If any composer from the last hundred years can be said to have redefined the piano sonata, that composer is John White. A unique figure in British music, his vast compositional output documents a long involvement with the worlds of dance, theatre, experimentalism and electronica as well as with that of the concert hall.
His 180 piano sonatas cover a more or less continuous period from No.1 (1956) to the present day, but with gaps, and no less than thirty-four date from 1973. Read more
An overall view would inevitably attempt to divide them into groups, successfully to a degree, although this is less easy in recent years as they have become more varied and relatively sporadic. More often than not, they have been composed without either request or any specific performance in mind, as is indicated in his introduction (left). As such, in contrast to other areas of his output, they can be regarded as ‘semi-private’ pieces—entries in a diary rather than public statements perhaps.
White’s own notes and comments on his sonatas have often encouraged the listener to make connections with other music for reasons beyond what musicologists would regard as conventional ‘influence’. Any list of those connections would be necessarily wide, but composers (unsurprisingly, mostly pianist- composers) who feature prominently would certainly include those referred to in a programme-note from 1974: Alkan, Schumann, Busoni, Satie, Reger, Scriabin, Medtner and Bruckner. Some would regard this list as a curious mixture ranging from the conservative to the experimental. Other ‘friends’ of long standing would include Poulenc, Fauré, Godowsky, Liszt, Frank Martin, Rachmaninoff, Sorabji and Szymanowski – an apparently disparate collection of composers from the world of ‘alternative’ music history.
White has pointed to various common denominators: an economic and concentrated way of viewing musical material, but also; ‘a practically physical predilection for a particular kind of sound and the extension and development of that sound.’ Subversion and contradiction, especially through the unfamiliar use of apparently traditional language and procedures, are features of those such as Alkan, Busoni and Satie who, in turn, inform his own music.
The earlier sonatas (up to No.21) include several substantial multi-movement works, but since the mid-1960s they have tended to be single movements of a few minutes duration. White’s early approach to the sonata was to seek alternatives to, or subversions of, the multi-movement genre with all its structural implications before abandoning the principle altogether: and to find ways of musical continuity without reliance on most of the traditional, particularly developmental formal devices whilst employing a musical vocabulary which, on the surface, often seemed familiar. Back in 1971, the composer Brian Dennis suggested that these sonatas
‘revealed a gradual withdrawal from the world of accepted innovation… White’s thinking was, and still remains, essentially lateral; which is to say that it is concerned not with direct linear development (historical or personal) but with ideas quite beyond technique’.
In recent years, it is largely thanks to the efforts of the pianist and composer Jonathan Powell that many have been edited, performed and recorded, most notably on a double CD for Convivium Records.
The constructivist sonatas Nos. 37–52 (mainly from 1969) explore a quite different direction. Most are slow, dissonantly atonal works, bereft of the type of historical reference and narrative elements that are present, and many are based closely on material from the (potentially) enormously long Cello and Tuba Machine of 1968, written for performance with Cornelius Cardew. The period of collaboration with Cardew provided the catalyst not only for ‘experimental’ works such as these from the mid-1960s onwards, but also—less obviously—for the more radical assessment initiated by the sonatas that immediately followed.
Sonatas Nos. 53 to 90 (all composed between April 1972 and November 1973) represent a return to creating tonality-orientated narrative compositions. These are brief works displaying a fresh approach (‘an immediate communication in which there’s minimal development of the situation) in which the composer was both distancing himself from the notion of composition as ‘private research’ and applying the experience of working in theatrical productions. The last three of the set (and the relatively few in the years immediately following) are less brief, allowing more ‘development of the situation if not an actual argument.’
The sonatas on the present recording date from 1980 to 2008. The earliest of these, Nos. 105, 106 and 107, are aesthetically similar to Nos. 88-90.
Those from No. 116 onwards are less exclusive and on occasion fit less comfortably with the notion of what is conventionally expected of a concert work. In other words, the composer’s approach has diversified to the extent that, since 1987, one can have had few preconceptions about a new John White sonata beyond a probable duration of a few minutes and a safe bet that there will be surprises in store. By this time, for the composer they became more linked with the example of Scarlatti ‘from whom comes the idea of numerous one-movement pieces, and all called “sonatas.”’
A parallel could also be said to exist across the centuries in that Scarlatti and White sonatas refer (with gentle irony) to the styles and instrumentation of popular music: Scarlatti with his mistuned guitars and hunting horns, White with his sidelong glances at the wonderful world of ‘Friday Night is Music Night.’ †
The variety of style and approach is most clearly exemplified by sonatas Nos. 127-138 (six of which feature on this CD). These cover a period of four years and include the five from Les Enfants du Paradis, three very different birthday tributes (one lasting about 40 seconds) and a 23-minute barcarolle (no. 135), the longest sonata since 1969.
Some of these later sonatas have appeared in small groups (Nos. 99-106, 155-160), perhaps in preparation for a particular concert or celebration (Nos. 111-115, 146-152). Many others have emerged in response to individual requests or have been recycled from incidental music, most notably the five from Simon Callow’s adaptation of Les Enfants du Paradis (Nos. 127-130, 136), produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996. Amongst the sonatas on this CD are two (Nos. 107 and 139) recalling the composer’s ballet class playing days, and one (No. 120), his introduction to electronica. Three (Nos. 123, 138 and 146) are dedicated to his wife. Some on this CD were written for other pianists (e.g., Nos. 132 and 147) and no less than three are dedicated to Jonathan Powell, the pianist on this recording.