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J. Lee Graham

Trio in B-flat for Viola, Violoncello, and Contrabass

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Trio in B-flat for Viola, Violoncello, and Contrabass

 

I. Allegro spiritoso

II. Adagio e sostenuto

III. Menuetto:  Allegro

IV. Allegretto

 

Composed:  February 22 - May 26, 2014

Style:  Classical, circa 1790

Though conceived as a mere amusement, this work ended up being for me an intensive study on how to handle a group of low-register instruments effectively in a chamber ensemble.  Works for this very unusual instrumentation are exceedingly rare, as one may imagine, probably because of the challenges I faced in writing my own piece.  Achieving clarity in an ensemble with so much bass sonority was rather difficult, but I believe I achieved it to some degree.  Fortunately the players for whom I was writing it made the job easier.  This trio was originally written for myself, a friend (an excellent ‘cellist), and my ex-boyfriend (a fine bassist) to play just for fun.  This is one of several chamber works featuring the contrabass that I wrote with my ex-boyfriend in mind, and I learnt a lot about the capabilities of the instrument from writing them (I had never been much interested in the contrabass in chamber ensembles before I met him, but listening to him practice difficult passage work I would never have thought possible on the instrument fascinated me, besides which, affection prompts us do things we wouldn’t otherwise have the inclination to do).  Both of the other players are better technicians than I am, so I was able to write parts for them that were somewhat demanding.  The viola part I wrote for myself was also challenging for me, but carefully within my skillset, so all the parts are fairly equal.

Description:

The first movement (Allegro spiritoso), in Sonata-Allegro form, opens with a bold, vigourous 4-measure theme for all the instruments in unison, sweetened by a more lyrical melody in the ‘cello before being repeated.  A transitional section follows, featuring the contrabass in sweeping scales and arpeggios, which modulates to the dominant of the dominant key, C major; the second theme, somewhat unusually, begins in C, with the ‘cello and ‘bass harmonizing in 10ths, and makes its way to the dominant key of F a few measures later.  After a short codetta, the exposition is repeated, with the main theme slightly altered here and there.  The development treats snippets of the main theme contrapuntally before modulating back to the tonic key for recapitulation.    

The second movement (Adagio e sostenuto), in binary form, is in the subdominant key of E-flat, and begins with a simple but expressive theme, which gives way to a transitional section led by the ‘cello.  A more rhapsodic second theme follows with the viola and ‘cello harmonizing in 3rds and 6ths, accompanied by the ‘bass.  The A and B themes are repeated, all in the tonic key, and coda based on the A theme closes the movement.  

The third movement (Allegro) is a Menuetto based on a 5-note motive that is repeated and developed throughout the main section of the movement.  The contrasting Trio section, in the movement’s dominant key of F, is based on a sprightly theme characterized by leaps of 5ths and 6ths up and down.  The main section is then repeated (Da Capo).

The fourth and final movement (Allegretto), in Rondo form, begins with a somewhat droll “A” theme, which is then developed during a transitional section.  Just when one expects the “B” theme to enter, a short fugato on a new subject is introduced, which leads into the actual “B” theme in the dominant key of F - humourous, and characterized by accented syncopations and sudden changes of dynamic.  After a brief codetta, the “A” theme returns abbreviated, followed by a lyrical “C” theme.  The “A” theme returns again, followed by yet another short but different fugato on the same subject as before, and the “B” theme returns in the tonic key.  A variation of the “A” theme returns a final time, and a humourous and spirited coda ends the movement.

This work was premiered in July 2014 by the ensemble for which it was written, at a cojffeehouse in Wichita, Kansas (where I was living at the time) which often features live music of all sorts, and was warmly received by the audience of patrons sipping coffee or having breakfast.  Alas, the nature of the venue precluded a live recording being made - there was a fair amount of background noise as beverages and food were being served.  

Inasmuch as I have heard this work performed effectively, and I know it works, I have few concerns, but I am open to suggestions, comments, and criticisms as always.    

Players’ and Audience Comments:

The players enjoyed playing the piece, and when I suggested a performance as part of the ‘cellist’s regular solo set at the coffeehouse, all were in agreement.  The bassist, himself a fine composer as well as a university music theory teacher, was somewhat critical of the ‘bass accompaniment of the second theme in the slow movement because it didn’t seem like a characteristic period bass line, but that was the only criticism I received.  The audience members made few comments other than to congratulate me.  To my surprise, no one seemed even vaguely bemused by my choice of instrumentation, which I took as further evidence that I had made it work effectively.  I did receive one criticism from a friend who frankly told me he hated the piece, saying that it was devoid of any treble sonorities and far too dark to be pleasant, but his was the only such comment.

I hope you enjoy this rather unusual work!  Cheers!

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Very nice! I'm sure it must be pretty difficult to write for this strange ensemble, especially in this classical sort of idiom where any particularly dark unpleasant noises are very undesirable. I feel like you did a fine job. At no point did the choice of ensemble cause anything awkward or distracting to happen in the music. The music itself was all really beautiful and great classical-style writing, I thought.

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Thank you very kindly!  It was pretty tricky to pull off, but I knew the capabilities and colours of all three instruments very well, and I was careful how I combined them.  I'm glad you enjoyed it!  In fact, I rather specialize in odd combinations of instruments.  I also wrote a Trio for English Horn, Viola, and Contrabass that I may post here at some point.  Believe it or not, that worked too!  

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