Tippett’s Third Piano Sonata

The piano has always been very close to Tippett. He is not himself a fluent pianist, but he knows the instrument, its sounds and possibilities, very well, and always composes at the piano. He has written a good deal for the instrument; three sonatas, a concerto, and the early Fantasia on a theme of Handel for piano and orchestra. There are, too, the amazingly difficult piano parts in Boyhoods’s End and The Heart’s Assurance; and since Symphony No. 2 the piano has been an essential element of his orchestral palette.

The piano works occupy an interesting place in Tippett’s output, as they offer an almost ideal perspective of his development as a composer. There is a major piano work in each of his stylistic periods. Even the Handel Fantasia, which somehow does not quite merit inclusion in the published Tippett canon, perhaps gives an indication of the quality of his pre-published music. There is an element of the quintessential about the piano works; though they are not just concentrated forms of other pieces, they do give a precise idea of what the composer is all about.

Sonata No.3 followed immediately after Symphony N0.3; and though it quotes nothing from that work, it does share two of its preoccupations - with Beethoven, and with types of music found in the first movement of the symphony, which Tippett characterises by the terms “Arrest” and “Movement”, indicating a compression of energy, and an explosion of energy.

The Sonata is in three sections - fast, slow, fast - designed to be played as a single, unbroken piece. The first section is a sonata-allegro, with three contrasted materials, of which the first and third are related. The piece opens with the hands at the extreme ends of the keyboard, playing a succession of angular phrases in two-part imitative counterpoint. This succession alternates long, loping heavily-accented phrases, which are extended at each appearance, with short, dancing phrases based on the interval of a major ninth. This is cut off abruptly as the hands come together in the middle of the keyboard in preparation for the second idea - calm, widely-spaced chords built up by the hands fanning out across the keyboard. An unexpected dominant seventh leads into the third idea - a lyrical passage, again based on major ninths. There is some important linking material, notably a quirky march, in dotted rhythm, and a misterioso passage of chord clusters and single staccato notes, decorated with mordents; a brisk argument; a decorated recapitulation, in which the material is represented as in the exposition, but (a familiar Tippett device) lifted in pitch by one tone.

During this movement everything is done to stop tension building up. There are abrupt stops and changes of momentum, though all within the same tempo indication, and the movement is kept quite short and unfinished; after a pause bar it moves straight into the slow second section, which is a theme and variations, with the feeling of an extended nocturne. The movement is in a slow 7/8 ,which imparts to it a static quality of rapt intensity. The theme is a succession of 17 elaborate six-part chords, decorated even at their initial appearance. The decoration is at its most florid towards the middle of the succession, and the twelfth chord is never actually heard as such. Each bar is a self-contained unit, a kind of “celebration” of that particular chord, and the movement is held together by this recognisable gradation of decoration, which is maintained throughout the variations, and by the corresponding pattern of dynamics, which is also constant and unvaried. There are four variations, each of which lifts the succession of chords through a minor third, so that by the fourth variation we are back at the initial level. This means, as Tippett puts it, that ‘the piano is, as it were, “covered” with four times 17 chords, of many aural'varieties, at all levels of the keyboard’. The movement is, in fact, a sustained piece of essentially vertical writing, unparalleled in his work.

In the first variation the chords are heard in pulsating figurations (with an evocative Blue note added), whose resonance is dissolved through further series of complex chords.

During the second variation the chords are virtually imperceptible. In this completely original piece of piano writing, the two hands float back and forth across the keyboard, unfolding seamless, overlapping phrases made up of four-part chords of fantastic harmonic richness and variety. There are, on average, 88 notes per bar, and no two chords are alike throughout the entire variation; a huge labour for the composer, and, I might add, for the pianist, who must commit this chordal kaleidoscope to fingers and memory. It is followed by the still heart of the sonata, a variation of quiet repose. Of the original succession of six-part chords, the top three notes are now heard as a simple, slow melody, underneath which the lower three notes are used to create a harmonic shimmer. The final variation is a miraculous study in trills, fourths and fifths.

The final movement is a toccata of whirling energy. The hands chase each other in rapid semiquaver passages, with frequent attempts to stop the whirling by means of trills, triplet figures and pounding chords. There is also an angular marcato theme accompanied by a brutal ostinato in bare octaves. The form of the movement is ABA, where B is the exact palindrome of Ai, and A2 is Ai slightly shortened but with a coda.

To me, privately, Tippett described the piece as his “late Beethoven” sonata. I first received it movement by movement, so that it was only when I had the whole piece, and had worked on it for some time, that I understood in what relation it stands to late Beethoven. On the surface there are many superficial connections; resemblances of texture and material, the extremes of high and low, the piled-up trills, the dotted march-rhythms. But, more fundamentally, there are similar technical preoccupations, like the central movement’s variation techniques, the intensification of decoration, with more and more notes to the beat. There is also the preocccupation with moving the centre of gravity of the work away from a dominating first movement, towards a variation-technique second movement.

The closest parallel is with the Hammerklavier Sonata. The core of that piece also is a long, contemplative slow movement, lasting as long as the other two movements together, the sublimeness of which is at once qualified by the grotesque and ironic comment of the last movement. And the last movement of Tippett’s third sonata has another pianistic predecessor in Chopin’s B flat minor sonata, whose last movement is indeed a wry comment on the preceding Funeral March.

A colleague once confessed to me that he could never tackle this sonata of Tippett as the last movement was so ugly. But this is to deny its very nature. It is deliberately uningratiating; one feels that the actual pitches of the notes do not matter; it is just the gesture that counts. The fact that it can be played as a palindrome is a veritable indication of this. Actually it would hardly matter if one turned the score upside down and played it that way. It has a take-it-or-leave-it quality, which is a violent and disturbing qualification of the second movement’s vision. And, like the Hammerklavier, and Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata, it ends suddenly, with a final gesture of defiance. That many people have found this positively exultant and exhilarating stands simply as yet another eloquent tribute to the power and depth of this masterly work.

Paul Crossley