Beginnings – Returning to the Richard Rodney Bennett Solo Sonata

Posted on February 21st, 2019 by

Beginnings – Returning to the Richard Rodney Bennett Solo Sonata 21 02 19

Part of the First Movement of the Richard Rodney Bennett Solo Sonata, with my markings. 20 2 19

Yesterday, in the midst of a happy day of practice, conversation and coffee, at home by the river in Wapping, I found myself standing in front of my ‘working shelves’, my hand reaching out for a familiar, yet, at that moment, surprising green-bound score from the hundreds of works for violin alone. In the interest of clarity, the working shelves contain the music which I need to keep in view, to hand at any moment.  Most of my music library is kept out of sight, in crawl-in spaces in our ceiling, but the working shelves contain the thousand-or-so scores which fit into the following groups. Pieces that I am playing in concerts at the moment, which I have just played, am rehearsing, am practising, am investigating, might form part of programmes which I am planning, and a last group, comprising scores which I have never allowed to be further than arm’s length.  Some of this last group consist of works which drift onto my work table at fairly regular intervals, the pains quotidiens of the violinist’s world, and other’s seem to be mnemonics. The green-bound score, it seems, falls into the last category, and yesterday, it elbowed its way into the reading light, past the Haydn, Ravel, Cowie, Pisendel, Westhoff and Vilsmayr which I should be practising, and took up several (happy hours) of my time with violin in hand.

Earlier in the day my long-term engineer and collaborator, Jonathan Haskell, pointed out something to me:

‘You know Peter, it has struck me, that with all the projects that impassion you, the musical explorations dearest to you are kept private. You resist ‘going public’ with them.’[i]

I confess that this brought me up short, and, even as I write this, I realise that I am unwilling to ‘go public’ with what those projects might be. However, I can say, that for the artist, just like anyone, secrets are very important. These secrets might not mean much to someone else, but keeping them, means something to us. But sometimes, it’s a good idea to reveal them.

With the score, of the Benett Sonata, comes a memory. I am 15 years old, in an uncomfortable school uniform, sitting on the westbound platform of Woodford Underground station on a sunny spring day.  It’s about 2pm and I am on my way to an afternoon of lessons at the Royal Academy of Music.. On my lap, open, is the Richard Rodney Bennett Sonata II for solo violin.  I am sitting reading,  with pencil in hand, frozen. Someone sits down on the old Great Eastern Railway bench next to me.

‘Wow, what is that?’

‘Just a piece for violin.’

‘You can play that? I play the guitar, and I can read music, but that looks impossible. How do you read it?’

I remember being overwhelmed with embarrassment; shame even. What was I to say? Yes, I could read it, and I could, slowly, very slowly, reach all the notes. It wasn’t a technical problem, but a harmonic one. This was, I now realise, the beginning of my love affair with the music of our time (although the piece was written in 1965, the year before my birth). The pitches and rhythms, the syntaxes which feel second nature now, were ‘strange news from another star’ to me then. It’s worth mentioning the more challenging  20th century music did not find itself onto the teaching stands, and indeed, my first encounter with the quartets of Krzysztof  Penderecki a year or so earlier, was courtesy of a music teacher who wanted to laugh at them,

But I was lucky; for nearly three years, I had been studying with the great English violinist (perhaps the greatest) Ralph Holmes. Ralph did not take a ‘straight line’ view of the canon, and had played a lot of new music. In recent years, I have been able to explore much of his impact on other living composers, most particularly Jeremy Dale Roberts. Indeed, exploring Jeremy’s Capriccio for piano and violin, which Ralph had broadcast and recorded, spectacularly, in his twenties, afforded me the opportunity to revitalise resource of the lessons with Ralph, who died aged 47,  just before I was due to come to the ‘grown-up’ Academy.

Holmes’ right hand as I knew it. The Violin is the Habeneck Strad, and the bow, by Stephen Bristow-Ralph bought two spectacular examples after I bought my first on by this maker, when I was 13

The Rodney Bennett Sonata was written for Ralph in 1965, when the violinist was 28 years old. It was not the only work which Bennett would write for him. Nine year later, he composed a violin concerto, inspired by the poetry of Robert Herrick. Most of the new works written for Ralph date from the early part of his career, and I confess, that I was a little confused, by the time that I met him, that it seemed that he had pushed away from the music of now. True, there were fantastic performances of works by living composer (particularly his reading of Roger Steptoe’s solo violin Study), but I had the sense that he was trying to keep this world at arm’s length. By the time that I met him, much of Ralph’s attention was on a lyrical strain of music from the British Isles; to this day his performances and recordings of Harty, Delius, Bax, and Britten et al retain a mythical status. But I noticed, when I found earlier interviews and performances, that he had an earlier fascination with more challenging repertoire, such as Babbitt, and privately sought these pieces out and tried to study them. I never mentioned them to him.

It is worth mentioning at this point, that there was a mercifully forgotten perception that anyone who played new music did so because they couldn’t play more traditional repertoire. This was fuelled in part, by a cloth-eared misperception that the notes didn’t really matter in harmonically extended works. It was not uncommon to hear, musicians boasting, sometimes even on TV, of how they had faked-out composers with wrong-note performances – as if the painful smiles of the composers, the sweet acquiescence to inaccuracy, was proof that they did not know their own music, rather than acceptance that, for now, this was all that they could expect from lazy performers.

So I suspect that Holmes’s latter-day self-distance-ing from the avant-garde was fuelled, in no small part, by a perception that he needed to be seen to have moved away from the music of our time. This was, in no small measure due to the dim view taken in certain quarters, of the ‘English Violinist’. It was, until comparatively recently, not uncommon to find greying authorities opining in the music press, that the English temperament was unsuitable for solo violinists. Fuel was added to this fire by a reciprocal racism in certain quartets. I have a horrified memory of a quartet concert in the Home Counties, which was besmirched by a speech from a local worthy, lauding the fact that my quartet was so English. I have a cringing memory of the words: ‘So you can pop-off, Popov’, greeted with bleating guffaws from the gathered worthies. Today, most of these prejudices are just a memory.

Looking back, I realise that all my casting around, musically, was just the  process of working out what kind of artist I wanted to be. I think that this resulted in a frustrating lack of focus for my teachers, and my lifelong  tendency to study many more pieces than was wise.  So, as I waded through repertoire that was beyond me, I suffered (or rather the music I was playing suffered) from a woeful lack of clarity, of focus.

But this was not the case with the Bennett Sonata. The obstacles which it set in my way (hearing, finding the notes) insulated it from my enthusiastic attacks on ‘standard’ repertoire, and the beauty of the engraved score dissuaded me from doing any more than carefully inscribing my self-regarding ‘copperplate’ signature on the cover. Until recently, this was all that was written on the part, apart from the pencilled price. I paid £1.10 for the score.

Back to Woodford Station. There was no train in sight, and, much as I tried to bury myself in the score, my would-be companion clearly wanted an answer. So did the only thing which seemed to get rid of him. I lied:

‘Oh, it’s not so difficult.’

A train suddenly was in view, and mercifully, it seemed as if the lure of the smoking coach was too much. He waved goodbye, and I found a seat in an empty carriage, ears burning with shame.

So yesterday, I put the score on the desk, and finally, began to work on the music, imagining a programme built around it, grateful that the jewel-like setting of all the material, is now familiar, if far from easy. But most of all, I am glad that I waited, or rather, that his elegant score waited for me. Now, it seems, would be the time, to end the silence.


[i] Conversation with Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Ivinghoe, 19-2-19