Monday, February 3, 2014

Willem Pijper's Belated One-Off

Here we are, the reason I started this (last) month in the first place (not that I'm the Sun, of course) - Willem Pijper (1894-1947).  Probably the most famous of the founders of the Dutch Society for the Development of Modern Creative Music, Pijper hasn't yet gotten the international break he deserves, most likely for reasons that will send me gnashing into the shadows.  While Daniel Ruyneman may have had more variety in his work, Pijper had a highly sophisticated and unique voice that showed a mastery of a host of modernist techniques and should have catapulted him beyond his homeland's scene.  As my deadline has passed I don't have the time I thought I did to stretch my arm out in his oeuvre and knock the gems into my shopping cart, so this has begrudgingly become a One-Off.  You could just as easily ignore the piece I'm going to talk about and look at his Piano Sonata or the Piano Concerto or the Symphony no. 2 or one of his string quartets or the Flute Sonata, with many of his scores available at his IMSLP page.  For the finale to Lowlands Month I decided to showcase a true masterpiece, five minutes of perfection that should have entered the rep long ago and is a fine representation of his imagination and confidence - Piano Sonatina no. 3.

Pijper came of age in the wave of Expressionism, with Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and the fine folks at Universal Edition leading the central European musical Avant-Garde.  As such, his music is drenched in the newly minted techniques of free atonality that I so love - roving fourths and fifths, bi- and poly-tonality, chromatic snaking, extended tertian harmonies, disparate, at times superimposed meters, jazzy rhythmic bouncing, and machinistic ostinatos.  Starting as delicately as possible, a quintal soundpool supporting a distant, forlorn melody, giving way to a music box variation on the same harmonic material.  The melody is so lilting and touching it's easy to forget how tightly the materials are treated, how every gesture in the piece can be drawn from that first bar-and-a-half.  I like to think of Pijper's combination of organic development and thick atmosphere as the "Smoke 'n' Mirrors" method of composition, and each variation on the source material is dipped in a new timbral concoction, each one more enchanting than the last.  By page 2 we see the first instance of meter superimposition, as Pijper lets the barlines disconnect to create interesting rhythmic textures, a nice brain twister for the performer.  The tension ramps up through a compound triple section, skittering across opposing major chords and climaxing at the 8/8 bar on the third line of page 3, a very Petruska sonority indeed.  He slides back into the opening chords, expanded a bit and cut off for a dramatic gesture similar to parts of "La Ruelle" from Abel Decaux's Clairs de Lune.  Things get back into gear with a dance-reprise of the tranquillo section from page 1, and perfect fourths whirl in the right hand over a perpetually shifting arpeggiesque left hand.  The top of page 5 delights in stacked pentatonic scales, spread out over the piano's upper register like a carillon, then quickly zipping through the recurring downward figure and reaching its top speed at Mosso assai, ma ben marcato.  Jumping major chords hammer across a four-note ostinato comprised of the same two perfect fifths that started the piece, breaking the barlines again to disconnect the listener from the propulsion, like watching a bird follow a high-speed train and getting distracted by telephone poles, your eyes unable to focus.  The final reprise leads to a very mid-century American kind of coda, a major chord sounded over an uncertain depth of bass, quite common in serious 50's dramas and masterful here.  It would have been so easy to let experimentation wreck the denoument, but Pijper keeps his cool, letting a single perfect fourth close the piece.

It's just about perfect, and I try to avoid slapping that adjective on too many pieces, but this one fits the bill.  Plenty of Pijper's other pieces are impressively creative and assured but I can't think of another that has the third Sonatina's impact.  If you somehow found a way to set my other Lowlands Month articles on fire and made for the kerosene, this one piece would still stand as a testament to the untapped wealth of the Netherlands' art history.  Belgium kind of slipped past me, and I'm sorry for that (to be honest I just couldn't think of anybody), and maybe this whole thing will keep me away from theme months, but I hope you've liked the people I highlighted and can go forth on your own.  Here's the score, below's the recording, and all's good.


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