Helen Neilson

Play, Architecture, Emotion

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"Feeling - like honesty - is a moral point of honour, an attitude of whose possession no one will permit denial, which claims a place in life and art alike.  But while, in life, a want of feeling may be forgiven to the possessor of a more brilliant attribute, such as bravery or impartial justice, in art feeling is held to be the highest moral qualification."  Busoni, 1962


This programme was presented at St John's Kirk, Perth, Scotland and at St John's Church, Notting Hill.


This programme is entitled “Play, Architecture, Emotion” and explores a range of works, some familiar, and some less frequently performed from the cello repertoire in which the composers have used the language of music in particular ways reflecting the above themes.

We open with the work of Scottish composer, Ronald Stevenson who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this year.  His mournful Recitative and Air on DSCH takes the motif spelling out the initials of Dmitri Shostakovich, and he then plays with this material to create his work which is dedicated in memoriam to Shostakovich.  I first became familiar with the work of Ronald Stevenson as a teenager through my mother’s performances of some of his work based upon traditional Scottish poetry for choir, although I have enjoyed getting to know more of this extraordinary musician’s work in recent times through friends and colleagues who have performed his music. 

We then continue with the theme of “playing” with musical material presented by another composer in order to create something new.  Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue for cello and piano was written in 1917, giving a fresh perspective on Bach’s original work for this instrumental combination.  The sense of dialogue allowed between the two instruments brings a new and dramatic approach to the original work where this is so clearly implied in the writing in certain parts of this piece.  Stevenson cites Busoni as one of his strongest musical influences, so it seems fitting to present their work side by side in this way.

Then we move on to Brahms’ Sonata in F major, op. 99 for Piano and Violoncello.  Notice the order in which the composer lists the instruments.  Indeed this does point towards the richness and complexity of the piano writing, over which the cello sings in soaring melodic lines. “The Romantic movement held that not all truth could be deduced from axioms, that there were inescapable realities in the world which could only be reached through emotion, feeling and intuition.”  Both the cello and the piano were favourite instruments to communicate the expressive ideals of this period, and many well known pieces of the cello repertoire come from this period.  The emotional experience of engaging with music has always been the most important part of being a musician for me.  The music of this period was one of the things which made we want to learn to play the cello, so I hope the audience can allow themselves to fully engage with the experience of the live performance, and be moved emotionally by this passionate  music which speaks directly to the heart. 


In the second half of the concert, we open with the Prelude of the second Bach cello Suite in D minor.   Brought into the concert repertoire by Catalan cellist and revered teacher, Pablo Casals, they are now considered the cornerstone of the repertoire for any cellist.  In this part of the concert, we are examining concepts of musical architecture.  The Prelude sets the scene for the rest of the suite to follows, made up of various dance movements.  The fundamental harmonic material that follows in the rest of the suite is explored in a quasi improvisatory manner in this movement.  There is an innate sense of musical architecture – like the various arcs in a beautiful cathedral working together in harmony to build a greater whole reflecting a logical sum of the parts. When I am practicing the suite, I often like to play the Prelude after having played the rest of the suite.  To me, it almost feels like there could be a kind of circular form to this suite where the Prelude could happily sit either before or after the other movements. 

This seems fitting before the next work where these themes of circular form and improvisation are likewise explored in the context of harmonic language of a different period in Elliot Carter’s Cello Sonata of 1948. This American composer is one of the most important musical voices of this musical age, and is due to celebrate his hundredth birthday on 11th December this year.  Carter felt that whilst composers before him had begun to attempt to revolutionize approaches to harmony and rhythm, they had not as yet really reinvented their approach to musical form and structure.  He felt that this was the next big development that the musical world needed to hang the new elements upon, in order for musical language to progress further.  Here, he experiments with the notion of circular form: a connection between the ending of a work and its beginning that suggest that the work could be imagined as a continuous loop.  This also accords well with the fact that the first movement was written after the other three.  He has cited Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” as his inspiration for this device, as well as Cocteau’s “The Blood of a Poet”.  He also discusses the influence of the idea of improvisation upon his use of the musical language, in particular in the first movement of the Sonata.  He writes, "I've always thought that in some very important way my pieces came from jazz - with a regular beat background and improvisations on top of that."

The programme then culminates with Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brilliante, op.3 once again bringing us back to the ideals of the Romantic era with its virtuosic piano writing and singing cello lines which could be said to be almost operatic in nature.  Written in the throes of heartbreak by the young Chopin, here the theme of using music to invoke emotion is once again foremost in the aims of the composer.