Writing a modern tonal piano concerto.

It took me many years to feel comfortable writing a piano concerto.  I loved the genre from the moment I discovered classical music and have strong feelings about which are the greatest works and why, so it has been tough to compose a concerto that satisfies me.

My concerto is a work that I feel represents what I have tried to do in my music for the last 20 years. The idea of writing popular classical music that draws upon popular and jazz infulences.

I made several attempts at writing a concerto in two piano score when I was about 15. I kept destroying and revising these efforts but they took the interest of my music teacher at school.

In recent years I came to realise that my first concerto would have to be written on my own terms. It could not mimic any of the great composers. I may not have been able to tick all the boxes in pursuit of perfection but I could still write something that expresses myself fully and that I love to listen to. Hopefully others will find it immediately memorable.

My love of piano concerti started when I was 14, hearing the last movement of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto played brilliantly by Peter Donohoe on the 50th Anniversary tribute programme on the BBC called The Gershwin Years. I had already composed some ragtime pieces but Gershwin became my inspiration and gateway into the world of classical composers. Andre Previn’s LP with the LSO was and still is the most magical recording I have heard.

After attempting to write a Gershwin-like concerto I heard Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody at the Leeds Piano Competition played by Marconio Baroni in 1987. It was a brilliant performance of a work that changed my perception again about what a piano concerto could be. There was also a great performance of Rachmaninoff’s second concerto by Vladimir Ovchinnikov.

My parents had an old LP of Richter playing Prokofiev’s first concerto and I heard Prokofiev’s 3rd concerto on the BBC’s European Young Musician programme played by Leif Ove Andsnes in the final. Jon Kimura Parker’s recording with Previn and the RPO was the most beautiful I found.

Another influence was an early Hungaraton LP by pianist Zoltan Kocsis of the Bartok concertos 1 and 2. Kocsis was still in his teens when he made the recording, but this early version of the first concerto is still my favourite.  Kocsis was the greatest player of Bartok in my opinion.

Great tonal concertos are inspired from start to finish; they have memorable melodies, inventive writing, excitement and great interaction with the orchestra.  The language of the composer has to be unique and concisely written to their needs, with no cheap imitations of other composers. They are works of great depth underneath all the virtuosity.  

The greatest 20th century composers of tonal concertos are obvious. Rachmaninoff wrote the most romantic concerti, the 3rd being the ultimate example. His piano writing stretches the possibilities, the work of the master pianist-composer of his time. Pianists love the technical challenges which encompass every inch of the keyboard with myriads of notes, but also appreciate that Rachmaninoff’s writing is pianistic and within the romantic piano tradition. His mastery of counterpoint and orchestration are deceptive, as is the originality of his harmonies. Rachmaninoff was concerned with finding beautiful and moving things, although there is always an underlying darkness and mystery lurking.

With Prokofiev, we have the most original writing for the piano and a Mozartian level of invention. His piano writing is challenging in a new athletic way although the percussive element is often exaggerated by pianists. The cadenza in his second concerto is arguably the greatest written and the third concerto is the perfect modern piano concerto written in his mature compositional style. The orchestra takes on a far greater and more equal role in concertos 3-5. Prokofiev was the ultimate ideas composer, his works are rich with original ideas and melodies in abundance. He did not need to rely on mathematics to rethink harmony with an ear that was ahead of most of his peers.  

Bartok’s concertos 1-3 show a technique in my opinion greater than Stravinsky and a unique style permeated with folk music. He was certainly the inspiration to many 20th Century composers, not least Ginastera. His most original concerto, his first, despite being a messy and problematic score is probably his greatest and most original. The first two concerti in particular create exotic and magical soundscapes. Again, there is great orchestration and counterpoint.

Gershwin’s Concerto in F also deserves to be in the top category for it’s magical inspiration and originality. It has been the target of academic snobbery over the years, not least for its construction. But music does not have to conform to any expectations, it just has to work. The form and flow of ideas in Gershwin’s Concerto works brilliantly. It also feels like an important musical representation of the 1920s with its optimism and Charleston rhythms. He was both a popular song writer of his day and the creator of his own brand of art music.  Gershwin’s piano works are brilliantly written for himself to play without excess or pretence. They draw upon novelty piano techniques as well as romantic and modern piano figurations. There is an economy to his composition and a sureness of purpose that is common in great composers.

Just underneath these concerti I would place those by Ravel and Shostakovich along with the first movement of Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds.

There are other fine piano concerti which I enjoy by Barber, Poulenc, Shchedrin, Ginestera, Khachaturian and Tippett. Kapustin was a phenomenon and his concerti are dazzling- though they can feel hyper-active and unrelenting.

Other major 20th century composers have written piano concertos which don’t represent anything like their best work – Copland, Britten and Vaughan-Williams spring to mind. With British composers I can appreciate composers such as Bliss, Leighton and John Ogden have created interesting works. I have no idea why Leighton chose to end his first concerto with a Tchaikovsky chromatic octave run up the piano. Listening to Ireland’s Concerto, an attractive but light piece, it’s ending an outrageous rip-off of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto. It highlights the difficulty of coming up with something pianistic and original. With Rawsthorne’s first concerto I feel there is the biggest waste of a magnificent and original beginning to any concerto I have heard.

Simply processing the technique and rhetoric to write a piano concerto does not guarantee the creation of something original and memorable.

The treatment of the piano in my concerto is melodic and rhythmic. There is more substance in my music than empty virtuosity. It is music that reflects the popular music I grew up listening to and I hope it sounds like it belongs in my lifetime rather than looking backwards to something else. Composing, for me, is like sculpture; chipping away at something until I am satisfied. I believe in quality, not quantity. There is no point churning out tonnes of mediocre compositions just to add to your opus numbers.

I have incorporated a couple of my favourite melodies into the last movement. As I’m not widely known I feel justified in using the material so that I can have a work that represents me at my best.

Writing a good enough ending was my stumbling block for many years.  The greatest ending to any piano concerto – Prokofiev’s 3rd – is tough to follow, but I had always wanted to save something special for the end and to drive the rhythm right to the last bar. Once I had written something I loved at the end, the prospect of writing the concerto became more of a reality.

I suppose the work also benefits from being compiled from some choice material composed over say 20 years – a longer period than Prokofiev compiled his third concerto – about 10 years!

The first movement is a shorter re-working of an earlier discarded sonata movement from about 20 years ago. I liked the idea of an unpretentious start. I think the easy listening quality of some of Dudley Moore’s music had some influence. A descending half tone whole tone scale becomes an important shape for the second movement theme and the last movement’s central theme.

The two main themes and their associated ideas are catchy and romantic. The second theme is based on repeated notes. The movement develops with more intensity towards the end and climax. In fact, the main development section is placed after the recapitulation. It feels as if fear grows gradually into the music.

The second movement has a more serious and melancholy feel in the minor key for its theme. The first variation is sad and tender. The second is brief and begins with some with some sombre counterpoint. This leads to the third variation which is dark and meditative, using flowing scales, often a sixth apart. The fourth variation begins lighter in mood but ends less so. The fifth variation is a gently rocking and spacious 3/4 time based on ostinato patterns. The sixth variation a tumultuous and a flurry of semi quaver accompaniment. It builds to a climax and then the music calms and slows into the coda which is a short reprise of the theme. The music links seamlessly into the start of the third movement without break.

The third movement begins with a series of slow, tender string chords. The opening theme of the concerto is hinted at. These give way to a rhythmic theme which is derived from the end of the theme from the second movement. This theme appears like a rondo theme with various other themes and development sandwiched between. The central section develops the descending scale motif from the first movement to become an expansive and sweeping theme – in other words one of my favourite compositions Reunion!

But there is more to come! The final coda section begins with a minimalist expansion of the rhythmic theme, followed by new variations of earlier themes. One prominent rhythm is used in canon and combined with the chord sequence which began the third movement. This time the sequence cadences in into a happier mixolydian tonality.

The tail piece to the concerto subtly brings back the outline of the opening theme of the first movement. There is a combination ideas from the first and last movements and the concerto ends with many unpredictable rhythms in a triumphant celebration!   

Working with themes economically and homogeneously is something Sibelius loved to do. The themes go on journeys like characters in a book and accumulate significance with each transformation. I think of my music as a kind of intellectual popular music which hopefully will be immediately enjoyable and understood. Repeated listening will reveal the extra layers and depth within.