Piano Sonata #7

in

f minor

Instrumentation:
Date of Completion:
Description:
Solo piano
Sonata in three movements

As are all my piano sonatas, #7 is a portrait of someone I know personally. It is dedicated to a singer I knew when I taught at a little music school for singers in New York City, the Singers Forum, where I had gotten a job in the ‘80s as the accompanist and language coach for their opera workshop. To protect her privacy, I'll call her Danielle. She was tall, quite beautiful really, with a studied, almost majestic demeanor and a pronounced French accent. She was very serious and rarely smiled. Now that I think of it, I don’t believe I ever heard her laugh back then. For some months she came for private coachings at my apartment, as some of the other students at the workshop did when they wanted extra help learning some music. Eventually, she left the Singers Forum, got a bachelor’s degree in music from the Mannes School, and performed a bit around town for a couple of years. I remember once seeing her at the band shell in Central Park doing a Verdi lead with a real orchestra. I was so proud. She then moved back to France, and we lost touch. Well, around 2014, Danielle found my phone number in an old address book of hers and gave me a call out the blue. We talked for quite a while, and I found out something about Danielle's life since she moved back to France. She had gotten married and had moved to a tiny medieval village in the south of France, where, after living together happily for some years, her husband passed away from cancer. Well, after catching up with Danielle, I thought it would be fun to go to the south of France, so Dennis and I went to visit her. We had a great time visiting Danielle, but she was not the person I remembered. Her solemn demeanor was gone: now she was a lively, talkative, sometimes loud person. Danielle was never completely comfortable speaking English, but in French she was anything but shy. I remember her rolling down the car window and hurling extravagant obscenities at another driver who had cut us off.

You’re probably thinking “What has all this to do with the sonata?”. Well, here’s the answer. The first movement is a portrayal of the solemn, Junoesque Danielle as I knew her in New York. The second movement is about her husband struggling with cancer and dying. The third movement is about her living her life in France now. The second movement is interesting structurally. It’s a chaconne, a Baroque form where a base line of (usually) eight measures is repeated over and over, underneath an ever varying melody. In the score of the second movement you can see roman numerals in the upper left hand corner of every eighth measure. These mark each repetition of the base line. I’ve taken a few liberties, but the repeating base line holds true for almost all the piece. The exceptions are in the “love theme” section and the coda. The love theme is presented in measure 81 as repetition XI, but I realized after eight bars that I wanted to develop the melody in a way that didn’t fit the base line, so I ignored it from measure 89 (marked with “…” in the score) to measure 106. Repetition XII starts in measure 107. Repetion XIV is the last one. In this repetition the protagonists (Danielle and her husband) realize that after all the struggle, death is inevitable. At this point the repetitions stop and I bring back the love theme, pianissimo. I was imagining the husband in his hospital bed, all hooked up to monitors and tubes, mustering his little remaining strength to say goodbye to Danielle. The coda shows his spirit leaving the flesh and ascending to a higher reality. I think I used the chaconne form to represent the struggle against the disease: no matter what Danielle and her husband did or thought or felt, the disease simply went its predestined way. The only escape from the path happens when love is expressed. By the way, I didn’t do much of this analysis when I was writing, only afterwards when I was learning to play the piece. But I certainly shed tears writing the second movement.

 © 2020 by Robert Lawrence Cohen