A miscellany of twelve short pieces for piano soloforces: Piano
duration: Ca 41'00"
published by: Composers Edition
Movements 3 (Toccatina), 5 (Prelude) and 10 (Venezia) from Gallimaufry have been commercially recorded by Jeremy Filsell on the ACIS label: ACIS APL52078.
The complete release is available on Spotify, and includes the whole of A Room at the End of the Mind, the set of piano solo pieces preceding Gallimaufry.
Gallimaufry derives from the 16th-century French galimafrée, meaning literally a hotchpotch of different cooked meats. As such, it’s a suitable title for this third dozen of pieces, sequel to A House of Ghosts and A Room at the End of the Mind. Whereas those two sets laid only tenuous claim to any unified creative purpose, or to the right to be played together in a group, Gallimaufry makes absolutely no such case at all, being an unashamed gathering-up of otherwise homeless fragments with little, if anything, in common. At times its contents stray into the territory of pastiche, as in the somehow Irish-inflected Romanza [no.4] and the Medtner-like Alla Reminiscenza [no.7]. At others a sense of place or of person lies behind the music. The level of technical difficulty for the player remains secondary and subject to purely expressive intention, yet poses more frequent challenges than the pieces in the preceding two dozens.
For some years my wife, young children and I shared summer holidays with five other families. One such excursion took us to the Château de Lartigolle in Gascon countryside, about an hour from the French city of Toulouse. Friendships took root and endured, memories likewise. If the title Aubade [something with which to see in the dawn] implies more virtue in the hour of our arising than was strictly the case, nonetheless it’s an apt encapsulation of the pleasurable wellbeing and sense of community attending the start of a new day in an enchanted place.
A tender vignette. Nothing breaks the innocent spell, and this little piece (‘…you are the music / while the music lasts’, wrote Eliot) is open-ended, fading beyond reach rather than coming to any definitive conclusion.
- Toccatina on Two Christmas Carol Tunes
This brief but energetic piece was commissioned in 1983 as a contribution to a Christmas issue of The Classical Keyboard Collection, a short-lived anthology predominantly of transcriptions. Embodying a compressed ternary form, in its outer sections the Toccatina presents God rest ye, merry gentlemen as if through a distorting mirror, while the short central passage meditates for a moment or two upon the mediaeval Coventry Carol – without, however, abandoning the prevailing time signature of four beats in a bar. The final chord probably represents the most momentary of homages to the harmonic idiom of the late Kenneth Leighton [d. 1988], a composer to whose contrapuntal mastery I continue to owe much, especially in my organ music.
In the early 1980s I was discovering many obscure Romantic piano concertos, convinced (as I still am) that several forgotten examples could hold their own alongside the few which have endured to become ‘warhorses’ of the virtuoso repertoire. For a time I was gripped by the idea of writing one myself, in a kind of ‘cod’ nineteenth-century idiom with unaccountably Irish inflections. Parts of this curious exercise do exist, and might one day be continued were it not for the pressure of other, more urgent and less inexplicable projects. One section that did come into being was the proposed opening of a slow movement: initially a piano solo, to which discreet orchestral accompaniment would soon be added. In a reverse-engineered fashion, the theme was then reworked to provide the D major secondary subject of a B minor first movement in triple time; and it remains scheduled (possibly for ever) to make an apotheosised appearance as the required ‘big tune’ towards the end of a finale. As it is, the theme at hand remains ‘all dressed up, with nowhere to go’; so I have added just enough central digression to enable an elaborated reprise thereafter – such as might occur towards the closing stages of a concerto slow movement. The filigree decoration reflects the sort of treatment one might expect in a concerto solo part, and therefore makes no concession to technical restraint.
Having made friends with the Sharp family, five in number, I wrote them this Prelude in a key which allowed them one sharp each. The music has no programme or subtext, and begins simply enough before becoming more complex in texture. While embodying certain of my harmonic fingerprints from relatively recent years, the piece aims at a certain timelessness of idiom and avoids overt dissonance in favour of something by turns hauntingly evanescent, as if borne on the wind, and more expansive in nature. It attempts the difficult eclectic trick of sounding earlier than it really is, yet not reminding the listener of anybody in particular.
- Prelude and Ricercar on Bist du bei mir
In 2012 the Cheltenham International Festival ran a competition soliciting short preludes based upon the arioso theme Bist du bei mir. The fact that this makes an appearance in J. S. Bach’s Clavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach [BWV 508; dated 1725] has understandably led to widespread assumption that Bach was its fons et origo; yet the melody comes actually from an aria in the opera Diomedes  by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749), a composer much respected by Bach. Misconception attends also the actual phrase bist du bei mir – roughly, ‘with you by my side’, but with the untranslatable bei open to a more spiritual interpretation. Some have assumed Bach was addressing Anna Magdalena; others that he was addressing God. Far fewer have considered the unhappy irony that Diomedes, mythical Greek hero of the Trojan War, fell foul of Aphrodite before returning home to find that, in a vindictive piece of divine retribution, his wife had been unfaithful.
Never mind! My grandmother had loved BWV508 and had been of the ‘God / Anna Magdalena’ persuasion. My mother inherited that love, although, following her own mother’s death, it was impossible to play or sing Bist du bei mir without reducing her to tears. For me, as for many others, it holds bitter-sweet memories and resonances, and there were private family reasons to find myself attracted by the Cheltenham brief. A set of preludes on Bist du bei mir by various composers had already been published as a present to Judith Serota, erstwhile Director of the Spitalfields Festivals in London, on the initiative of her successor, the composer Diana Burrell, who had conceived the idea of assembling a set of pieces of intermediate difficulty for her to play [Variations for Judith]. My own subsequent offering was singled out by the Cheltenham competition and duly performed by Melvyn Tan in the 2012 Festival. Once that had happened, the Prelude had little obvious home or context on its own; and so, several years later and with Judith Serota’s blessing, I added the Ricercar. The terms Ricercar and Fugue are flexible and to some extent interchangeable, but I liked the etymology of ricercar, with its connotations of teasing something out, often before putting it to some further use. Here, the teasing-out resides in initially turning elements in the melodic contour of Bist du bei mir upside down. Only latterly does its salient falling fifth resume its original shape, whereupon the tune gradually emerges again in more detail before a hushed, tender peroration.
- ‘Alla Reminiscenza’: Homage to Nikolai Medtner
Dedicated to the legendary French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin and his wife, the pianist and broadcaster Cathy Fuller, this unashamed pastiche is rooted in a shared devotion to the music of Nikola (Nicolas) Medtner (1880-1951): exile from Revolutionary Russia, itinerant exile, friend of Rachmaninov, pianist of comparable talents himself and, from 1935, resident in North London. Medtner’s heavily piano-centric output includes fourteen solo sonatas and a larger number of pieces entitled Skazka – a more or less untranslatable term meaning very much more than ‘fairy tale’, the usual formulation by publishers in Britain and Germany. The term connotes anything with either a subtext taken from legend or merely an abstract narrative flavour. Medtner’s single most popular work is probably his single-movement Sonata-Reminiscenza, written at a dacha in the forests outside Moscow at a time when he knew that enforced departure from his homeland must be imminent. In this haunting piece, which blurs the distinction between sonata and ‘skazka’, the reminiscenza element is not a straightforward recollection in tranquillity but, rather, the anticipation of looking back from an unknown future; music, as it were, in the future-perfect tense. My own tribute appropriates many Medtnerian fingerprints of harmony, harmonic rhythm, modulation and pianism, including a final page in which as many of Medtner’s sonata beginnings as possible are affectionately gathered up and scattered again, as an ear-tickler for the dedicated and informed Medtnerphile (such as M-AH). The German inscription, taken from a little Goethe poem set to music as one of Medtner’s many songs, reads ‘surely they were made for one another’.
The title is borrowed from the ninth of John Donne’s Elegies, a contemplation partly of love in advancing age. The face in this musical miniature could be that of Autumn itself, or that of a loved one glimpsed fleetingly through the trees. Specifically, I found myself thinking of the portrait of Lady St John of Bletsoe by the obscure early-Jacobean painter William Larkin, in which a black-clad, enigmatically smiling figure stands beneath an autumnal tree on a hilltop. A church steeple is seen in the middle-distance, outlined black against the misty grey-green valley outspreading behind and below her. The music is purely a personal response, making no attempt to mirror the period of the picture.
Bach’s keyboard Inventions are written for two parts, and are complemented by a set of three-part Sinfonias. In the present Invention, the title in one group has attached itself to the ‘instrumentation’ of another, since the music is three-part. In any case, though, it mimics some of the outward characteristics of Bach’s Gigue movements, not least the one concluding his French Suite no. 5 in G. In keeping with Baroque models, the parts enter in fugal style, one after another, the two halves are exactly equal in length, both are repeated, and the midway point provides a cadence in what may as well – despite the loosely modal character of the music – be termed the dominant key. The second half reverses things by turning the ‘fugal’ subject upside down and presenting it in the opposite order of parts, beginning at the bottom rather than the top. Dynamics, articulation and (with the exception of the final bar in each half) discreet momentary touches of pedal are here left entirely to the discretion and taste of the player.
John Ruskin’s prose in Stones of Venice captures to a unique degree the abiding atmosphere of the place, and this piece bears a dedication to my friend Francis O’Gorman, Ruskin scholar and Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Despite Ruskin’s principal purpose of writing a treatise on all the churches and artworks of Venice, here it is one of his more poetic and panoramic digressions that serves to encapsulate the music. This is presented as an inscription at the end of the piece.
Venezia takes its autobiographical cue from a winter’s afternoon spent many years ago, drifting through the wan, deserted residential squares and lanes of Cannaregio, the outlying northern sestiere of Venice. Many of the slow movements of Vivaldi seem almost supernaturally attuned to this experience, and accordingly a quotation from Winter, amongst his Four Seasons concerti, makes a few ghostly appearances, like a face glimpsed in a window or a distant figure hurrying indoors, wary of one’s approach. Also present are faint echoes of Liszt’s two late piano pieces eerily entitled La Lugubre Gondola. Liszt was acknowledging his sense of premonition upon witnessing a Venetian funeral cortège making its way up the Grand Canal. Sure enough, a bare few years later his son-in-law, Richard Wagner, died in Venice and was conveyed in just such a vessel to his last resting place. The score of Venezia embodies a similar presentiment as to the survival of the city (‘La Serenissima’) herself.
- Wild Sea
This brief but turbulent piece has no specific programme and arose spontaneously out of some recreational improvising at the piano. Without straying unduly close, the music nods once or twice towards the declamatory idiom of some of the more stormy short pieces by the British composer and pianist York Bowen (1884-1961), not least in the consonant harmonic ‘false relations’ just before its closing bars. In 1995 I had the pleasure of contributing CD booklet notes on music by Bowen for a ground-breaking Hyperion recording by the British virtuoso pianist and polymath, Stephen Hough. Friendly contact already in place has lasted ever since, so the dedication here is to him.
In 1971 I arrived apprehensively at Winchester College – a very small fish in an alarmingly big pond. Arriving at the same moment and in the same boarding house was Jonathan Leyne, and a friendship was forged that day which was to last over four decades. He was my best man; I played at his own wedding. Jon went on to become the BBC’s man at the United Nations in New York and, subsequently, its principal reporter from Tehran and Cairo. A fine bassoonist and pianist, Jon (Joffy to all his many friends) wasted no time in finding pianos in unlikely places and obtaining permission to make good use of them. ‘Joffy’s on’, my wife would regularly call from the next room, and we would usually stop what we were doing in order to listen to his televised reports, admiring their wisdom, diplomacy and professionalism. …Then, one day in 2013, ‘Have you noticed? – We haven’t seen Joffy lately…’. Reporting on the edge of the desert, Jon had collapsed in the heat. Sensing that the cause was something worse than dehydration, somehow his devoted driver had managed to arrange his rapid repatriation to the UK; but the malignant brain tumour which claimed his life was inexorable.
This piece should have been written some years ago. Somehow the will was there but, whenever it came to the point, not there. The superscription is the conclusion of an elegy by the Hebrides-born poet Iain Crichton Smith in memory of his blood brother, upon the latter’s death in Canada. Jon was not my blood brother, yet the word brother isn’t out of place. Ave atque vale.
© Francis Pott, 2020
Domestically-recorded sound files of the composer playing movements 6 [Prelude & Ricercar on ,Bist du bei mir’ ] and 8 [Autumnal] from Gallimaufry can be heard via the following links:
‘…Pott’s piano music communicates warmth, beauty, sophistication and heartfelt expression. It falls easily and memorably both on the ear and (presumably) on Jeremy Filsell’s expertly caressing fingers. Take Venezia, for example. The ambling passagework gently grooves in cruise control, offset, however, by unexpected harmonic twists or ornaments. …The myriad attractions of Pott’s palpable musical gifts belie the modest and sometimes self-deprecating persona he depicts in his extensive booklet notes.’
Jed Distler, Gramophone, November 2019