Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tippett Sonata for Four Horns; in October Light by John Gardner

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) wrote his Sonata for Four Horns in 1955 for the Dennis Brain Quartet. The Sonata was recorded by the Barry Tuckwell Horn Quartet on an infamous recording released by ARGO where it was paired with Tippett's second symphony.

On the cover of that album, taken by Axel Poignant (1906-1986), Tippett is sitting on a couch looking over at us. He is ready to either scowl or laugh. It is an expression familiar from his music.

Near the end of John Gardner's novel "October Light," written in 1976, a peripheral character named Terence Parks is listening to this recording of the Tippett Sonata. It is a section called "Terence on Pure and Subservient Art:"

"Terence Parks sat in the corner chair in the green living room of his parents’ house, . . . listening to the Tippett Sonata for Four Horns and trying to think, or rather struggling with a chaos of old and new feelings, in a sense old and new ideas. [...]."

"Nothing in his father’s large record collection was more familiar to Terence than the Tippett Sonata: happy music, he’d always thought; but tonight it had dark implications he’d never before noticed. Not that the music wasn’t happy even now—in general, at least—and not that he wasn’t himself feeling something like happiness, or at any rate feeling stirred up, uplifted by excitement—though at the same time fearful. Even talking with Margie last night he hadn’t worked out the exact way to say it, but he was onto something. He had made, or perhaps was on the verge of making, a discovery. It had to do, it seemed to him now, with walking in the rain with Margie Phelps, and with the mad old man’s shotgun, and with music. [...]

"He closed his eyes, listening to the Tippett and summoning up her image, a light, still core in a swirl of change, chaos and dissonance, leaping darkness." [...]

"Terence had listened to the Tippett often. In the beginning he couldn’t have said why except, of course, that it was for horns, and he was a hornist. It was not 'thrilling' or in the usual sense 'beautiful' or any of the things that make particular pieces 'universally appealing,' as his teacher at school would say [...] It was a piece to daydream by—-or to remember by, as he was remembering now (but with unusual intensity), his consciousness closed like a fist around last night. And also the music had been for him a kind of puzzle, one he was reworking now, this moment.

"When he had first begun to listen to it, once having gotten past his interest in the tone, the hurry of sixteenth notes, he had asked himself what it was that the music reminded him of—-the first movement, for instance:

(Live performance by the Cambridge University Horn Quartet)

with its medieval opening and surprisingly quick flight from any trace of the medieval, a hustle-bustle of sweetly dissonant liquid sounds, sometimes such a flurry that you’d swear there were dozens of horns, not just four-—and he’d tried various ideas: the idea that the image was of threatening apes, harmless ones, small ones, chittering and flapping unbelligerent arms in a brightly lit jungle; the idea that the picture was of children at the beach in sped-up motion. [...]

"Then it had come to him as a startling revelation—-though he couldn’t explain even to his horn teacher Andre Speyer why it was that he found the discovery startling—-that the music meant nothing at all but what it was: panting, puffing, comically hurrying French horns.

"That had been, ever since—until tonight—-what he saw when he closed his eyes and listened: horns, sometimes horn players, but mainly horn sounds, the very nature of horn sounds, puffing, hurrying, getting in each other’s way yet in wonderful agreement finally, as if by accident. Sometimes, listening, he would smile, and his father would say quizzically, “What’s with you?” It was the same when he listened to the other movements: What he saw was French horns, that is, the music. The moods changed, things happened, but only to French horns, French horn sounds.

There was a four-note theme in the second movement [1:00] that sounded like “Oh When the Saints,” a theme that shifted from key to key, sung with great confidence by a solo horn, answered by a kind of scornful gibberish from the second, third, and fourth, as if the first horn’s opinion was ridiculous and they knew what they knew.

"Or the slow movement: As if they’d finally stopped and thought it out, the horns played together, a three-note broken chord several times repeated, and then the first horn taking off as if at the suggestion of the broken chord and flying like a gull—except not like a gull, nothing like that, flying like only a solo French horn. Now the flying solo became the others’ suggestion and the chord began to undulate, and all four horns together were saying something, almost words, first a mournful sound like Maybe and then later a desperate Oh yes I think so, except to give it words was to change it utterly: it was exactly what it was, as clear as day—or a moonlit lake where strange creatures lurk—-and nothing could describe it but itself. It wasn’t sad, the slow movement; only troubled, hesitant, exactly as he often felt himself.

"Then came—-and he would sometimes laugh aloud—-the final, fast movement. Though the slow movement’s question had never quite been answered, all the threat was still there, the fast movement started with absurd self-confidence, with some huffings and puffings, and then the first horn set off with delightful bravado, like a fat man on skates who hadn’t skated in years (but not like a fat man on skates, like nothing but itself), Woo-woo-woo-woops! and the spectator horns laughed tiggledy-tiggledy-tiggledy!, or that was vaguely the idea—every slightly wrong chord, every swoop, every hand-stop changed everything completely. [...] It was impossible to say what, precisely, he meant.

"Terence’s stomach was suddenly all butterflies, as if something terrible were about to happen, some great evil, some monster in the music, about to emerge. Whiffle-whiffle-whiffle! went the second, third, and fourth, humorous but threatening, perceptibly malevolent, the tip of a dangerous iceberg. The first horn sailed over them, oblivious as a child or fool, in an entirely wrong key.

"Last night Terence had explained his theory, as he’d had it worked out then, to Margie Phelps, realizing as he talked that he was talking about her—-the scent of her, the way her hands moved, the way she walked just a little pigeon-toed (he wouldn’t have her walk any other way), unique as a snowflake and, in Terence’s eyes, infinitely more beautiful. 'I mean, everything should be what it is,' he’d said, 'you know? Absolutely free.'

"With a solemn expression she’d looked up at his face—-she’d been watching the ground as he told her all this, not speaking except now and then to ask a question: 'How do you think of things like that?' she’d said. 'I could think for a million years and never come up with it!' Only now, in retrospect, was he fully aware of the darkness all around them and swirling up within them, two innocents chattering, while the old man schemed murder and Aunt Estelle, in the car, sat trembling.

"Margie’s words, her perfectly serious expression, had transformed him, given him value and potential. So it had seemed to him and seemed to him now. She had seen him, seen his seeing of the music, and he had therefore seen himself.

"Something stirred in the music, darting from dark place to dark place. His eyes snapped open. Had he slept for an instant? For an instant at most; yet he seemed to have dreamed of the suicide—-the story his aunt had told him years ago of the young man hanging calm as stone in his attic, in the house below him, Mozart. In the dream—or perhaps inside Tippett’s music—-Terence had stared at the faceless, still figure and had realized someone was in terrible danger, drifting out of key, out of orbit toward nothingness, toward emptiness and itself. Margie?, he wondered in brief panic. Ed Thomas? Aunt Estelle? For a split second he understood everything, life’s monstrosity and beauty. Then he was listening to the horns again.

"His father, on the couch, opened the center-page foldout and looked at it without interest, then raised his eyes and looked at Terence. 'What’s the matter?' he said, grinning.

" 'Nothing,' Terence said, and blushed."


  1. I have the other two movements up if you want to link them in now. Nice little post...I don't know much about the piece that could go in a program note but this was a good read!

  2. Thanks for letting me know about the other movements...I will link them in when I get a chance.

  3. thank you for posting this..... I am just now reading October Light and this is most helpful....


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