24 Straight Strung Piano Sonatas (2018)

24 Straight Strung Piano Sonates [2018]



Piet Jozef SWERTS



I.                     Sonata in a       Burano

II.                   Sonata in A      Primavera

III.                  Sonata in d       Lacrimosa

IV.                  Sonata in D       Consolation

V.                    Sonata in g        Ground

VI.                  Sonata in G      Pastorale

VII.                 Sonata in c        Arioso

VIII.                Sonata in C       Cascade

IX.                   Sonata in f        Cantilena

X.                    Sonata in F       Saltarella

IX.                   Sonata in bes     Mahnmal

XII.                 Sonata in Bes     Epitome

XIII.                Sonata in es       Wohltemperiert

XIV.                Sonata in Es      Alla Turca

XV.                 Sonata in gis      Purple

XVI.                Sonata in As      Silence

XVII.              Sonata in cis      Grief

XVIII.             Sonata in Des    Riff

XIX.                Sonata in fis      Schicksall

XX.                  Sonata in Ges   Facile

XXI.                Sonata in b       Sturm und Drang

XXII.               Sonata in B      Ilo 

XXIII.              Sonata in e       O Haupt

XXIV.              Sonata in E       Feofaniya

Duration                     ca.78’


My earliest piano compositions go already back from the seventies. Since then, not only the love for this gorgeous instrument, but also the desire and strong wish of composing own piano music has remained invariably. To date I wrote about thirty pieces for the instrument, some of them were intended for educational purposes (Easy Variations I-IV), others were clearly inspired by the romantic literature (Sonetto 63 del Petrarca and 5 Preludes à la mémoire de F.Chopin). There were also pronounced polyphonic compositions as well such as my Partita in memoriam J.S.Bach and the Five Two Part Inventions. In addition, I composed six piano concertos and recently a double concerto in 2017.

Nevertheless, every time the question recurs of the pianistic idiom. It is not easy to handle or even avoid pianistic ideas which have proved to be effective in the past literature because great composers themselves too were in search for templates that worked well on the keyboard and in that sense, it seems that all possibilities have been explored completely. That was and still is my major concern, to find a way to express my personal view of pianism that sounds characteristic and not too much related to impressionism or romanticism. Perhaps pianistic templates needn’t to be avoided at all but should be rather embraced and dealt with in a refreshing new way. In my point of view, piano sounds at his best as a polyphonic instrument, where simple but transparent lines can be created and heard in an incomparable way.

            My second and equal important consideration was and is the aspect of a large-scale form. I am not merely interested in writing some shorter pieces of ten minutes but gradually got more and more fascinated by the large cycle idea which surpasses the feeling of time by connecting internal relationships between subparts of a large-scale composition that may last for at least one hour.

            In September 2017, I had the pleasure to visit the Chris Maene Piano Factory and to play on his Straight Strung Concert Grand. A fantastic innovation, since the registers in this instrument sounds very particularly and are less blended then the conventional pianos. The reason for this is the straight position of the bass strings and above all its connection to a high standard keyboard that responds mechanically perfect giving the performer more opportunity to create colors and timbres. Two to three-part music should work wonderfully on this instrument. Further on, the personal need of performing music in public as pianist boosted up again, because for me as composer it is sometimes not satisfactory enough staying put for months working in solitude. For that reason, performing one’s own music becomes afterwards also very stimulating for the compositional processes.

            The sound of this Straight Strung Concert Grand and the idea of two or three part-writing led me to the Sonatas of Scarlatti, and in that sense his concept of short one movement sonatas seemed to me the best possible form to conceive towards a large cycle. The answer how to connect series of Sonatas came to me when I reflected about the 48 Preludes and Fugues of Bach’s Well Tempered Keyboard. There, the connection towards unity has been generated by the setup of keys, ordered chromatically and alternating systematically the major key with the minor key, so C, c, C sharp major, C sharp minor and so one.

            Contemplating on this order resulted in a new transformed version: opposite to Bach my Sonatas should start always with the minor key, the second one in the major, but then the next pair will proceed with a perfect fifth to the left.

01.             a                                02.                           A                               13.                           es                               14.                           Es

03.             d                                04.                           D                               15.                           gis                             16.                           As

05.             g                                 06.                            G                               17.                           cis                              18.                           Des

07.             c                                 08.                           C                               19.                           fis                              20.                           Ges

09.             f                                 10.                           F                                21.                           b                                22.                            B

11.             bes                            12.23.                           Bes                                                      e                                 24.                           E


So, beginning with a minor the 24th will conclude in E major. From there on, a second group of 24 could evolve in a retrograde manner, beginning with major, E, followed by e minor and progressing a perfect fifth to the right finally concluding back in a minor again. As such, a large unity of 48 Sonatas may be generated.


Inspirational sources and an overview of the first 12 sonatas


The musical interpretation of sonatas came in an intuitive way and these ideas not always followed the final order of the compositions self. The ideas for the first two sonatas were clearly inspired by Scarlatti and Galuppi, whose statue I saw in Burano. Scales combined with a lot of mordents give this sonata a very vivid expression.


         Fig.1 Sonata I in a — Burano


In the second sonata, Primavera, the theme of a broken descending triad spread over two octaves is very typical Scarlatti-like, its opposite component with stacked ascending thirds was a favorite feature of Benjamin Britten.



        Fig.2 Sonata II in A — Primavera

            In the third Sonata, I quoted the two most beautiful measures ever of Mozart’s Requiem, the opening of his Lacrimosa. I added a rest between those two measures because I had this feeling that each measure needed this additional silence to reverb the effect of its line longer. This silence created the opportunity to develop further this wonderful motive, finally concluding as catharsis in a cadence.



    Fig.3  Sonata III in d — Lacrimosa


            The fourth Sonata Consolation, opens very slowly, still influenced by the resonance of its previous Sonata. When I thought about the subtitle, the reminiscence was that of Liszt’s piano piece, and probably that’s why suddenly a short citation is heard of Isoldes Liebestod van Wagner, I performed several times Liszt’s transcription of this unbelievable music.



    Fig.4 Sonata IV in D, m.39-41 — Consolation


            The fifth Sonata, Ground eventually first seemed to be inspired on the bassline of the famous aria ’When I am laid in earth’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, but I finally extended the chromatic descending line into a whole chromatic scale towards the tonic. In the middle of this piece, the scale goes upwards.



    Fig.5 Sonata V in g — Ground


            The sixth Sonata, Pastorale sounds more open, certainly by the mixolydian G-scale who is closely related to the major scale. The musical idea was mainly pianistic creating continuous communication between both hands alternatively, it reminds somewhat to Satie’s Pièces froides.


   Fig.6 Sonata VI in G — Pastorale

            The seventh Sonata adopts the beautiful and poetical Scarlatti Sonata in b K.87 as a model, admiring its three-part voicing. There is coincidently even some similarity between the first four opening notes of both Sonatas:



    Fig.7 Scarlatti — Sonata K.87 in b

    Fig.8 Swerts, Sonata VII in c — Arioso

            My eight Sonata in C-major should have contrast in tempo and character. The broken triad in the right hand shows some affinity with the left hand from Haydn’s Hoboken XVI:35 Sonata in C-major. In my Sonata, the left hand conducts the main melodic part. Frequently and constantly repeating the arpeggiated triad-figures creates an effect of a waterfall, therefore it’s subtitle Cascade.



    Fig.9 Haydn, Sonata in C — Hoboken XVI:35


   Fig.10 Swerts, Sonata VIII in C — Cascade


            The ninth Sonata explores more the vocal upper register of the keyboard with a harmonic progression of broken thirds in the middle range.



   Fig.11 Sonata IX in f — Cantilena

The 10th Sonata evolves from contrary motion figures, it sounds very refreshing and to my opinion has a more Italian character.

    Fig..12 Sonata X in F — Saltarella

                  Because of this impression during the creation process, I wondered if it might be a good idea to insert a typical Italian folk tune and after some research I discovered a recording of this Saltarella:

    Fig..13 Sonata X in F, m. 80-83 — Saltarella

            Sonata n°11 was composed 27th of May 2018, five days after I visited Berlin. I was very moved by the Holocaustmonument or Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas. It consists of 2711 concrete blocks of variable heights between 20 and 450 centimeters. Every block is positioned with a space of 95 cm between each other block. American architect Peter Eisenman designed this monument, it has been produced by the company Degussa.

            Entering and wandering through this created space gave me a feeling of isolation and disorientation. All these emotions are expressed in this slow sonata which is built up with very limited intervals. Much to my own surprise the opening motif c-des-f is a transpostion of D-e-g-ussa. Mahnmal is the name Berlin citizens are using.

   Fig.14 Sonata XI in bes, m. 11-16 — Mahnmal


The last Sonata opens and concludes at the same time with the beginning of the very first Sonata but now in major. It creates a feeling of unity between the first 12 Sonatas.

    Fig.15 Sonata XII in Bes — Epitome

Overview of the last 12 Sonatas

When I realized that the thirteenth Sonata might be the opening of the second group of 12 Sonatas, I thought of the opening prelude of Bach’s Wohltemperiertes Klavier, first book. Personally, by its frequent use of pedal notes, it reminds me more at the opening Prelude of the cello Suite in G, although it has a 7/16 meter.

    Fig.16 Sonata XIII in es — Wohltemperiert


            Sonata XIV in E flat major called Alla Turca and makes musically fun of all ingredients of Mozart’s famous March: originally, I composed this piece as the final in my Serenata ‘Meine Kleine Nachtmusik’ for the baroque band Il Gardelino, but I decided to transcribe it here for piano solo. Generally spoken all minor sections in Mozart’s March are major and in contrary motion in my version, all fast sections like his F sharp sections in 16th notes are augmented in 8th notes but in major.  Also, all major sections are inverted into minor sections.

    Fig.17 Sonata XIV in Ges — Alla Turca

Sonata XV in G sharp minor was an abstract Sonata, where I reminded the listener to the opening of the first half, hence creating links with the first twelve first Sonatas. Because of its bright and fierce character, I called it Purple referring to a small purple sculpture I received from my friend the sculpture Lieven Debrabandere.


     Fig.18 Sonata XV in gis — Purple


The third and last Sonata inspired by Mozart, is N°XVI. The idea using his first two bars of the second movement of his Sonata Facile in C major came to me after writing the 13th Sonata. Transposing these measures in G flat major was very attractive in pianistic terms, in the end this Sonata played with enharmonic relationships between the major seventh chord of G flat major and the minor seventh chord of F sharp minor.

    Fig.19 Sonata IV in Ges — Facile

                  For the XVIIth  Sonata in A flat major, I thought of silence as musical idea. I designed three different versions to end up finally with this one in 5/4.



      Fig.20 Sonata XVI in As — Silence

            Sonata n°17 in c sharp minor utilizes very simple means of expression like a slow movement of a Vivaldi concerto with its repeating dyads as accompaniment.



        Fig.21 Sonata XVII in cis — Grief


            The theme of Sonata XVIII was found by coincidence, exploring the key of D flat major in arpeggiated triads over all ranges. Initially the iv-v-i progression in the bass line seemed to be once-only, but just by repeating it and looking for variations in the right hand this Sonata developed into this Riff.



    Fig.22 Sonate XVIII in Des — Riff



Sonata n°19 in F sharp minor I was seeking for austerity. The subtitle ‘Schicksal’ is more an indication of what I tried to express musically: I was merely exploring the quality of the minor key F sharp minor and perhaps Schicksal might point out the emotional direction of this piece.




Fig.23 Sonata XIX in fis — Schicksal


N°19 has been composed after N°20 and this was certainly an influential element. The last four Sonatas are one entity, N°21 in b minor found his initiation in the pianistic grips of broken triads.



    Fig.24 Sonata XXI in b — Sturm und Drang


            N°22 in B major is entitled Ilo, this is Finish for delight, joy, I find this kind of positivism in this piece of music in a certain sense distant, and thus associated it with the Northern part of Europe.



      Fig.25 Sonata XXI in b — Ilo


The Bach-choral O Haupt from his St. Matthew Passion came to me as a sort of catharsis after all other Sonatas, from hereon I could better prepare the final Sonata.


Fig.26 Sonata XXIII in e — O Haupt

Earlier this year I heard the bells of the monastery in Feofaniya in Kiev. I was fascinated to hear the very particular sound of these bells with their complex rhythmical interactions.  Evocating these sound on the piano seemed to me a great unconventional idea as conclusion. Therefore, as contrast just before this final inserting this intimate choral seemed the right decision.




Fig.27 Sonata XXIV in E — Feofaniya

The key of interpretation for this large cycle is to treat all separate Sonatas as part of the unity and always to take in consideration what comes next. All tempi and colors and timbres should be linked together as one large piece of approximately 80’. Then the listener might experience a rich world of varied emotions and diverse music.