New piece : Partita (for oboe and piano)

I’d been having ideas for a piece for oboe and piano for a while and this summer I made some time to realise them. I haven’t written anything for a few years – I’m often reluctant to start a piece as composing is always engrossing and for me can either become a much bigger project than originally intended or a major frustration when not going well. Anyway, I’m really pleased I got round to writing this, and once I had started the piece took shape fairly easily. I wrote it for my friend Peter Facer, an oboist I perform with regularly. We’ve played it through and are hoping to programme it in a concert at some point in 2014. Here’s the programme note and first page:

I wrote Partita after a series of extremely enjoyable recitals with my friend Peter Facer. It was inspired by Pete’s playing and some of the repertoire we performed. Our concerts always featured a different Baroque Sonata, and I wanted to write something in response to these. The role of the piano in my piece is similar to that of the continuo in the Baroque, in that it rarely comes to the fore on its own; the difference here though is that it is frequently more disruptive than supportive… I called the piece ‘Partita’ rather than ‘Sonata’ because I felt the latter carried baggage that was not relevant here, and also to reference the Bach Partitas for solo keyboard, which influenced my thinking on the form and content of this piece.

Partita has six movements, of which the first is the Prelude. It opens with an ecstatic reveling in its A-flat major tonality and melodic material, both of which inform the whole of the Partita. The middle section is lighter and more capricious, but the initial intensity then returns. The movement has an open ending, an idea I borrowed from Handel’s Oboe Sonatas.

The Allemande has a darker, more serious tone, and features a continuous stream of semiquavers like a Baroque ‘sewing machine’ piece. It begins with the right hand of the piano stating an irregularly phrased melody that is repeated continuously throughout the movement (one semitone lower each time). Against this, the oboe and pianist’s left hand attempt to hold a steady tonality and 4/4 meter. Inevitably they are pulled astray. The piece ‘goes’ until the process has exhausted itself, i.e. once the ostinato figure has appeared in all twelve keys. Each half is repeated, with – hopefully – ridiculous-sounding embellishments in the oboe part the second time around.

I love the deliberate rhythmic confusion of the Courante, and wanted to take it further than usual in my own one. Each half (again, repeated) builds from order to chaos.

The Sarabande often seems to be the heart of a Baroque suite, and I wanted mine to be lyrical and affecting, with an intimate after-hours jazz club feel. It features a strumming technique inside the piano, sounding like an eerie harpsichord, and a timbral trill in the oboe that may sound new and unusual but was actually frequently employed by French oboists in the 17th Century as a kind of vibrato.

To form a bridge between this introspective movement and what is to come, I added an Aria. It references the great French music for oboe, via gamelan. The piano is the gamelan and the oboe floats above it – coming and going, and improvising.

I did not feel particularly inspired to write the Gigue movement that might usually end a dance suite, so I wrote a Reel instead. The oboe is supposed to sound like Irish fiddle playing; it dwells in an unusually low part of its register to give a kind of folky rawness. Meanwhile, the piano rumbles violently in the bass, recasting the oboe’s merriment as mania and adding to the movement’s rugged quality. It culminates with the pounding piano forcing the oboe into a perilously fast version of the theme (a tribute to the variation sets beloved of wind players), and finally an overt reference back to the Prelude.

Duration : 12′-15′

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