New Composition: Piano Sonata No. 1, ‘Bells’

With three movements running to 23 minutes, the Piano Sonata, completed in 2023, is a departure for Rob, but there remain elements of his signature compositional style alongside the new.

Subtitled ‘Bells‘, the piece plays with a variety of bell-like sounds within the broadly expected contours of a traditional sonata, with the outer movements framing a middle ‘slow’ movement.

The first movement, ‘Chimes,’ opens with an expansive motif in octaves, spanning the whole length of the keyboard, from E1 to A7, with an alternating pattern that suggests a kind of call and response between the bass and treble extremes. A second theme explores closer, richer harmonies in syncopated rhythm, with more melodic suggestions springing up in the bass. These are treated in loose sonata form, with the two themes stated, then developed before being restated. As with many of Rob’s compositions, the flavour is programmatic, with the shape and texture not just suggesting the literal bells of the title, but provoking the imagination in other ways; the opening theme, with its sparse but effective harmonies and wide ranges easily suggests big spaces and broad landscapes, for example. The contrastingly prescient atmosphere of the second theme propels the imagination through subtle moods that feel sometimes optimistic, other times ominous.

The second movement is brooding and meditative, gradually building on a simple opening idea. The sonata is dedicated to ‘my family,’ and this movement, titled ‘Requiescat’ (Latin: rest [in peace]) suggests those beloved family members now departed are in mind. What begins with haunting uncertainty ends with a satisfying sense of hope. The ever-richer harmonies and ever-busier rhythms and sounds crescendo both literally and figuratively, through quavers, then triplets, and finally cascading semiquavers that lift our minds into the ether. The movement ends with just a single melodic line, lingering on the tonic, supertonic and, finally a lone mediant, or the third note of the major scale. It is alone but nevertheless represents a natural, harmonic resolution.

The third movement sees the composer return to a minimalistic style that has characterised much of his past work. The repetitive, clockwork motion suggests the mechanics of the ‘carillon,’ a set of tuned bells whose music has inspired many keyboard composers, notably, eg, the French organist Louis Vierne. The carillon, for which the movement is named, is a moto perpetuo whose rumbling bass compels us from a portentous beginning to a bright, celebratory flourish of bells. The colourful use of harmonic modes unites Rob’s style with that of his 20th-century forebears, especially those who found inspiration in the traditional folk music of the British Isles.

The sonata comes full circle, the triumph of the final movement fading and giving way to a forceful restatement of the motif that opened the whole work, then an inconclusive final chord, with bare fifths in the bass and a clashing sharpened tonic in the treble stave. The clash is never resolved; the chord fades niente – to nothing.