The ‘sonatina’ is usually regarded as the preserve of the learning pianist. The first one that I tackled more than forty five years ago was Beethoven’s Sonatina in G (anh.5). Other names that may have haunted the neophyte are Clementi, Kuhlau and Diabelli. There are excellent albums of sonatinas and rondos published by Schirmer that have been popular for many years.
I recall being delighted by a short album edited by the British composer Alec Rowley, Early English Sonatinas, which contained straightforward music by Duncombe, Wilton, Attwood, Hook, Camidge and Jones. I still play these delightful pieces.
The basic concept of a Sonatina is a ‘short, easy or otherwise ‘light’ Sonata.’ (Grove) The most common structural feature of this form is the lack of, or minimal, development in the opening movement.
The Sonatina became common in the late classical period with examples written for violin and piano and piano solo. As Grove points out, the form was largely forgotten by Romantic composers (although Schumann, Heller and Kirchner did write examples) but was successfully revived in the 20th century. Popular sonatinas include those by John Ireland and Maurice Ravel. Neither of these works is easy or suitable for anything less than a very good ‘Grade 8’.
David Jennings is a West Riding composer, who was born in Sheffield in 1972. He studied music at Durham University under the auspices of the Barnsley-born composer John Casken (b.1949). Later, he was to continue with post-graduate studies across the Pennines at Manchester University, again with Casken. At present he lives and works in Lancashire, near Morecambe. He is a member of the Lakeland Composers group.
Jennings has a great interest in art, especially the 19th century English water-colourists, which he feels are ‘an inspiring marriage of technique and expression’. It is a quality that he exhibits clearly in his music. Northumberland and Yorkshire are particularly important to his aesthetic; however I can sense the salt tang of sea breezes from Morecambe Bay in some of his music.
From a musical perspective, there are a number of influences and trajectories including Frederick Delius, Kenneth Leighton, George Gershwin and Frank Bridge. There is also a distinct feel of Lennox Berkeley and the French composer Francis Poulenc.
Genesis and Composition
David Jennings’s Sonatina op.2 no.2 was written in the mid-nineteen-eighties when the composer was a teenager. Like Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony and Edward Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suites Jennings chose to exhume this music from his files and subject it to a little reworking. These 2007 changes were not radical: the opening Prelude had the reiteration of the ‘exposition’ section removed. The reason adduced for this was so that he could ‘subtly vary the repetition of each theme.’ The coda was extended slightly.
The most significant change was in the second movement ‘Nocturne’. Here Jennings added a middle section making the piece into ternary rather than binary form. In both versions of this work the repetition of the opening section is varied. The least number of changes were made to the final ‘moto perpetuo’ with only ‘a few extra dynamics added for effect’. The work is dedicated to the composer’s father, Brian Jennings, who sadly passed away in 2013 aged 83.
David Jennings has suggested that his Sonatinas belong to the tradition of Robert Schumann. In the same way as Schumann’s Album for Children (Album für die Jugend) and the Kinderszenen are not for children per se, Jennings has not presumed that his sonatinas are ‘grade pieces’ suitable for beginners. He has struck a good balance between innocence and subtlety. This is urbane and nostalgic music that never becomes mawkish or banal. Jennings writes that ‘These… [sonatinas] offer an innocence that is rare in music today; my aim was to make them simple but not simplistic, nostalgic but never sentimental.’ It has been suggested that the first two of Jennings’s Sonatinas have an English quality to them that has its roots in the music of Dowland and the later Jacobean composers.
David Jennings’s Sonatina No.2 is written in three short movements, the nominal key being A minor/major. It lasts for approximately 9 minutes:-
1. Prelude - Allegro amabile
2. Nocturne - Adagio con tenerezza
3. Moto perpetuo - Allegretto con moto
The opening Prelude is a little more complex in its structure than would normally be expected in a sonatina: the standard ‘exposition, development and recapitulation’ are all clearly apparent. The first theme is preceded by a two bar figure on the left hand which is repeated a number of times during the exposition. The theme itself has a folk song sound to it which nods towards the English renaissance music of Dowland. It is repeated with minor changes to the accompaniment. After a short bridge passage, the second theme, which also has the sound of a folk tune, is heard. This is signed as ‘semplice e express.’ and is written in the key of F major. It is then played an octave higher. There is a short development section which makes use of elements of the two main themes provided with varied accompaniment, including a beautiful section that has running quavers in the left hand against the second theme in the right. The work closes with a recapitulation of the two themes, an attractive gesture towards a whole-tone scale and a quiet coda.
The ‘Nocturne’ could be described as ‘Satie meets The Beatles’. The progress of this music seems to be suspended in time. The elements of this movement are first inversion triads presented in a gentle rocking motion. These move between hands. A simple melody that could be a cue for a pop song is presented that also moves between hands. A short ‘grandioso’ section lasting a mere three bars complete with ‘forte’ staccato triads in various inversions on the right hand with octaves playing the melody on the left follows before the opening theme repeats.
The middle section is in considerable contrast to what has passed. The left hand plays arpeggiated chords whilst the right presents a subtle and more complex version of the main theme. The opening figure then returns transposed into E flat major alternating with a major seventh chord on E. Eventually the opening theme reappears with a very subtle change to the harmony in the bass.
The ‘moto perpetuo’ is a moderately fast movement that is conceived as a miniature rondo. The main theme is gentle and is presented by step or small melodic interval accompanied by faster moving triplets. The first note of each triplet group is emphasised: it gives a definite ‘Bach’ feel to this music. The first episode consists of running triplets played at the octave. After the main theme, the second episode is similar to the first except that it is played in tenths. The final presentation of the main melody is concluded by a short coda. The left hand plays ostinato triplets whilst the right parodies the main theme. The work ends with an A major chord. Jennings has used the same metre throughout the ‘moto perpetuo’. The dynamics are restrained, rising only to a ‘forte’ momentarily in the closing bars. Accidentals are used ornamentally rather than structurally.
Sonatina No.2 is probably a ‘good’ Grade 6 in its level of difficultly: the composer is never condescending in his pianistic writing. Technically, the Sonatina no.2 is demanding and is always musically satisfying. He has not indulged in clichés but has allowed the sense of the music to determine the pianistic style.
One of the features of David Jennings scores are the fine watercolours on the front covers. The Sonatina No. 2 has a painting of ‘An Island Fort’ by the water-colourist Edward Richardson (1810-1874). This reflects the composer’s deep interest in 19th century water-colours. All three sonatinas were published in 2013 by Goodmusic Publishing, GM104.
The first performance of the Sonatina was given in the Chapel of The University of Cumbria, Lancaster on Friday 27 June 2008. The soloist was Phillip Fawcett. The recital included a wide-ranging programme of piano and vocal music featuring a number of soloists. All three of Jennings Sonatinas for Piano were presented alongside music by Copland, Gershwin, Gurney and Mozart.
‘Humble Sam’ on the Virtual Lancaster website gave a detailed review of the concert with special attention to Jennings’s music. After noting the fact that it is unusual ‘that one experiences a piece of classical music with the composer in the audience’ he continues by suggesting that it ‘is even less often that one experiences a piece of modern Classical music that is not dreadful.’
He gets to the core of his review by noting that ‘Jennings’s sonatinas were neither ridiculously reactionary nor horribly modern: they were delightful little pieces combining both traditional and modern aspects of composition.’ He goes on to point out that the first two examples have musical references to Jacobean and Renaissance music whilst the third has been inspired by Debussy. ‘Humble Sam’ concluded his review by noting that ‘[Phillip] Fawcett’s playing was effortless, as he (Fawcett) and Jennings collaborate on a regular basis.’
In 2012 the Divine Art CD label produced a retrospective of David Jennings piano music. (dda25110). This included the Harvest Moon suite, Three Lyrical Pieces, the Three Sonatinas as well as the impressive Piano Sonata.
Maria Nocklin writing in Fanfare has noted the ‘mix traditional melody with the modern infrastructure, they also combine musical maturity with a natural exuberance.’ It is a good description of all three sonatinas.
Gary Higginson on MusicWeb International considered that the three Sonatinas ‘are each diatonic and strongly melodious. The lines tend sometimes towards modality and sometimes have a slightly French touch. Melodies are exchanged between the hands in a romantic, wistful, nostalgic, uplifting and often gentle manner that I find quite captivating.’
Two versions of the Sonatina op.2 no.2 are available on YouTube. They are played in different, but equally effective styles.
Phillip Fawcett playing Sonatina op.2 no.2
James Willshire playing Sonatina op.2 no.2 (this is from the Divine Art CD dda25110)
Sonatina No.2 can be played as a standalone work. However, I believe that the ideal way of approaching this music is to hear it as a part of the cycle of Three Sonatinas – in the order that the composer has published them.
With grateful thanks to David Jennings for his support in writing this essay.
John France March 2015