Precisely because the piano was the quintessential vehicle for 19th-century Romanticism, 20th-century composers have often been unable to come to grips with the instrument. Should the piano's potential as a percussive instrument be exploited in order to avoid the lyric style associated with Chopin? How many compositions can use the piano to get non-traditional sonorities clusters, sounds from inside the instrument, "prepared" sounds and try to ignore that the piano is in fact built to play eighty-eight pitches? What of forms? Is the designation "Sonata" totally outmoded, associated as it is with functional harmony, or can the form take on new meaning with a modern musical vocabulary and syntax?
David W. Maves's four piano sonatas show how one composer has met the challenge of writing for the piano. Rather than apologize for the traditional pianistic elements in these compositions, the composer exploits them to their fullest. The method of composition itself is also traditional with respect to its conscious attempt to build on the established vocabulary of 20th-century music. It is also clear that Sonata No. 2 is a sequel to, or an outgrowth of Sonata No. 1, and that the Neo-classicism of Sonata No. 3 is the obverse of the large-scale Romanticism of Sonata No. 4.
by William D. Gudger
Sonata No. 1 (1973)
Like the cycles of short character-pieces for the piano composed by Schumann, Maves's Sonata No. 1
consists of five seemingly unrelated miniatures intended to be played as a group, followed by a somewhat longer finale. Each of the five movements is an etude, not so much for the performer as for the listener. Maves has written that in these five movements he "is attempting to have the audience listen to the piano in a new and very intense way to concentrate on the sound of the piano itself."
Each movement isolates one type of pianistic expression. In the first movement, the extreme high and low ranges of the piano are explored. The performer is directed to listen to the piano after the keys are struck and hold the pedal until the sound decays. Thus different pianos and different rooms require a different response from the performer. Movement II explores the type of tremolo often used in virtuoso 19th-century piano music, carrying the idea to the maximum level of sound of which the piano is capable. A short recitative closes this movement.
Movement III is a study of various attacks used in modern piano writing, while the fourth movement is a backward look at the "grand" style of writing for the piano. Here the piano is a melodic/harmonic instrument capable of intense lyric expression. In Movement V the individual pitches selected by the performer (mainly soft clusters) let the audience concentrate on the sound of the piano itself.
The widely disparate elements of the five studies are summarized and amplified by the Finale, in which the element of percussive rhythm (as in such a composer as Prokofiev) adds a new focus to the composition. Each of the elements presented in these studies is juxtaposed in a spiral form, in which the ideas come closer and closer together in each repetition. When the spiral form becomes tightest almost to the point of "exploding" a series of very loud clusters, played as fast as possible closes the Sonata in the modern equivalent of the "big" ending.
Sonata No. 2 (1978)
Maves looks further back historically for the model of Sonata No. 2
to the Goldberg Variations as a clue to understanding the work. But again as in Sonata No. 1
, the composer provides a summative finale. Also the work progresses technically the first variations are presented in graded order and only around Variation VIII
does the work begin to present real technical challenges. In this way it is a sort of teaching piece like Bartok's Mikrokosmos
a concentrated Gradus ad Parnassum
for the 20th-century pianist.
The theme (Pedal Tone) begins the work with a stable, comprehensible idea tied together by the repeated pedal tone in the alto voice. Two simple character variations follow: New England Quarters turns the theme into chime-like sounds and Variation II is a lively march with trio. In Variation III (Harmonics) the sustained sympathetic vibrations underlie a new focus of black-key versus white-key a conflict suggested by the original theme and central to much which follows in the Sonata. The ostinato in Variation IV is built out of the serial (twelve-tone) technique. Though the technique itself is difficult to comprehend aurally, it is here tied to the easily comprehensible repetitive rhythms of the ostinato. Variation V is the first interior finale; the bitonal conflict is more dramatic here as each hand plays either black or white keys only.
Variation VI presents the first contrapuntal device to be used, a short fugue (Fughetta). Variation VII (Arioso) is an attempt at the cantabile ("singing") style. Variation VIII (Presto) provides the first quick movement for variety rather like a scherzo. The third group of variations also begins with a contrapuntal movement, here a canon (Variation IX) in which the second half is the first half played backwards (the so-called "crab" canon, a favorite device of Bach's). Variation X (Cannon!) is a pun on the common misspelling of canon. This cannon shoots shells into the air, with explosions heard both near and far. A toccata (Variation XI) and passacaglia (Variation XII) form a pair of movements, the first improvisatory and free in tempo, the second constructed in a stricter way with a repeated pattern mostly in the bass. The toccata, like its Baroque predecessor, requires real keyboard skill and must sound as if it is improvised; actually part of Maves's toccata is improvised from notation which gives the performer a general outline of the music but not exact pitches. The motive first heard in Variation VII returns at the end of the toccata. The repeated passacaglia theme is in the shape of the letter "K" turned sideways: a "good-bye" theme opens and closes this movement, in which ideas from the previous variation appear, always subordinate to the repeated "K" theme. Variation XII is thus an interior finale for the third group of variations and also the most complex movement up to this point.
The Sonata No. 2 culminates in a summative Finale, not really a sixteenth variation but a full-scale sonata-like movement based on previous ideas. It begins with a recognizable statement of the original theme. Virtuoso writing prevails, so this is also the technical pinnacle of a Sonata which began with very simple variations. The white-black-key conflict closes the work in another cannon-like explosion, briefly interrupted by a quiet recall of the "good-bye" motive.
Sonata No. 3 (1998)
When Maves finished Sonata No. 2
, he wrote: "right away I wanted to do a simple, straight-forward 'small-scale' Neo-classical piano sonata. And I 'carried' the beginning idea around for about fifteen years. Then, somehow it was time.
"Actually, the opening idea, 'sliding seconds,' could have grown right from Sonata No. 2. The 'question-and-answer' theme and the following developmental ideas are quite straightforward, though several of them are from the initials and/or characteristics of a friend with whom I used to play piano duets. My main idea was to treat these materials in a standard 'classical' manner and in a relatively small scale 'laid-back' emotional setting.
"The second movement is really personal: a musical character-sketch of a friend.
"The last movement is a humorous treatment of a fugal idea, which grew out of a semester during which I was teaching counterpoint. The ideas are all based upon the initials of pianists who are friends: Enrique Graf, Douglas Ashley, Wilfred Delphin, and Edwin Romain, with all sorts of neurotic flourishes and rubatos. There are humorous, almost nonsensical 'notes' to the pianist within the manuscript which are supposed to effect a hindrance to concentration almost like a conversation between the two hands:
Hey. Yes? I've been wondering. Yes? What's a 'free fugue?' That's where the right hand keeps trying to 'get serious,' to start a fugue; and the left hand just won't go along with it. It keeps getting distracted. Well, I think the composer's commission ought to look into this ..... (and later) .... Should we try that again? That's the way it's written, you jerk! .... (later) .... All RIGHT!...but where's the fugue? If you'd been paying attention, you'd realize that this is a return of materials from movements I and II. Oh....
.... (And in the coda:) .... I think we've got a fugue, finally!
Would you please get out of the way?
Don't you think we should stop all this?
(just before the end) Oh, I suppose so."
Maves continues: "How is anyone suppose to concentrate with all this going on? And the coda begins with a playful C-major ascending triad, which syllabically and musically stands for 'College of Charleston,' with the C's and G's representing one more pianist friend, Gloria Cook.
"And, of course, nobody can hear all this stuff, but at least some of the fun must carry through."
Sonata No. 4 (1994)
About Sonata No. 4,
Maves writes: "Even before I finished Sonata No. 3, I found myself longing to do a Grand Sonata that did a lot of that wonderful stuff that most of us composers in the 20th century had quit doing. That is a frightening prospect, there's a lot of good competition. Thus I set out to project almost the emotional opposite of the relatively restrained Sonata No. 3.
"The first movement begins with an accelerating octave passage whoosh up to a joyous proclamation and carries on from there with an almost macho swaggering alluding to guitar chords, nightclub scenes combined with many rhetorical flourishes. The main idea, a recurring major second (could have come right out of the beginning of the Sonata Sonata No. 3), is treated throughout.
"The second movement is a lyric set of variations on an idea reminiscent of an operatic love scene that ends with the lovers gazing at the moon.
"The Scherzo (and especially the Trio) is a playful send-up of the main motive of the sonata. This motive will receive really serious treatment in the last movement with all kinds of rhythmic tricks and hiccups.
"And the last movement is something I've always wanted to doto be able to do: to write a lengthy movement that is a gargantuan build-up for its entire length into a big ending much in the way that I did in Sonata I, but without all the stops and starts and with a more traditional virtuoso technique.
"And I'm already carrying around the idea for Sonata No. 5."