Variations on a Theme of Cole Porter

I hate parading my serenading

As I’ll probably miss a bar,

But if this ditty is not so pretty

At least it’ll tell you how great you are…

…You’re the Top!

Commissioned as a 40th wedding anniversary present, this piece is one of celebration, freedom, life, colour and contrast – but at the same time is not relentlessly cheerful (any more than a 40 year marriage will have been…)

The Cole Porter tune was one of the couple’s favourites, and I decided rather than to take the melody in a recognisable form and alter or add things to it bit by bit (as they did in the 17th and 18th centuries) I would ‘deconstruct’ the theme musically and ask ‘questions’ of it: you’ve done this and then gone back to the beginning, but if you did it again might you end up with something quite different? If you hadn’t done this, you might have ended up here…? Did you try this instead…? etc. These are the sorts of things all composers do in some way or other and, although my music is naturally very different from Porter’s, I think some of these playful spin-offs would have appealed to him in principle (if not necessarily in terms of all the resulting sounds…)

The work is free, rhapsodic, rather like a written down improvisation, and as such a performance of vivacity and energetic ‘sweep’ will always be preferable to anything too serious and technically accurate. Large sections are written to be played quite freely – hence the absence of time signatures. The rhythmic language, in particular, unless specifically indicated otherwise by Tempo Giusto, should have a tendency towards spontaneity rather than exactness. The notes on the page are a representation of ideas worked out at the piano, which are not easy to notate without the most finickity notational detail, the use of which would (in my view) heighten the sense of need for exact precision in performance rather than a romantic, rhapsodic quality. No matter how faithfully and carefully worked the score is, it is always flawed in the representation of these ideas and, without a certain amount of creativity and imagination being brought to it by the performer, will most likely come across a bit flat.

An underlying rhythmic pulse is more or less absent apart from in Tempo Giusto passages. Polyrhythms, in particular, such as twos against threes, are not intended to be motorically precise, but rather should be expressed as independence of line in the various voices. Terms such as rit., sostenuto, a tempo, etc. written in small italics are expressive devices, more concerned with the ebb and flow and shape of the music than precise mathematical subdivisions. Significant tempi indications are indicated in Bold – these are more structural and fundamental.

Pedal is to be used liberally throughout (adjusted according to the acoustics) – I much prefer a natural resonance and free ringing of the piano to anything too clean. Ties to nothing (laissez vibrer) indicate a certain amount of resonance of those notes, which should be held on as long as that resonance adds something to the subsequent gesture. There are certainly places where the pedal should be cleared for the sake of clarity – structural or thematic clarity as well as immediate textural clarity – but I prefer to let the performer decide on these places. The main question to ask is simply what one hears within any resonance or clarity, and what is highlighted of brought out through maintaining or changing the textural resonance. The pedal should then be used according to what the performer wishes to express in this way.

The ‘glisses’ in the left hand of bars 145 onwards are to be achieved by playing the grace notes just before the beat, with the tied notes being held by the hand, and the remaining notes released quickly on the beat. In low register of the piano and with the delicate use of pedal, the effect can be of a short ‘slide’ up to the ‘main’ note of the theme in such passages. The non-tied notes of the grace chords need not be overly articulated therefore – the effect is better if its slightly (but not overly) muddied.

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