Knussen: Triptych

Program Note

Oliver Knussen

“Between 1975 and 1977 I was trying to define my musical space—a time of considerable frustration and little completed work—exploring the harmonic areas I had stumbled upon when composing the first part of my Third Symphony. The three pieces which eventually emerged, Autumnal for violin and piano Op.14, Sonya’s Lullaby for piano Op.16 and the present Cantata Op.15, form a sort of mini-trilogy, all being on one level abstract pieces concerned with harmonic coherence, and on another level intimate, diary-like expressions.

Autumnal was adapted from sketches for an abandoned chamber piece which I made at Seranak, Serge Koussevitzky’s former estate, in 1975. It forms the first panel of Triptych. Autumnal is dedicated to the memory of Benjamin Britten, who died while I was composing it, and the two movements are named after his two song cycles, Nocturne and Serenade.

Sonya’s Lullaby is the central panel of Triptych. The word “lullaby” is used in the sense of an incantation to sleep; Sonya is my daughter, who was a four-month-old insomniac in October 1977 when the first sketch of this piece was written. Formally the music is, I hope, self-explanatory—but perhaps it is worth mentioning that an initial stimulus toward the piano writing was the harmonic exploitation of overtones produced from the lowest register of the instrument by composers as diverse as Brahms, Scriabin, Copland, and Carter. Sonya’s Lullaby was written for the composer-pianist Michael Finnissy, who gave the first performance of the final version in Amsterdam in January 1979.

Cantata was begun at Tanglewood in July 1975 and completed in London in October 1977. The title was chosen after noticing that the relationships between the various episodes reminded me of the interdependence of recitatives and more-or-less self-contained numbers in some 18th-century solo cantatas, an impression reinforced by the predominance of the oboe in this piece.”

—Oliver Knussen