This atmospheric piece for solo piano, whose Afrikaans subtitle ‘Wind oor die Branders’ translates as Wind over the Waves, is by Richard Pantcheff  (b.1959). It comes from ‘Nocturnus’, a suite of six pieces written for different instruments; the final work in the suite is 4th December 1976, written in memory of Benjamin Britten on the fortieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Pantcheff was mentored in composition by Benjamin Britten in the last years of Britten’s life, and his music displays a distinct affinity with Britten’s soundworld, as well as that of earlier English composers including Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi and Elizabeth Lutyens.

A prolific composer of choral, organ, chamber and instrumental works, Richard Pantcheff was trained in choral music and composition from an early age, initially as a chorister at Ripon Cathedral, and studied music at Christ Church, Oxford, under Simon Preston and Francis Grier. His music has been widely performed and praised for its originality and technical brilliance, combined with intellectual and emotional depth.

I discovered this piece through ‘De Profundis Clamavi’, a recent recording by British pianist, and friend of mine, Duncan Honeybourne. Duncan is a keen advocate of English music and a champion of lesser-known repertoire, and his recording on which ‘Nocturnus V’ appears (together with Pantcheff’s substantial Piano Sonata, of which he is dedicatee) contains no less than eight world premiere recordings.

The piece is minimalist in style. Its title ‘Nocturnus’ obviously suggests a Nocturne or night piece, and although this work makes stylistic reference to Chopin’s Nocturnes in its flowing accompaniment (almost continuous semiquavers to suggest both waves and wind), it is perhaps closer to Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ (which also appears on ‘De Profundis Clamavi’) and ‘Night’ from Holiday Diary in atmosphere, harmonic language and some of its textures. But while the middle section of Britten’s ‘Night Piece’ is unsettled, full of curious nocturnal twitterings and scurrying, Pantcheff exchanges the fluid semiquavers for a rising chordal figure in triplets which climaxes in fortississimo (fff) chords high up in the piano’s register. The effect is hymn-like and joyful. The music then subsides and pauses, before the semiquaver ‘waves’ return, now in the bass, with soft, piquant chords in the treble.

Although not particularly difficult (I would suggest this piece is around Grade 5-6 standard), the challenge for the player comes in retaining evenness in the semiquaver figures and sustaining long notes in the other register. Sparing use of the pedal will avoid muddying the sound in these sections, while the middle section requires greater projection and brightness of sound. It’s a satisfying piece to play as it offers the player plenty of scope for expression and “sound painting” to portray the music’s inspiration. 


‘Nocturnus V’ by Richard Pantcheff, played by Duncan Honeybourne

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Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My primary influences are my Catholic faith and the art and folk music of the Slovacko area of South Moravia, to which I am connected through both my parents.

Teachers: the composer Miloslav Ištvan (with whom I studied at the Janáček Academy in Brno) and the way of life of St. Francis of Assisi,

From the European music tradition: Gregorian chant, Moravian folk music, the late orchestral works of Antonín Dvořák and the late works of Leoš Janáček.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge in my career has been (and continues to be) exploring the possibilities of unison technique since the end of the 1990s. It has also been a challenge to hide away and completely concentrate on composing to the best of my ability and as much as my own character, my family life and my teaching profession allow.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

Without a doubt a most special experience for me was my collaboration for over 30 years with the Schubert Ensemble – both with the Ensemble as a whole and with its individual members. This collaboration brought me an independence from the music life of Brno; it is a very important thing in a composer´s life to be independent of one’s position in one’s own birthplace.

I should also mention an important collaboration in Brno throughout my whole working life with the excellent percussionist Martin Opršál

Of which works are you most proud?

My proudest creative works are my three daughters, Magdalene, Veronika and Miriam, and, at one remove, my granddaughter Julia.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

It is not easy to answer this question: I try to clear a path from the mess of complexity to the order of simplicity

Tell us more about your 24 Preludes & Fugues for solo piano. What was the inspiration behind this set of pieces? Were the templates set by Bach and Chopin influential at all?

From the very start the inspiration for my Preludes and Fugues was the Bible. From the point of view of the musical form, I was influenced more by the thinking of Anton Reicha than by the counterpoint of J.S. Bach or by Chopin’s Preludes. But everything I have written is strongly connected to the classical European tradition.

During my military service in Prague (1981-2) I wrote a single Prelude and Fugue for piano, which stands alone. In 1989 William Howard asked me to write something for him. I composed two Preludes and Fugues and the cycle continued from there. The inspiration for the cycle from the very beginning was the Bible.

William Howard and Pavel Novák

Pianist William Howard has recorded the entire set. What was the experience of working with William on this music?

My collaboration with William was like my real composition degree course. Thanks to his extraordinary patience in studying and re-studying my endless corrections, I had the chance to pursue and to develop my own musical imagination – and not just in writing for piano. But certainly it also helped me to develop a new feeling for piano composition, which has continued in further piano pieces (a left hand piece for Steve Warzycki and my 6th and 7th Sonatas, both for William), and has influenced other aspects of my composing. William’s experience as both a soloist and a chamber player has given him a sense of colour and a rhythmic precision that you can admire in the recording of the Preludes and Fugues.

As a composer, how do you work?

I try to imitate the great composers of the past, composing every day, but the result is a bit different. They wrote hundreds of fantastic pieces in an extraordinarily short time. I add five bars in the morning and cross out seven bars in the afternoon every day…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I remember some successful premieres (my piano quintet ‘Royal Funeral Procession on Iona’ at Wigmore Hall with the whole Schubert Ensemble, the premiere of my Third Symphony for piano and strings at Dartington with William at the piano, the UK premiere of the Preludes and Fugues at St. Giles, Cripplegate in London), some great occasions, friendly audiences, nice reviews, perfect recordings, ongoing collaborations with musicians…. but then I think of Schubert and of Van Gogh and reflect that there are other ways to define success in the world of art. Maybe for the composer success is also the perfect score, the ideal piece, without the need for any response from the world around. And for a painter it is the ideal picture, regardless of how it is perceived in the artist’s lifetime.

What advice would you give to aspiring composers?

1. Write the first version of your pieces by hand. It is all too easy these days for us to become greatly estranged from our own work.

2. Rewrite pieces by classical masters (e.g. Perotinus, Bach, Webern). By following every note of their scores your imagination will develop and you will be able to compare your own solutions and your own ideas with their way of thinking. I am worried that two thousand years of well-tried and tested techniques are in danger of being lost.

3. Maintain a basic classical music education; play a string instrument and sing in a choir. When composing you can easily lose connection with live instrumental and vocal performance.

4. Do not interpret your own music! Sit in the audience and listen. Players have quite different worries from composers.

5. Sit at home and work every day. Do not organise performances of your pieces – they will come by themselves.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?

In the Czech Republic, programmes for bigger ensembles and for orchestras could be improved – they repeat famous pieces from famous composers again and again. They should play more early works by well-known composers (e.g. the early symphonies of Dvořák and Ives…..) and they should perform more early music on modern instruments (e.g. Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Bach…..). Glenn Gould showed us how to play this repertoire on a modern instrument in his recordings of early music.

What are your most treasured possessions?

My faith, my family, my musical gift.

Pavel Zemek Novák’s “dazzlingly original” 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano is now available in a newly published edition, available as a digital download from Music Haven Ltd. Find out more

Pianist William Howard has recorded the 24 Preludes and Fugues on the Champs Hill Records label


Contemporary music publisher Music Haven has launched a new digital download service for its sheet music collection. Available via the Music Haven website, this service will initially offer digital downloads of piano music, the centrepiece of which is the first published edition of Czech composer Pavel Zemek Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano.

William Howard and Pavel Novák

Described by British composer David Matthews as “one of the finest piano works of our time, a worthy companion to Ligeti’s three books of Etudes”, Pavel Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues were composed for pianist William Howard between 1989 and 2006, and were recorded by Howard on the Champs Hill label in 2011. But like much of Novak’s music, this work has remained unpublished until now.

Peter Fribbins, composer, writes:

“Music Haven Ltd. is delighted to announce the publication of Pavel Zemek Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano. An ambitious and important contribution to the contemporary piano repertoire, they are written in a musical language that has immediate connection and expressive presence. We are also pleased to be able to make Novák’s work more widely and easily available around the world by launching this work via our digital publishing platform.” 

The new edition has taken several years to prepare and the process has been extremely challenging. Painstakingly typeset by composer Cydonie Banting from a hand-written manuscript replete with complex and idiosyncratic notation, and edited by Pavel Novák and William Howard, the work is divided into four books, which reflect the evolution of Novak’s musical language.

Excerpt from score, before & after typesetting

Now for the first time, pianists can explore this remarkable music in an accessible and beautifully typeset digital edition, available from Music Haven. Pianist William Howard says: “I am confident that other pianists around the world will now take up this powerful and dazzlingly original work.

The complete score is available to purchase as a digital download from Music Haven’s webshop


Music Haven Ltd publishes and promotes new classical music in all its manifestations. At its core are the works of a number of established contemporary British composers, including James Francis Brown, Peter Fribbins and Alan Mills, whose music is complemented by exciting new discoveries, or reconstructions, of lost classical works of the past. Scores are beautifully presented and edited to the highest standards.

A key part of Music Haven’s mission is to foster meaningful collaboration between composer and performer, and in doing so, bring fine music to a wider audience.

Music Haven website: musichaven.co.uk

 

Guest post by William Howard


Two years ago I wrote some words on Howard Skempton’s piano music for this site, having just recorded a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues that he had written for me in 2019. Skempton was inspired to write these pieces after hearing (and reviewing) my recording of another cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, written for me by the Czech composer Pavel Zemek Novák between 1989 and 2006. Skempton’s 24 Preludes and Fugues were published by Oxford University Press within a year of their completion, but it is only now that Novák’s extraordinary cycle has become available, thanks to a new edition released this month by Music Haven.

Both cycles of Preludes and Fugues were composed to be performed in their entirety, but whereas Skempton’s are typically pared down and distilled, with very few notes on the page, Novák’s are written on an epic scale. His cycle, which lasts 75 minutes, is inspired by the Bible, the first twelve Preludes and Fugues based on the Old Testament and the second twelve on the New Testament. Composer David Matthews has described the work as ‘one of the finest piano works of our time, a worthy companion to Ligeti’s three books of Études’. This is a bold claim, given the fact that Novák’s music is comparatively little known, but it is one that I fully support myself. I am confident that other pianists around the world will now take up this powerful and dazzlingly original work.

I first came across Novák’s music in 1987, when composer David Matthews invited me to take part in a concert at the King’s Lynn Festival featuring works by Brno composers. I was sent a number of recordings to listen to in order to choose a programme and liked many of the works that I heard, but one that made the by far greatest impact on me was a tricky-sounding piece for oboe, cello and piano, which I had an immediate desire to play. I had been passionate about Janáček’s music for many years, and something about Pavel’s oboe trio made a similar kind of impact on me. Its strong, almost acerbic flavour seemed to me distinctly Moravian. Pavel made his first visit to the UK to hear the performance of this work, The Garden of Delights, in King’s Lynn, and for both David and myself a much-valued friendship was born.

William Howard and Pavel Novák

At the time Novák was hardly known outside his hometown of Brno. As a practising Christian working under a communist regime, and unwilling to be a party member, he could expect to be offered very few opportunities as a composer. Since that time his reputation has grown, both in the Czech Republic and abroad. For some years, he received more performances of his music in the UK than in his own country, composing several new works for the Schubert Ensemble and for myself, and receiving commissions from Chroma, the Composers’ Ensemble, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, and Dartington International Summer School. In the last couple of decades his most important commissions have come from major institutions in the Czech Republic, including the Czech Philharmonic and Brno State Symphony Orchestras.

As a student, Novák was immersed in the Janáček tradition of building form through working with small motifs and fragments, but he went on to develop his own distinctive style and to explore a wide range of other kinds of music. Believing that dissonance had had its day and that everything that could be said with it had already been said, he arrived in the 1990s at a new means of expression through imaginative use of consonance and unison, with voices supporting each other rather than working in opposition. The integrity and purity of his musical voice has its roots in his deep Catholic faith, which is the ultimate source of inspiration for all his music.

If his music has not been more widely performed, the reason is at least in part because scores have been unavailable. Fortunately, this situation is now changing. Many pieces are now available through the Czech Music Information Centre’s database and a few chamber works have been published by Madrid-based Da_sh Music, including a superb piano quintet, Royal Funeral Procession to Iona, that he wrote for the Schubert Ensemble in 1995.

In the case of the 24 Preludes and Fugues, several music publishers took an interest in the work following the positive reaction to the London premiere of the work in 2007 and to the recording (released in 2011) but found the scale and the complexities of the hand-written manuscript too daunting to take on. The great news is that, with the help of a handful of sponsors, three years of heroic typesetting by the composer Cydonie Banting and many dozens of hours of proof-reading and editing by the composer and myself, the score is now finally available.

 Before and after typesetting/editing (Prelude 23)

The complete score is now available on the Music Haven website.


William Howard has recorded Pavel Novák’s 24 Preludes and Fugues on the Champs Hill Records label

Listen to the album via Spotify

 


William Howard is established as one of Britain’s leading pianists, enjoying a career that has taken him to over 40 different countries. His performing life consists of solo recitals, concerto performances, guest appearances with chamber ensembles and instrumentalists. In 1983 he founded the Schubert Ensemble, with which he performed for the full 35 years of the Ensemble’s existence (it gave its final concert in June 2018). Winner of the 1998 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Best Chamber Ensemble, the Schubert Ensemble earned a worldwide reputation as one of the finest piano and string ensembles, as well as setting up several ground-breaking educational projects and commissioning 50 concert works.

His solo career has taken him to many of Britain’s most important festivals, including Bath, Brighton and Cheltenham, and he has been artist in residence at several others. He has performed many times in the Wigmore Hall and the South Bank in London and has broadcast regularly for BBC Radio 3. For many years he has been invited to perform and teach at the Dartington International Summer School.

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Piano Day was founded in 2015 by composer and pianist Nils Frahm, and a group of like-minded others, and it celebrates all things piano – the instrument and those who play it, its extensive repertoire, and other piano-related projects. It takes places each year on 29th March, the 88th day of the year, chosen because the piano has 88 keys.

“Why does the world need a Piano Day? For many reasons. But mostly, because it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener.” – Nils Frahm

In a year when pianos in concert halls have largely fallen silent, Piano Day seems even more significant to me. I have to admit a certain estrangement from my own piano – I have not felt much motivation to play over the past year, despite having more time to devote to an instrument which I love, but in spite of this, I have made some new musical discoveries which I would like to share here.

Woven Silver from Seven Traceries – William Grant Still

A chance hearing of this piece on BBC Radio 3 one morning led me to listen to the entire suite and order the sheet music direct from William Grant Still’s estate in the US.

Chaconne – Jean-Henri d’Anglebert

Another piece which I discovered via BBC Radio 3, listening late one evening to the Night Tracks programme which is broadcast after 11pm

Every Morning, Birds from The Book of Leaves – Rachel Grimes

I discovered Rachel Grimes’ piano music when I was invited to suggest music for the new London College of Music piano syllabus. This atmospheric miniature is from her Book of Leaves album.

Blue Air from Colour Suite – Madeleine Dring

In 2020 I was asked to contribute teaching and performance notes for Trinity College of London’s new piano syllabus, and this was one the pieces for which I wrote notes. I like its lazy swinging rhythms and piquant, jazz harmonies.

Quiet Rhythms: Prologue & Action No. 9 – William Susman

This piece appeared in one of those “if you liked that, you’ll like this” playlists which the Spotify algorithm creates based on one’s listening.

Some Other Time – by Leonard Bernstein, played by Bill Evans

This is very similar to Evans’ Peace Piece, which I play quite frequently, and it shares its tranquillity and ostinato bass.

Allegro Moderato from Gargoyles – Lowell Liebermann

Another chance discovery, the sheet music for this piece by American composer and pianist Lowell Liebermann was included in an issue of International Piano magazine. It’s been on my piano for awhile, but I haven’t yet got round to learning it properly, beyond a brief sight-read. (Read my review of Lowell Lierbermann’s Personal Demons here)

Film en miniature, H. 148: III. Berceuse – Martinu

Track 14 https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=190295242428

I don’t know very much of Martinu’s piano music and I discovered this piece through French pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s wonderful ‘Good Night!’ album (one of my favourite recordings of 2020 – review here).

Elf Dance – Moondog

American composer Moondog (Louis Thomas Hardin, May 26, 1916 – September 8, 1999) was blind from the age of 16 and wrote most of his music in Braille. I like the Baroque/folksy flavours of this miniature, which appears on Vanessa Wagner’s disc Inland.

Listening back through these selections, I notice that most have a rather meditative or ambient quality, perhaps reflecting my taste for quieter, more reflective music during the past year.

Guest post by Doug Thomas


I create in order to learn; there has not ever been a piece of music that I have composed without the wish to discover something and develop my artistry.

While it is, I believe, observable in all my works, it is most obvious in Portraits, and the soon to be released Landscapes

With both projects, I intend — through microscopic study — to portrait composers that I have found influential or with whom I have spent considerable musical time. My creative approach consists of identifying the subjective elements that define these composers and, through a process of translation, make them mine. 

Through a broad selection that spans over each main period of Western classical music, I have selected Couperin, Vivaldi, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Glass and Stravinsky. Some influences are quite noticeable in my works already, some much less, and some will perhaps become more prominent as I evolve musically.

Let’s take “Vienna 2”, the first of the eight pieces of Landscapes that I have recorded and released, and examine how I have composed it and what the result has been. 

The first phase of creation for this piece is one of learning; through a selection of some of Schubert’s motifs, and rhythmic, melodic or harmonic cells, I analyse, transcribe and identify the elements that make the music so interesting to me. I immerse myself in the composer’s world in order to bring the personality traits out and understand his creative process. It is similar to the work of the archaeologist, who brushes the dust and reveals the keys and symbols. It is a process of listening, reading and copying. 

The second phase is then an opportunity for translation and creation. It is how I adapt Schubert’s vocabulary to mine, how I reappropriate his sentences and make them mine. 

This last phase is crucial for me as it is the one that decides whether the piece will sound like a simple pastiche, or whether it will have the flavours of Schubert’s music, while being truly my own musical DNA. It might translate into improvising over the elements until something emerges or an intellectual process of shuffling the pieces and structuring new elements together. 

What I find truly interesting with such an approach, aside from the enrichment, is the end result. What I see as being very much Schubert’s words out of my mouth has actually become my own expression. Had I not mentioned Schubert, “Vienna 2” might have been perceived very differently, and the secret would have been intact. 

When Richter wrote Infra, a large inspiration was also Schubert’s, and his Impromptus, yet although the musical material is very similar, it is no one else but Richter’s works. 

Hopefully, I can say the same about “Vienna 2”, Portraits and Landscapes. Ultimately, I feel richer. 


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London. He also publishes articles, interviews and reviews, and is a regular contributor to this site and its sister site ArtMuseLondon.

Doug Thomas