itself is a substantial piece which provides an important key to Burgess’s musical career. Burgess ended the war ‘approach[ing] thirty and with a very shaky sense of vocation. No one could earn a living as a composer, but what sort of composer was I?’. The ambition of this piece, with its distinctively pungent tonality, angular melodies and quartal sonorities are entirely characteristic of Burgess’s mature work, stylistically similar to his Symphony No. 3 and Piano Concerto; and indeed some of the main themes are repeated in his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra written nearly forty years later. The sonata perhaps indicates the level of seriousness that Burgess brought to his music at the earliest stage of his artistic career, and which did not leave him. The second movement is marked ‘For the Dead: 1939-45’, and the whole work is prefaced by a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The shepherd’s brow, fronting forked lightning, owns
The horror and the havoc and the glory
Of it. Angels fall, they are towers, from heaven—a story
Of just, majestical, and giant groans.
But man—we, scaffold of score brittle bones;
Who breathe, from groundlong babyhood to hoary
Age gasp; whose breath is our memento mori—
What bass is our viol for tragic tones?
He! Hand to mouth he lives, and voids with shame;
And, blazoned in however bold the name,
Man Jack the man is, just; his mate a hussy.
And I that die these deaths, that feed this flame,
That … in smooth spoons spy life’s masque mirrored: tame
My tempests there, my fire and fever fussy.
The piece was premiered by Jennifer Langridge (cello) and Richard Casey (piano) at the Burgess Foundation in 2011. Click the image below for the full score (opens in a new tab).