Martin Ellerby – Two Sonatas, some thoughts 16 5 2023

Posted on May 16th, 2023 by

As a musician, collaboration, for me, is key to everything. I have been honoured to work with Martin Ellerby for many years; his extraordinary music and visionary outlook, his belief in what music can do, the stories that it can tell, is a source of inspiration for me. Here he offers two important contributions to the sonata repertoires for violin and viola, which it is my great pleasure to have had a small part in bringing to life.

I was fascinated, a few years ago, when Martin told me that he had the idea of writing a sonata for me, inspired by the work of another important collaborator of mine, Hans Werner Henze. I met Henze when I was 19 years old, and then worked together with him, extremely closely. He dedicated works to me, conducted my ensemble, Parnassus, across Europe and on record, and I recorded all of his 4 major works for violin and orchestra, as well as all of his pieces for violin/viola, both alone and with piano. Martin was reaching out to an incredibly important part of my early career, and he did it in a surprising way: he sent me a book of Henze’s paintings. Although he knew that I was a graphic artist – Hans Werner never showed me any of his work. The catalogue that arrived was thought-provoking: the painting and drawings offered a side-look into his imaginative world, and particularly into the role of colour in his music.

The sonata which Martin wrote based on a set of these paintings, is very much in his own language. There is one overt reference, to Henze’s great work for piano and orchestra, ‘Tristan’, but the inspiration that he took was from Henze as a painter, and a painter whose work was full of light, grace, and wit. For anybody who was close to the composer, this was/is someone they will recognise. Studying and then recording it took me back to the many happy times I spent with Henze, in Germany, Italy and the UK.

On the desk. Martin Ellerby’s ‘Canti di Colore’ 21 2 21

I remembered driving from Rome to Tuscany with him, and his life partner, Fausto Moroni, revelling, as he always did, in the light and colour of early summer in Italy. And I remember the many dinner parties at their London home, where he told wickedly funny stories, and the table was decorated with … wait a moment, of course I knew Henze’s painting. I think that he had a bad conscience that Fausto would do all of the cooking (indeed, he did me the favour of teaching me some of his favourites – he was an artist in the kitchen). Hans Werner prepared and set the table. He had a collection of elegant 19th century porcelain, and complemented the delightful table setting with place cards, hand-painted place cards. This I remember, because he always made a joke about my name – I would be Peter Hirten, or Peter Schaeffer (or ‘Schaffer’ which always amused him). Each handwritten card would be decorated with swags of foliage and flowers, which he painted the afternoon of the party. These were exquisite, and to my shame, I never kept mine. Quite apart from the brilliance and profundity of Martin’s Sonata, he has reminded me, of those treasured evenings with the great composer who took a very young violinist under his wing. And for that, I am very grateful.

The sonata repertoire for viola and piano is comparatively limited. The instrument came to prominence too late to inspire original works for the combination by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, or Schubert. Despite Robert Schumann’s wonderful vision of this combination of instruments, he did not write a sonata, and the two works by Johannes Brahms are arrangements od clarinet sonatas, and arrangements which he did not approve – he made substantial violin versions of these pieces, which have not entered the repertoire (much, I would imagine, to his chagrin).

In the 20th century, the rise of the viola, thanks to the work of Lionel Tertis and Paul Hindemith coincided with (for all Hindemith’s endeavours in the genre), a decline of interest in the form (piano/string instrument sonata). The problem was to a degree, compounded by the impact of Dmitri Shostakovich’s valedictory viola/piano 1975 Sonata. The emotional weight of that work, all the more fraught because of its association with the composer’s final illness and death (as well as its links to Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata), had the effect of an end point to the genre. Henze’s extraordinary Sonata, written just three years later, inhabits, if it is possible, even more of a ‘blasted heath’ than Shostakovich’s. The extraordinary sunburst of great works for viola in the following 4 decades has largely eschewed the sonata form. And then, along comes this brilliant, and I mean, brilliant work from Martin Ellerby. As soon as I read the score, I realised that this was what my inspirational teacher, the great violinist Ralph Holmes, would have called a ‘humdinger’. For this is a true piano/viola sonata that opens all the doors and windows, and lets fresh air, light, joy, and life back into the medium.

That is not to say that Martin’s masterpiece is without reflection, without the ‘music of mourning’ with which the viola is rightly associated. One of the movements is a tremendous ‘ommagio’ to our mutual friend and inspiration, the much-loved and much-missed John McCabe, who many of us regard as the great British musical mind of his generation. But the piece also reinvigorates the viola/piano duo as a virtuoso entity. This was a sonata, which I know, that William Primrose would have loved to play; indeed, I thought a lot about his athletic, colour-filled élan whilst studying and recording it. As with the violin sonata, I was blessed to have one of Britain’s great virtuoso colourists of the piano at my side, Roderick Chadwick, and at every stage we explored this work with enormous grins, both of pleasure, and at the technical challenges which Martin sets. This is a work which should be in every violist’s fingers and imaginations. When they hear it, I am sure that it will be.

A great British viola sonata deserves a great instrument. I recorded the violin sonata on a wonderful 1629 Girolamo Amati, one of the last instruments made before he was taken by the plague that swept through Lombardy that year. But, thanks to my friend Benjamin Hebbert, one of the great experts on the history and architecture of string instruments, I had the opportunity to record Martin’s piece on one of the greatest instruments, indeed, on the earliest surviving dated British viola, made by Jacob/Jakob Rayman. As the label inside says, this extraordinary instrument was made in Southwark in 1641. Rayman came from the most important dynasty of London luthiers; he took over his workshop from his master, the viola da gamba maker, John Jay, whose workshop was a few steps from what is now Southwark Cathedral. And it proved that this instrument was a perfect fit: the viola showed me new tonal and timbral possibilities in Martin’s writing, and the writing revealed new vistas of sound in this great instrument. This was a truly fortunate collaboration, between composer and maker, holding hands across four centuries, and I am privileged to have been a small part of it.

Peter Sheppard Skærved 2023