The sleevenotes from the CD The Complete Solo Piano Works of GORDON CROSSE (PFCD219)
Piano Sonata No.1 (2013-14)
My three piano sonatas emerged very unexpectedly in 2013–2015. Unexpected because I had always resisted writing solo piano music, being very much a non-pianist. I started the first after hearing a performance of a Haydn sonata by Martin Roscoe (at Potton Hall, I think) which reminded me that piano music didn’t have to be rich chords and swirling arpeggios, or strange manipulations of the piano strings. Most of the composition happened in Orkney over several visits, and eventually at my own cottage on Papa Westray…. The aim of the sonatas has been to write “music for piano”, rather than emulating orchestral colour or a percussion band. My model is definitely Haydn/Beethoven, rather than anything between Chopin and Rachmaninov, and I stick to well-established sonata forms, although often much modified. I particularly like to repeat the first exposition of ideas because it makes it easier to follow them in their later developments. In the opening movement of Sonata No.1, a series of staccato, bitonal chords provides the material for the opening subject and the subsequent bridge passages, using tremolos and arpeggios. The music becomes increasingly diatonic up to the second main theme, which continues the rhythmic drive in the ostinato-like, bass octaves. A brief, mysteriously quiet few bars lead back to a repeat of the opening exposition. There is then an exhaustive development and fragmentation of all the themes, concentrating on increasing the opening subject – so much so that, in fact, I felt a very quick repeat of the opening was quite enough of a recapitulation.
The second movement is a simple and song-like piece, whose main themes are counterparts to those of the previous movement. The first turns the right-hand chords into a solemn, dotted-rhythm melody. The second is inverted and placed in close canon. Both are then extended and repeated after a brief flurry of cadenza-like flourishes. The movement ends serenely in E flat major. The finale was deliberately modelled on the strange finale of Chopin’s second sonata – in unison throughout, with the hands two or three octaves apart and playing pianissimo most of the time. As a coda there is a quotation from the previous movement.
(Piano Sonata No.1 was premiered by Annabelle Lawson, at St. Andrew’s URC, Sheffield on 6th October 2017.)
Ron’s Toyes, for piano (2014-15)
I. Puffin Windmill. The wind blows the puffin-shaped propeller.
II. Battleship and Submarine. Huge, impressive wooden battleship with a sub that fires a single torpedo. Hit the right spot and the battleship explodes.
III. Classic Hen. Press the hen’s back and it flaps its wings and lays an egg.
IV. Sheep and Shearsman. The sheep sits with shears and the shepherd loses his head.
V. Two WWI Biplanes. Flying Officer Kite and the Red Baron perform aerobatics. Then, as clouds cover the sky, they decide to call it a day.
Ron Fuller was an artist, craftsman and toymaker who lived in Laxfield, Suffolk. Over a period of more than forty years, my family enjoyed buying and playing with his smaller and more affordable toys, all beautifully crafted in wood. He also made much larger and more complex automata which betrayed a somewhat darker humour. He died in 2017. The suite is dedicated with respect and affection to the memory of Ron and to its first performer, Robert Keeley.
Piano Sonata No.2 (2014-15)
The sonata bristles with concentrated energy and is characterised by compactness and thematic cohesion across the movements. Gordon writes, “the first sonata made much use of rapid, wrist-wracking chords, so I looked for a more relaxed, linear style for the second”. Throughout the piece, themes are treated in canon, inverted and augmented with intellectual and imaginative brilliance. The first movement brings to mind something of Benjamin Britten’s Holiday Diary op.5 and is written in a modified sonata form. The first subject incorporates a rising scale through the interval of a ninth, as well as stuttering, fast, repeated notes. The initial, opening semiquaver group – with its rising D/Eb semitone and rising perfect 4th – has significance throughout the sonata; the meno mosso bridge passage presents it in a sunnier, major version and the second subject incorporates it at its tail end, over taut, staccato ninths in the left hand. Towards the end of the lengthy development section, the same semiquaver group is presented firstly in a stark, fortissimo transformation, and secondly in a more coaxing form, marked dolce. Premonitory fragments of material from the second and third movements are nestled within the coda and development sections respectively and the movement ends on an octave C, centred a tone down from where it began. The tension between the tonal centres of C and D is explored in the subsequent movements.
The second movement begins with a right-hand chord comprising the exact notes of the piece’s opening semiquaver group, over a left-hand C pedal. Out of the opening misty chords, emerges the expansive first theme, which explores the first movement’s rising semitone recalling the character of a Scottish lament. A more diatonic second theme is presented in E major and both themes are then further developed, over a left-hand counter-melody which incorporates the rising perfect fourth as a bass line, in the rhythm of a Scotch snap.
The opening theme of the third movement looks back towards the Baroque period, with its rather formal trills, contrapuntal textures and rhythmic foursquareness. As the movement progresses, its opening shape is presented in augmentation, in a left-hand, chordal version – rather abrasive in character – with the rising tone changed to a more ominous rising semitone. This recalls the omnipresent D/Eb, as do the two, brief moments of contemplation in this movement; where the relentless, rhythmic drive is interrupted by a prayer-like interlude, incorporating the D/Eb semitone and, once again, a rising perfect fourth. As the movement progresses, the C/D ambivalence, stemming from the first movement, is explored through insistent, fanfare-like C major triads, as well as through a slow-moving, left-hand triplet tune initially alternating C/D and offset by restless, driving semiquavers in the right-hand. The movement comes to an end with abruptly-recalled memories of the first movement’s main subjects and a final, demonstrative clash of C/D octaves as a finishing gesture. So pervasive are the notes G, D, C and Eb (Es in German notation) that I am confident they point to a musical ‘signature’, spelling out the composer’s name: GorDon CroSse.
Piano Sonata No.3 (2015)
Sonata No.3 was written in 2015, on the islands of Orphir and Papay, Orkney and in Wenhaston, Suffolk. It was dedicated to his partner of later life – To Wendy Mulford with Much Love – and premiered by myself, at Firth Hall, University of Sheffield on the 16th October 2018.
As with the Sonata No.2, the three movements of the piece are linked by a plethora of shared material, leading to a sense of each movement growing out of the previous one. Not only this, but the notes G, D, Eb and C – exploited every bit as much here as in the Sonata no.2 – provide a link between these two, substantial works.
The first movement is written in modified sonata form, with a steely, toccata-like first subject in double octaves – initially built around the notes D, G and Eb. This ends abruptly and gives way to a chordal second subject, whispered peacefully over pedals of firstly C, and then D. The development section briefly explores these two themes further, in fragmentation. However, it also serves to introduce three new themes, which become significant in the subsequent movements: firstly, a strident, highly dissonant burst of semitones over bass pedal notes, secondly, a cheery ‘whistling’ tune (presented initially in A major over a chattering stream of left-hand, staccato quavers) and thirdly, a pandiatonic, syncopated chordal theme, beginning brightly in C major. After a brief recapitulation, the coda combines the chords of the second subject with a misty transformation of the ‘whistling’ tune, before fragments of the first subject, ghostly and erratically spaced, give way to a scarcely audible layering of Cs and Ds – a distant echo of the final bar of the Sonata No.2.
The second movement, in a loose, ternary form, is imbued with Scottish overtones – not only in its use of the Scotch snap, but also in the way its embellished, slow-moving second theme recalls pibroch bagpipe music. The first theme is a transformation of the first movement’s chordal second subject – the chords suspended in mid-air, like distant bells. In the centre of this beautiful, meditative movement, a folk-like transformation of the ‘whistling tune’ is placed in three-part canon (one part in augmentation). When the opening two themes make their return, they are transposed up a fifth and a third and there is a sense of them rising – shimmering, sporadic and elusive – before dissolving into nothing.
The impish third movement, in a fast duple time, plays with cross-rhythms and irregular time signatures. Its main theme is presented throughout in a metrically confusing canon between the hands. The strident, semitonal theme from the first movement’s development section, makes its return here, as does the complementary, syncopated chordal theme – still in C major. The ‘whistling’ tune also makes a final appearance, piccolo-like this time, in a rather banal canon between the hands. While the predominant mood of the movement is one of playfulness, the coda flies in the face of this; the strident, semitonal theme is hurled at the listener with triumphant force, before giving way to granite-like iterations of the notes G, D and A/Ab, in octaves between the hands – as if shouting “GorDon!”. One can only wonder whether the A also stands for something? It is sad that Gordon is no longer here for us to ask him, but given the piece’s dedicatee, I choose to interpret it as a big A for And: GorDon And…. Certainly, the end of the piece suggests an open, rather than a closed, book!
L’Isle Heureuse (étude for solo piano) (2019)
L’Isle Heureuse (Papa Westray Orkney) was written as a surprise gift in the summer of 2019 and is dedicated to the Lawson family – Peter, Ariane and Annabelle. It was first performed by myself at John Turner’s 80th birthday concert at St. Paul’s Church, Heaton Moor, in April 2023. By this point, I had already premiered two of Gordon’s piano sonatas, as well as his revised Piano Trio. Gordon’s relationship with my father, pianist Peter Lawson, went back even further – to broadcasts and recordings made in the 1980s with the recorder player, John Turner.
Inspired by Debussy’s ecstatic L’Isle joyeuse, this virtuosic étude depicts the island of Papa Westray, Orkney where, late in life, the composer bought a house with his partner, the writer Wendy Mulford and which I believe was his “happy” place. The piece is consistently built around the major pentatonic scale, in the same way that Debussy’s piece clings to the whole- tone scale and Lydian mode. The étude evokes the organic and irregular rise and fall of the sea; its moments of pregnant calm, as well as its unexpected surges of energy. Over the top of the fluid, left-hand figuration, the right hand initially spells out leaping major triads. As the piece progresses, the right-hand lines become more dissonant against the left-hand until, in the penultimate passage, there is a sense of complete chromatic saturation and of an epic tidal swell. This leads to climactic chords in an expansively swaying triple time (very much like the climax of the Debussy), which themselves give way to a smilingly diatonic coda in C major, perhaps evoking the gentle lapping of waves on a quiet shore, washed-clean.
Gordon Crosse was born in 1937 in Bury, Lancashire. In 1961 he gained a first class honours degree at Oxford, after which he did two years’ research on early fifteenth century music. From 1964 onwards he held various appointments at the universities of Birmingham and Essex, and was for two years composer in residence at King’s College, Cambridge. In 1976, the year in which he was awarded the Cobbett Medal, he returned to his home in Suffolk to devote all his time to composition, although in 1977 he spent one year as Visiting Professor of Composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Much of Crosse’s work reflects his interest in the dramatic and literary arts. This is evident not only in his four operas (of which The Story of Vasco was premiered at the London Coliseum, and Purgatory recorded by Argo), but also in many of his concert works. Examples are Memories of Morning: Night, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, based on Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea and Play Ground for orchestra. Indeed, Play Ground was later to be used for Kenneth MacMillan’s successful ballet of the same name, first performed by Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet at the Edinburgh Festival in 1979. This collaboration between composer and choreographer continued in 1981 with The Wild Boy, a ballet by MacMillan to Crosse’s original concertante of the same name, for clarinet and eight players, written in 1978.
Notable concert works, including Ceremony, Epiphany Variations, Play Ground, Dreamsongs, Symphony No. 2, the Cello Concerto and Violin Concerto No. 2 were commissioned by international orchestras and festivals, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Cheltenham Festival, the Aldeburgh Festival and the Edinburgh Festival.
From the late 1980s, Crosse became heavily involved with computer technology and ceased composing. However, the hiatus was broken in 2008, when he wrote a new collection of songs to words by Rudyard Kipling (a favourite author) for the eightieth birthday of his friend Sir John Manduell, and from that point on he became extremely prolific. Later works include five new string quartets, two more symphonies, a viola concerto, a third violin concerto, several choral works, a Second Elegy (in memory of his late father), an oboe trio, Brief Encounter for recorder, oboe d’amore and strings, and a handful of solos for various wind instruments, written mainly for friends. In later life, Crosse divided his time between homes in Suffolk and Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands.
Gordon Crosse (edited Annabelle Lawson)
Annabelle Lawson has established herself as a pianist and chamber musician who exudes
subtlety and vivacity in equal measure. She has performed widely, in venues including the
Wigmore Hall, Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall, Bridgewater Hall and Kings Place, as
well as broadcasted live for BBC Radio 3. Currently approaching its 25th anniversary, the
Lawson Trio has been selected as a featured artist by the Park Lane Group, Making Music’s
Concert Promoters’ Group, Music in the Round, Concordia Foundation and CAVATINA
Chamber Music Trust. In July 2011 the Trio travelled to Australia as one of 8 successful
piano trios from international auditions, to compete in the final rounds of the Melbourne
International Chamber Music Competition, which was broadcast live. They were also the
first piano trio to be offered a Britten-Pears Residency as part of the chamber music
programme at Snape Maltings and their debut disc – The Long Way Home – received
widespread critical acclaim and a 5 star review in BBC Music Magazine.
Having performed recently as concerto soloist with the Göttingen Symphony Orchestra in
Germany, played trios in a French château, worked as a cabaret artist in the Far East,
played Carnival of the Animals with kangaroo-impersonating dancers from Ballet Rambert
and, last but not least, worn an Octopus Hat on stage for Wigmore Learning – her career is
notable for its variety and versatility. Recent CD recordings include a disc of chamber music
by the late David Golightly, as well as chamber music by Gordon Crosse.
Annabelle enjoys a distinguished career as a music educator. She teaches piano to
postgraduate students at Sheffield University, where she is also a collaborative pianist. As
well as teaching at Sheffield Music Academy, she is also a main panel examiner for the
ABRSM. While living in London, Annabelle taught at the Royal Academy of Music for 10
years and, as the Artistic Director of Chamber Music 2000, she organised numerous
education workshops and inter-school showcase concerts, in venues including the Purcell
Room, Kings Place, Menuhin Hall and Howard Assembly Rooms. Annabelle also ran a busy
concert series for the hugely successful Bach to Baby enterprise.
Annabelle studied piano as a child at Chetham’s School of Music, before reading music at
King’s College, University of Cambridge. After completing her BA, she undertook a one-year
BMus, for which she gained a Distinction, during which time she researched the social role
of the Argentine tango in Paris, in the years directly preceding World War One. She then
pursued postgraduate tuition in chamber music at the Royal Academy of Music, who
awarded her piano trio a two-year Junior Leverhulme Chamber Music Fellowship.
Annabelle’s teachers have included her father, Peter Lawson, Ronan O’Hora and Philip
Fowke. In 2015/16, Annabelle also completed a graduate diploma in Integrative
Psychotherapy at the Minster Centre, London. Annabelle lives in Sheffield, on the edge of
the Peak District, with her husband and two sons.
Tracks 1-8: Recorded and produced by Richard Scott, at the Royal Northern College of Music on the 7th & 8th December 2017.
Tracks 9-15: Recorded, produced and edited by Phil Hardman at the Royal Northern College of Music on the 10th & 11th November 2022.
The Associate Producer was Peter Lawson.
With grateful thanks to: Ida Carroll Trust, Vaughan Williams Foundation, James Bowman, Anthony Burton, John Casken, Peter & Ariane Lawson, Lois & John Miles, Caro Millington & Michael Robinson, Martin Owen, Rachel Wakeham, Li Zhang and a further forty-nine, generous Kickstarter backers.
Photos of Gordon Crosse: © Marc Yeats 2019
Photo of Annabelle Lawson: © Alejandro Tomagno 201