Sonate en forme des préludes
Steven Stucky was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, and trained at Cornell with Karel Husa. In 1980 he joined the Cornell faculty, and there he has remained, forging an illustrious career not only as a teacher and composer but also as a scholar. His book on Witold Lutoslawski, first published in 1981, is the standard text, and last year he gave the Bloch lectures at Berkeley. He has also found time to emerge regularly from the groves of academe into the perhaps noisier thoroughfares of concert life. Since 1988 he has been associated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and in 1997 he founded the new-music group Ensemble X at Cornell.
Tonight he offers a double homage to Debussy, not only in the scoring of his piece but also in its form as a sequence of preludes. Like Debussy, he places his titles in parentheses, sharing "the conviction that their picturesque, programmatic aspects are secondary, even superfluous, to what really matters, namely impeccable technique and form. (One can dream.)"
Perhaps the homage is even triple, for the entire work springs out of the complex seventh chords that are the basis of the first prelude, and that connect the music with Debussian - and more generally French - harmony. As Stucky has remarked on another occasion (writing about his recent orchestral piece Jeu de timbres): "If by 'French' we mean music that follows Debussy's example in prizing the rich harmonic sonority or the delicate instrumental effect for its own sake (as opposed to valuing it mostly for its logical function in the musical grammar), then I am happily a composer of 'French' music. Among my household gods are not only Debussy but also several other composers for whom sonority and color are not cosmetic frills but fundamental building blocks, including Stravinsky, Ravel, Varèse, Messiaen, and Lutoslawski."
The first, originating prelude, marked Contemplativo e rubato, belongs principally to the harpsichord, whose broken chords conjure up the tones of the horn and oboe, the former ending the movement with a brief foretaste of the finale. Next the oboe comes forward as soloist in a pensive dance, Grazioso, which is followed by a toccata of busy running on the spot, Meccanico, led by the harpsichord. The centerpiece, Largo notturno, is initiated by the oboe as a night bird, the horn later becoming another. One might be reminded of Bartók's unpeopled nightscapes, and indeed of his symmetries, for now the work goes back over its traces. The fifth movement is a second scherzo, Vivo, with the oboe and horn locked together in some juggling act, and the sixth, Oscuro e lugubre, balances the oboe's dance in having the horn move stealthily within a bass-register harpsichord canon. The Gioioso e brillante finale, as with Debussy's second book of preludes, is given over to fireworks, which include a brief, scintillant Roman candle from the Debussy piece amid much dazzlement of this composer's own.
- Author and critic Paul Griffiths served as chief music critic of The Times of London from 1982 to 1992. His notes above are abridged from notes copyright © 2004 The Carnegie Hall Corporation.