‘Steps’ by Peter Seabourne

‘Steps’ is a large-scale cycle of music for solo piano by British composer Peter Seabourne (born 1960). Begun in 2001, it now runs to five volumes and is a project which the composer, by his own admission, anticipates running through his life, as a kind of “companion”. It is significant in Seabourne’s oeuvre not only for its scale, but because piano music was the medium which drew Seabourne back into composer after a 12-year silence. Volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5 are available on the Sheva label, and also on Spotify. The composer has also made scores available via his website.

The first volume of the cycle is entitled simply ‘Steps’, but subsequent volumes have subtitles which point to the compositional impulse for each collection – Studies of Invention (Vol 2), for example, are inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s inventiveness and creative genius, and include works with titles such as ‘Flying Machines’, ‘Perspectives of Disappearance’ and ‘Lenses for Looking at the Moon’ (a haunting, luminous piece which utilises the piano’s resonance and is redolent of Arvo PArt’s piano music). Volume 3, Arabesques, is inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Southern Spain, while the most recent volume, Sixteen Scenes Before a Crucifixion, takes the Passiontide paintings of Caravaggio as its starting point, though the music is not overtly religious. The composer describes the pieces as nearer to Preludes and “a pianist’s Winterreise”. The first volume is not intended as a cycle, but rather a collection of pieces in the manner of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, for example, and the pieces display a wide range of technical challenges, so that some are playable by younger or less advanced pianists.

In terms of style, all the works in the volumes are extremely varied and idiosyncratic, with much rhythmic and melodic interest, often very lyrical though not necessarily “tuneful”. Seabourne employs a colourful and piquant harmonic palette which recalls Debussy, Janacek and Messiaen, while the rhythmic vitality of the music is akin to Prokofiev; indeed the brevity and aphoristic nature of the pieces aligns them with Prokofiev’s ‘Visions Fugitives’ and ‘Sarcasms’. The works are challenging, and probably best tackled by the advanced pianist who enjoys such technical challenges as varied time signatures, polyrhythms, myriad articulation, filigree textures and one with the requisite artistic sensitivity and imagination to bring musical colour and invention to the music. It is always gratifying to find new music for the piano, and Steps is undoubtedly an important addition to the repertoire and definitely worth seeking out.

Different pianists appear on the recordings of Steps (Giovanni Santini, Michael Bell, Fabio Menchetti and Alessandro Viale) and all display sensitivity to the material and the varied moods and characteristics of this music, together with clarity of tone and pristine articulation. Pianist Minjeong Shin from Korea will record ‘Steps’ Volume 1 this summer.

Peter Seabourne will feature in a future Meet the Artist interview

peterseabourne.com