A tour through Paul Pellay’s Thesaurus.

Posted on April 28th, 2012 by

November 2012-a Review in FANFARE magazine


Paul Pellay’s notes to his collection of short pieces for violin solo, arranged in seven books (with the seventh recalling the first), recount his having begun the set with a piece requested for an astro­nomical program that became the first—and generative—miniature in the compilation, which grew for a period of two years and consists of various sequences of artistic, political (beware—one American political party and its members come in for biting satire), and even astronomical references. The seven books: simply Book 1; Black Studies (after Goya); Mid-South Recollections; Dovetail Variants, Deviants and Digressions; Serena (Polittico Ungarettiano—illustrating line by line a poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti); Con(Di)vergences; and finally, simply Book 7. The musical language of these pieces extends beyond traditional harmonic idioms, though not far beyond violinistic ones. The six pieces of the first book (from 2003) alternate political caricatures (Condoleezza Rice— “Consolazione per Condoleezza”—John Ashcroft, and W) with three occasional pieces. In their range of moods and their employment of violinistic devices and textures, they resemble Bela Bartok’s. But the fiendishness extends as noticeably to the subject matter as to the materials themselves, although not all of the pieces revel in the diabolic; “Past Silence’s Dusk,” the first book’s fifth number, sounds evocative and haunting, in the manner of the finale of Bartok’s Solo Violin Sonata.


Book 2 (2003) begins with the almost frightening “Sabbath Rounds,” a sort of perpetual motion based on El gran Cobron, and builds to even more forceful violence, as in his music representing Duelo a garrotazos. Some of the pieces, as the “Saturno devorando a un hijo,” add extraneous sounds to the native timbres of the violin (and this particular piece seems to require Skaerved to tune the G string down as he plays).


Book 3 (2003) begins in a different vein, “Mid-South Recollections” referring to the compos­er’s sojourn in Memphis, Tenn. (he dedicated the book to Sandra Cox, with whose family he spent time during those years). Some of the pieces he planned as (almost) straightforwardly descriptive, such as “Shimmying with Zeus,” which relates a flight out of Memphis into a stormcloud and “As Glass Particles Descend,” the longest and one of the most thoroughly developed of the allegories, mimicking the delicate though unnerving sounds of ice built up by a storm.


Book 4 (2003) presents a set of variations, all bearing Italian titles. Whatever their titles or intentions, concrete or abstract, they employ musical and violinistic techniques almost identical to those from which the previous books have been constructed.


Book 5 (the last from 2003) consists of five musical glosses on the five lines of a poem by Ungaretti, mentioning consecutively, fog, stars, cool sky, fleeting images, and an eternal vortex. The references take the form of tremolos, soaring passages, and sparkling staccatos, lyrical melodies, diaphanous ones, and, finally, twittering ones, respectively.



Book 6 (2004), according to the composer, takes up where Book 5 left off, resulting in a sort of sequel. It consists of 13 pieces, representing, as did Book 4, variations of a kind—but these with, as the composer points out, a sort of theme.


Book 7 (2004) returns to some of the ideas in Book 1, beginning with another political portrait of W, based on the final triumphal march in Igor Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, a pastiche that could serve, except perhaps for its political irreverence, as a recital encore. In “A Sparkler for A.R.T.” the recipient of the tribute, a sincere one in this case, turns out to be Augusta Read Thomas, a friend of the composer’s from the Royal Academy of Music. “19.5.04” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the death of Charles Ives. And finally, “Cosmic Buckaroo” returns to the beginning of Book 1 (“Riding the Comet’s Tail”), which served as the origin of the entire collection.


Some listeners may wonder whether the variety of musical and violinistic materials of these 55 pieces, however brief, might be incommensurate with the variety of their extramusical references (Bartok managed it in his sets). Still, there’s no reason anyone should feel compelled to lis­ten to all 111-odd minutes in a single session. If it isn’t a modern-day set of Paganini’s caprices, it’s still interesting and even—though perhaps more so in small doses—fascinating. And violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved plays with technical acuity throughout, bringing to bear on the set his own sharp intellect and sense of characterization (all of which the engineers serve well in clean record­ed sound).


Robert Maxham






A thoughtful review in TEMPO

TEMPO (re metier MSV28527 Thesaurus of Violinistic Fiendishness):

The gestation of this huge work can be traced back to the two-minute Riding the Comet’s Tail (2002), a reference to the Hale-Bopp comet that passed the Earth in 1997. That piece launched the present edifice. The scurrying, circling gestures and stratospherics involved in the Comet movement hardly seem to test Skaerved, and indeed set the scene for a reading of impeccable virtuosity. Pellay rarely asks for more outré effects beloved of some contemporary composers; this is virtuosity in the broadly traditional sense. Whether it is ultra-high cantabile (‘Consolazione per Condolezza’, ‘Post Silence’s Dusk’), stunning virtuosity (Book II’s ‘El Gran Cabrón, a wild depiction of a Witches’ Sabbath) or intimate reverie (‘Reelfoot Echoes’, Book III), Skaerved seems in his element.

There are seven books in total, composed 2002-4. The even numbers of Book I represent the composer’s satirical reactions to the advent of the Bush Administration (Pellay was living in the USA at the time). Only one number here is properly abstract (‘Running on Eggshells’, a study in rapid repeated notes, effortlessly negotiated by Skaerved). If there is an implication of Coplandesque hoe-down in ‘Rag-Caprice Triple A’ (Anti-Ashcroft-Aspersions’), it also viciously includes a circus mirror distortion ofOnward Christian Soldiers. The final number of Book I, ‘The Warmonger’s Hoe-Down’, finds the President trying to remember how The Star Spangled Banner starts, and never quite getting it.

Book II, ‘Sabbath Rounds (after Goya)’ is based on Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’, culminating in the terrifying image of Saturn devouring one of his own children (‘Cannibal Planet’). Here Pellay’s music is at its most visceral, both in terms of its sheer frenzy but also in the depiction of ‘hammer-blows’  that finally silence the music (a rare inclusion of non-violinistic sounds). From Goya to autobiography for the third book, taken from Pellay’s memories of America. The highlight is ‘ …as glass particles descend  …’ a gorgeous depiction of the freezing of trees.

Book IV, entitled ‘Dovetail Variants, Deviants and Digressions’ is a set of variations without a clear theme: as the most abstract book, it exudes a certain purity of intent and delivery. The poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1971) inspired Book V, a book whose fleeting, ineffable nature provides a fine platform for Skaerved. This is unashamedly lyrical – even the pyrotechnics of the final movement are that of the will-o’-the-wisp and meld into the opening of Book VI, ‘Con(Di)vergences’. More abstract in nature, the theme of this variation set is centrally placed. The final book summarizes the previous music while also including a tribute to one of Pellay’s contemporaries, Augusta Reed Thomas. It is in the final movement that the violinistic fiendishness of the title really comes in, and Skaerved rises to every challenge.

Colin Clarke

Paul Pellay 
Thesaurus of Violinistic Fiendishness Books 1-7, for solo violin (2002-04) 
Peter Sheppard Skaerved – Violin (Stradivari 1698 ‘Joachim’)

Recording Courtesy of Astounding Sounds (Engineer Jonathan Haskell) 2010

To Buy the full CD of this astounding work, beautifully produced by METIER. Go to PURCHASE

Sketch by Paul Pellay for Book 6 of the cycle ‘Con(di)vergences’

Book 1 (2002) 

No 1. Riding the Comet’s Tail

This was the piece that started it all. At the beginning of 2002, I was asked to give a performance at the Astronomy Gallery in the wonderful Deutsches Museum in Munich. I approached Paul with the idea, and with the specific idea that it should be linked to Astronomy. We talked a little about the Perseid Shower, which was particularly bright at the end of its passing, towards the end of August. The piece that arrived was wonderful, and I was enchanted. ‘I think,’ the composer observed to me. ‘ I think that there might be a little more…’

Deutsches Museum, Munich. Where the Thesaurus was born…

No. 2  Consolazione per Condoleeza 

Consolazione per Condoleezza was the first result of the conversation that Paul and I had as Thesaurus began to emerge, inspired by a number of photographs, not least a disturbing image of a duo performance with a certain cellist, and the infamous Camp Laurel image above. The title is not (entirely) ironic. There is a subtitle, referencing ‘crocodile tears’…., and the weeping reptile can be heard throughout. The balance between the first two movements of Thesaurus gave a clue as the trajectory of the whole cycle.

No comment necessary

No 3 Running on Eggshells

I don’t want to say much about this piece, except to observe the stamp with which it finishes. I confess that I have been partially responsible for a mini-trend of composers using foot stamps or taps in their pieces. This had its origin in the work which I did with Nigel Clarke on his ‘Pernambuco’ and then found its way into his ‘Miraculous Violin’. There is of course, a long history of folk players using the technique to provide rhythm, particularly in the ‘Hardanger’ tradition. However, PaulPellay tends to use it for different kinds of emphasis. In his Goya pieces, later in ‘Thesaurus’ it is used in a doom laden, almost Mahlerian ‘hammer-blow’ manner. Here it serves a different purpose-the violinists is running on eggshells, and then stamps on an egg to finish. I have long wanted to play this piece with a real egg for drama-but then would have to avoid stepping on the mess for a couple of hours!

-Photo-Charlie Hey


No. 4 ‘Rag-Caprice-Triple A’

This is the second overtly political movement into the cycle. Rice had drawn our attention by her piano stylings, but it was the truly disturbing combination of John Ashcroft’s prurience and his astounding singing (‘Let the Eagle Soar’ has to be heard to believed!) which drew our attention. This movement, which bears the subtitle ‘Anti Ashcroft Aspersions’, makes musical reference to Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ which I really hope that he likes…

Sir Arthur Sullivan, by ‘Ape’

No.5 ‘Past Silence’s Dusk-Death Valley 1979’   This movement is the first ‘landscape’ in the cycle, and looks forward to the ice storms, memories of Charles Ives, and the desolate vistas which open up later. To me, it reminds me of a moment in Francesco Colonna’s ‘Hypnertomachia Polyphiliae’ (1504), when the dreaming hero, finds himself alone in a desert landscape, and is terrified by the noise of a lizard disturbing a piece of mosaic behind him.

Near Monterrey (PSS Mexico 2005)

The composer writes: The present work began as a single piece entitled “Riding the Comet’s tail”, which
was written in 2002 at Peter Sheppard Skaerved’s request for a short piece on an
astronomical subject that he intended to perform at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.
Even before the performance, I felt that the medium of unaccompanied violin could
lend itself to further and much more extensive exploration, so through the course of 3
years, what began as a brief 2-minute piece mushroomed into 7 books of similarly
scaled movements, the whole lasting some 110 minutes or so, with “Riding the
Comet’s Tail” kicking off Book 1. Book 7 ends symmetrically with a similarlythemed
movement entitled “Cosmic Buckaroo!”, thus bringing the whole process full
Peter premiered each book separately, with each premiere taking place in a different
country: thus Book 1 was first heard at York University late in 2002; the next 3 books
were unveiled in reverse order over a period of just over 3 weeks between late
October and late November 2003, at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, the
Musikhøst 2003 Festival in Odense, Denmark, and in Ankara, Turkey, respectively.
Book 5 first saw the light of day in Nashville in February 2004, Book 6 was
premiered at the 2004 Tirana New Music Festival in Albania and Book 7 followed
suit in July that same year in Mexico City. The Thesaurus was first performed in its
entirety at St. Bartholomew the Great, London, on 11 December 2004.
Many of my preoccupations are collected in these 7 books, be it in terms of a pictorial
nature (as in Book 2’s musical disquisitions on several of Goya’s so-called “Black
Paintings”), or of a structural nature (the treatment of differing aspects of variation
forms in Books 4 and 6), or of musical autobiography (Book 3, which treats a number
of incidents during the times I spent in and around Memphis in the US at different
times during the 1990s), or a response to a literary stimulus (as in Book 5, where each
movement is based on a line of the same brief poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti). Books 1
and 7 are the jokers in the pack, as they are more in the nature of compositional grabbags
without a single unifying element: within them, musical caricatures of US
political figures from the first few years of the present Millennium rub shoulders with
homages to composers and colleagues I admire (Ives, Stravinsky, Augusta Read
Thomas) and a few more slivers of musical autobiography. In short, the work as a
whole is really a musical diary covering 3 years of my life and evolution as a
composer, with all the complications and paradoxes entailed therein!
Paul Pellay, February 2011.