for cello, piano, seven wind instruments and percussion

Tim Souster

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for cello, piano, seven wind instruments and percussion

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Composer Tim Souster
Year of Composition 1979
Duration ca.35'
Forces vc, pf, fl/afl/picc, ob/ca, cl, bcl, bn, tpt, tba, perc
Categories (all composers) ,
Catalogue ID ce-ts1s1


The Sonata was commissioned by the BBC for the Nash Ensemble of London who gave the first performance on BBC Radio 3 in August 1980. The cello soloist was Christopher van Kampen, whose playing I have always greatly admired. The Sonata was written almost entirely in the United States during the twelve months (1978-9) I spent there on a US/UK Bicentennial Arts Fellowship. The two-movement structure of the piece reflects the fact that the work was written part in California and part in New York City. But the music is not literally descriptive of those antithetical environments and the basis of both movements was in any case all written in California.

The whole work is held together not only by the primacy of the cello (the cello cadenza at the end of the first movement either weaves together seamlessly thematic threads from the two surrounding movements of the work or abruptly flashes backwards and forwards between them) but by the references made to certain aspects of jazz and popular music.

The first movement is a set of harmonic variations on the opening slow piano melody. This is a jazz form, with the soloists commenting in constantly evolving ways on a fixed set of harmonic changes. The Duke Ellington ‘chamber music’ combination of piano and a few wind instruments is relevant here; and in one variation (where the solos are shared by cello, bass-clarinet and tuba) a figuration from the Duke’s piano part to Mood Indigo momentarily breaks the surface.

Just before the climax of the first movement, the eight chords on which the second movement is based are heard in the bass register of the piano and wind instruments. When these harmonies reappear, after the cello cadenza, they are massively expanded, functioning as the whole structure of the second movement. The eight chords are in fact four cadences, four resolutions of the same dissonant chord in four different consonant directions. The dissonant chord is quite a complex one consisting of ten notes and is related to a magnificent ‘apocalyptic’ chord in the first movement of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

The Sonata, after a violent section featuring the percussion finally resolves itself on to a D-minor-seventh chord-section which I call Disco-Coda, for obvious reasons. (The coda is in fact not a little influenced by Donna Summer’s ‘I feel love’.) In this short peroration the whole harmonic progressions is re-run, like a speeded-up flash-back in a film. Although, as I have said, the Sonata is not descriptive music, nevertheless the two main influences of Manhattan (with its fantastically lively and multifarious jazz tradition) and California (with its breathtaking natural beauty) are clearly imprinted on the music.

The Sonata is dedicated to my two daughters, Rebecca and Joanna.

Commissioned by the BBC for studio recording and broadcast by the Nash Ensemble 0n 3 August 1980 on BBC Radio 3, with Christopher van Kampen (cello), Ian Brown (piano), Gary Kettel (percussion), conducted by Anthony Pay.

A chamber work for entirely acoustic forces. The virtuoso cello part dominates, but there are prominent soloistic parts for piano and percussion as well. It is feasible for the percussion part to be split between two players if necessary.

‘I have no complaints, though, about Tim Souster’s sonata for solo cello with seven wind instruments, piano and percussion, having been spellbound throughout this work. Partly because of the almost continuous presence of the cello, played beautifully by Christopher van Kampen, the music is not cheapened either by its obvious leanings towards the popular market, nor by its equally obvious depths to the kind of repetitive music practised by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Neither is it overwhelmed by Stockhausen. Indeed, Souster pursues his own course, remembering, too, the tradition of sonatas to which he is contributing, though without following any formal precedence: there are two movements joined by a cello cadenza, the first jazz-inflected, the second threatening to mesmerize itself with minimalism but wonderfully saved by the soloist’s intervention at the end.’

Paul Griffiths The Times 4.8.81 (London Sinfonietta performance)