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David Jennings: Piano Sonata, Op.1 (1999)

I am inclined to challenge the opening sentence of Phillip Fawcett’s programme notes for the premiere of David Jennings’ Piano Sonata, Op.1. Fawcett states that ‘few piano sonatas of note have been written in the post-WW2 years.’ Without trawling too deep into the catalogues of late twentieth century music it is easy to find a considerable number of British composers who have written excellent examples of the genre. One thinks of Humphrey Searle’s Liszt-inspired but serially constructed masterpiece dating from 1951. An equally impressive work by Iain Hamilton was performed in the same year. He also produced two further fine examples. Other outstanding Sonatas include those by Alun Hoddinott, William Mathias and John White. Yet to some extent, I accept that Fawcett’s statement is valid. In past decades composers have been beholden to various musical cliques. Jazz suffused the works of many composers after the Great War. There were also neo-baroque and neo-classical influences. Serialism was dominant in the nineteen-fifties; more avant-garde practices such as aleatory music and the novel use of instruments became common in the ’sixties. Our present era seems to have eschewed dissonance and complex structure and opted for a kind of ‘cool minimalism’ with soft, trouble-free harmony that does not require the intellectual engagement of the listener. What has happened in recent years is the tendency of ‘post-minimalist’ composers to produce pop-saturated piano music that is designed for the short-termism of the mass-market. Ludovico Einaudi and Phamie Gow fall into this category. I imagine the formal strictures of sonata form would be anathema to these composers and their followers.
 
It is good, therefore, to come across a major piano work that does not play to populist mores, that is challenging, enjoyable and satisfying in both structure and sound.
 
David Jennings’ website gives a brief biography, however three things can be said that will help the potential listener approach this Sonata. Firstly, Jennings is a Yorkshireman, having been born in Sheffield in 1972. Nevertheless, he has crossed the Pennines on a number of occasions, including study at Manchester University with John Casken and his active membership of the Lakeland Composer’s group. At present he lives near Morecambe Bay.
 
Secondly, Jennings has had a wide range of musical and non-musical influences. He maintains a great interest in art, especially the 19th century English water-colourists – which he feels are ‘an inspiring marriage of technique and expression’. It is a quality that he clearly exhibits in his music. The composer is stimulated by North Country landscape, particularly Yorkshire and Northumberland.
 
The composer’s musical style is securely anchored in the Western tradition: Jonathan Woolf has suggested that he is ‘strongly immersed in the music of the British Musical Renaissance’. There are a number of trajectories including jazz, serialism and post-romanticism apparent in his music, most of which appear in the present Sonata. Composer influences may include Frederick Delius, Kenneth Leighton, George Gershwin, John Ireland, Béla Bartok and Frank Bridge.
 
David Jennings has explained that his Op.1 was in gestation for a considerable period of time. The first sketches were made in 1988, when he was only sixteen years of age. The work was completed in its original form in 1995. Subsequent revisions were made before the Sonata was finally published in 2013 by Goodmusic Publishing (GM102). There is a fine painting by Edward Richardson (1810-1874) of ‘A Castle in Yorkshire’ on the cover. The Sonata is dedicated to Phillip Fawcett, who gave the premiere.
 
Jennings’ Piano Sonata is conceived in four well-balanced movements – an opening ‘Ballade: molto moderato’ (not allegro animato as declared in the programme notes: Jennings revised the tempi before publication), followed by the Scherzo: allegro vivacissimo. The slow movement, a Romance: adagio con tenerezza-allegretto scherzando, is placed third. The Sonata concludes with a sub-rondo – Finale: Presto vivace-allegro agitato.
 
It is a considerable work, lasting more than twenty minutes and filling a large canvas with often elaborate musical invention and development. An analysis of the Sonata suggests a ‘wayward’ progress of themes throughout the work. The exposition of each movement is typically derived by a kind of continual development that flows from one section into the next. There is little traditional ‘eight bar phrases,’ or textbook application of subjects and bridge passages usual in ‘classical’ sonata form.
 
The first movement, a Ballade, opens with six bars of music that owes much to the romantic school of composition such as Chopin or Liszt. There are no chromatic notes to disturb the prevailing E minor tonality. This begins to break down as the theme transforms and becomes more decorated. A fingerprint of Jennings’ writing is the uses of triplets against quavers - and many other irregular divisions of the bar - which is a feature of this movement and the rest of the work. Harmonic detail includes the use of sequences of sixths and thirds although there are plenty of well-judged dissonances (minor 2nds and 7ths) in the prevailing harmony. There is a balance struck between harmonic and contrapuntal phrases. I am not convinced that the repeat of the ‘exposition’ was entirely necessary. There is no suggestion of what the sub-text of the ‘Ballade’ may have been: the mood of the music moves from being trouble-free to one of considerable aggression and angst. The spirit of Bartók is invoked shortly before the ‘recapitulation’. In the coda, Jennings uses what are virtually note clusters before reprising with a ‘hard’ version of the opening subject. The movement ends with a ‘twelve-tone’ row.
 
The ‘Scherzo’ is jazz-inflected music. Jennings makes elaborate use of time signature changes: sometime from bar to bar. He uses 7/8, 5/8, 3/8 and 6/8 measures juxtaposed. The entire scherzo is repeated. This is technically difficult music that deconstructs ‘jazz’ towards an almost atonal structure. This movement has been described as ‘light-hearted’ as befits a ‘scherzo’ however I feel that there is ‘something of the night’ lying ‘between’ these notes.
 
A key point to notice in this Sonata is the fact that Jennings has made use of a tone-row or a series as one of the constructive tools of the work. This is not a slavishly followed procedure where all melody, harmony and counterpoint are derived from this procedure. Erwin Stein once wrote that it is ‘quite unnecessary for the listener to notice or recognize a … row in its functions; he need no more than experience the result.’ The composer has suggested to me that the ‘series’ was used in the third movement and also formed the basis of the ‘scherzando’ middle section of the ‘Romance.’ His stated aim was to reconcile the use of twelve-tone procedures with a more traditional tonal, albeit often dissonant and chromatic substance. Jennings rightly insists that the Sonata ‘is resolutely tonal, however, when viewed as a whole.’
 
The slow section (adagio) of the Romance has a strong feel of John Ireland in the deployment of ‘bitter-sweet’ harmonies involving considerable chromatic alteration to what are often simple chords. Again the composer’s fingerprint of triplets and irrational rhythms of up to ten notes are counterpoised. The middle section of the slow movement reprises the ‘jazz’ mood, but is soon pushed out of the reckoning by the opening theme of the ‘romance.’
 
The Finale is influenced by rock music more than jazz. This has been subjected to the musical thought of Bartók. Chordal passages with added seconds are played off against chromatic unison runs and sequences. This typically noisy, splashy music is exuberant and fundamentally wayward. There is a ‘tranquillo’ episode that calls the proceedings to order. The movement and the work concludes with an almost ‘Lisztian’ intensity before a largely diatonic ‘adagio’ brings the work to a close.
 
[image]The premiere of David Jennings’ Piano Sonata, Op.1 was given at The Chapel, The University of Cumbria, Lancaster on Friday 12 June 2009. The pianist was Phillip Fawcett who bases his teaching and performance activities in Lancaster, his birthplace. The recital included three pot-boilers by Franz Liszt, Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op.40 and a Bach Prelude and Fugue. After the interval Fawcett performed the Intermezzo in B flat, Op.117 No.1 by Brahms and Mozart’s so-called ‘Easy Sonata’, Sonata in C, K545.
 
The local newspaper, the Lancaster Guardian (25 June 2009) was enthusiastic: ‘The most remarkable part of the recital was a premiere of a new Piano Sonata by David Jennings. This Sonata, his first, was described in Phillip Fawcett's programme notes as “a major contribution to piano literature” and my gut instinct is that he was right. This work made a powerful impression in its compelling sense of musical drama. We must hear this music again soon.’ 
 
Jennings’ Piano Sonata was given a further performance by Phillip Fawcett at the same venue on Friday, 5 February 2010. Works at this concert included Schubert’s Sonata in C, D.279, Grieg’s rarely heard Sonata in E minor, Op.7 and Mozart’s Sonata in B flat, K570.
 
In 2012 the Divine Art record label issued a retrospective CD (DDA25110) of David Jennings’ piano music including most of what he had composed for the instrument up to that point. The pianist was James Willshire. The CD received excellent reviews with the Sonata coming in for special praise. Jonathan Woolf (op.cit.) perceptively states that the Sonata ‘covers a pleasing amount of stylistic ground’. He clearly appreciated the ‘snazzy, jazzy Scherzo with some good rolling left hand’ and noted the ‘almost Debussian harmonies in the Romance third movement’. Gary Higginsonin his review for MusicWeb International declared that the Piano Sonata ‘… is most intriguingly original … This is proper piano music and a truly extraordinary Op. 1 which deserves regular hearings and public airings.’
 
David Jennings’ Piano Sonata Op. 1 is an exceptional example of the genre. He has synthesised a number of elements into this music and these include serialism and jazz. The harmonic style is a clever balance between considerable dissonance, including ‘clusters’ and a more bitter-sweet chord structure found in the music of John Ireland. The Sonata’s strongest feature is the composer’s subtle use of these ‘tools’ to produce a satisfying and enjoyable work. Phillip Fawcett is ultimately correct in suggesting that this is one of the best examples of a Piano Sonata to have appeared in the past sixty years. It deserves, chiefly on account of its musical sincerity, its construction and the synthesis of many differing elements, to take its place alongside the above-mentioned works by Searle, Hamilton and Hoddinott.
 
John France

With thanks to Phillip Fawcett for permission to quote from the Programme Notes of the premiere performance and to David Jennings for additional information about this Sonata.

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