Thalassa (The Sea)
Poem for pianoduration: 22'00"
published by: Composer
Thalassa was written as the last in what was originally a sequence of five solo pieces entitled Pentameron (meaning a work in five ‘panels’ or pictures). In their original configuration, the other movements were The Song of Amergin – Scherzo-Notturno – Farewell to Hirta – Drowned Summer. Of those, Scherzo-Notturno and Farewell to Hirta are now available separately from Composers Edition, the latter in very slightly revised form. The Song of Amergin remains in manuscript but is destined for issue by Composers Edition in due course, as is Thalassa. The fourth movement, Drowned Summer, has already passed through one revision and requires another before it can be released into the public domain.
This note appraises Thalassa across a distance of some 35 years and, accordingly, can hardly hope to offer any close insight into the conception or completion of the work. What can be stated fairly objectively is that the piece is a kind of symphonic poem for piano solo, the writing of which betrays many signs of mirroring the orchestra in keyboard terms while adhering to a pianistic and idiomatic use of its shown instrument. The music begins with a simple 6-note figure which is to permeate the entire work. This leads into a portentous slow introduction which seeks to suggest a first broad, sweeping vista of the sea. Intermittent repeated triplets suggest bells, possibly as a ghostly tolling from the depths of the ocean.
An expansive Allegro reaches an exuberant climax before a slower, more sombre central section builds to a further climax. The suggestion of underwater bells is again readily apparent. A reprise of the allegro tempo begins in scherzando fashion before gathering force and momentum towards an heroic climax and a headlong coda. In the final stages the initial six-note motif, which came to rest on a G and served to suggest an underlying G minor tonality, becomes subverted by the downward semitonal pull of F sharp, with the result that the music resolves finally into a triumphant F sharp major (a key which seems to have exerted a particular gravitational attraction in two or three of my organ works during the 1980s).
The alternation of slow and fast here may be seen to nod in the direction of Ravel’s infamous Scarbo, the malevolent anthropomorphic goblin encountered in the third and final movement of the composer’s Gaspard de la Nuit. Similarly, the actual piano writing in Thalassa bears obvious debt to the same source, although no 24-year-old could hope to match such an exalted model in subtlety or sophistication and, accordingly, no such claims are made. As far as evocation of the sea is concerned, my later piece Hunt’s Bay (1994) might be seen as an attempt at the same kind of thing, made by a slightly older and wiser composer working on a somewhat more compressed and pragmatic scale. There, a greater fluidity and harmonic ellipsis is evident. Thalassa currently remains in manuscript, awaiting its creator’s editorial attention at some unspecified date in the future. I recall that it was submitted unsuccessfully to a panel of the SPNM in the mid-1980s, eliciting an anonymous comment from that ‘its harmonic language needs to become either simpler or (preferably) a great deal more complicated’. Perceptive as this seems to me in 2017, it is unlikely to happen now! Instead, I remain content for the work to be available to an interested few, should they prove to exist, and for it to stand as a record of the fledgling composer I was in 1982.
In 1983 a competition success led to one of my other piano solo works being studio-recorded non-commercially by my distinguished mentor and piano teacher, Hamish Milne. Three days were set aside for this, but – consummate professional that he was and remains – he completed the task to his own satisfaction in a few hours. I therefore had two days at my disposal but nothing obvious with which to fill them. So I went away for the first day and learned Thalassa as best I could, then came back on the third day and recorded it myself. I have long since grown out of the piece itself, but when I look back I feel the playing came out better than might have been expected, notwithstanding some inevitable rough edges. Since this is the only recording of Thalassa of any kind at all, I offer it here for general interest. It is antiquated, reel-to-reel stuff, edited with razor blades and all, and the sound quality is uncomfortably percussive and immediate in the many loud passages.