Peter Seabourne’s Fascinating Piano Mosaics


Seabourne covers

STEPS Vol. 4 / SEABOURNE: Libro di Canto Italiano / Fabio Menchetti, pianist / Sheva Contemporary SH104

STEPS Vol. 5 / SEABOURNE: 16 Steps Before a Crucifixion / Alessandro Viale, pianist / Sheva Contemporary SH136

Peter Seabourne is apparently a British composer who is drawing the attention of Italian pianists. A graduate of both Cambridge and York Universities, he apparently became dissatisfied with his own music and developed a hatred for “much in the new music world,” which led him to stop writing for 12 years. According to the notes, “In 2001 a chance set of circumstances caused a sudden reawakening; there ‘arrived’ a new voice, and a flood of new pieces, including concerti, symphonies and other orchestral music, along with chamber, vocal and solo works. Since 2004 he has won six international prizes and has been commissioned many times. His work has been played across Europe and the Americas from New York to Yerevan, Lahti to Rio de Janiero, and been broadcast in Finland, Czech Republic, Germany and Norway.”

Seabourne partially explains the Italian connection in the booklet for Steps Vol. 4:

My good friend Giuseppe Fausto Modugno was so kind in presenting movements from my piano cycle Steps Volume 2: Studies of Invention at his festival in Modigliana in 2009. I decided, whilst in Italy, to dedicate to him a new cycle.

Originally I had intended to create (somewhat harshly, perhaps) a portrait of Bertinoro: a lovely village near Forlì, but which had given me no sleep or peace for two weeks with its incessant dog-barking and loud, music of the very worst sort, played until the small hours. Except for one little “souvenir”, a different idea slowly formed: this was to create an “Italian song book” (title after Hugo Wolf) with relatively short pieces in clearly drawn colours and characters. These had the facets of Giuseppe’s playing in mind.

Over the next two years a substantial set developed (concurrently with Steps Volume 3: Arabesques). During this time I also read the life story of Modigliani (co-incidentally sharing names with Giuseppe’s Festival location!). The painter’s ultimately tragic love added its own particular colour to the cycle.

In short, this work has simply evolved and travelled sideways to embrace many things. I hope it captures the breadth of those qualities perhaps most Italian: passion, playfulness, rebelliousness, a sense of theatre, vitality and, well, yes a little chaos too!… It is a series of cameo snapshots.

Judging from the music on these CDs, Seabourne composes music in small pieces and vignettes. Within each piece of his cycles, he focuses on a specific harmonic-rhythmic connection, producing wholly self-contained works lasting from 1:15 to 3:30 in length. Occasionally, as in the third piece of the Libro di Canti Italiano, he will juxtapose two themes, after which he endeavors to combine them, but this is rare for him. Some of these pieces just stop in the midst of what seems like a point of continuation; for the main, Seabourne uses relatively simple building blocks but does not give us simplistic music. It is music of some depth of mood and feeling, also at times of construction, but the subtlety with which he constructs his music almost sounds like the simpleness of Satie mixed with features of Tansman and other French-based composers of piano vignettes.

There is a wonderful feeling of lightness and humor in some of this music; I believe it is this lightness and sunniness that appeals so greatly to the Italians. Interestingly, it is music that works extremely well as background music or, perhaps more specifically, music for passive listening on a day when you want something to challenge your mind but nothing too heavy or dense. This makes it sound dangerously close to cocktail music, and although it is more than that it is not necessarily a derogatory assessment. Satie and Tansman can be used in exactly the same way. And certainly, in a piece such as No. 7 of the Libro di Cante, titled “Canzone Bacchia,” the pianist’s forceful attack and the unusual scalar structure of the piece would disrupt your quiet conversation if that is what you were having at the time. Seabourne describes this piece as staggering “drunkenly, with irregular steps, tongue-tied and a head full of bravado.”

Taking of Christ

Caravaggio, “The Taking of Christ”

In Vol. 5, 16 Steps Before a Crucifixion were inspired by the paintings of Caravaggio, whose “brilliant, but wild, often violent” works “depicted several scenes of incidents preceding the crucifixion,” though ironically he never produced a picture of Christ on the cross. Here Seabourne maintains his economy of gesture and sparseness of line while producing music that is considerably darker, more menacing and thus, to my ears, richer in content than Vol. 4. Pianist Alessandro Viale is fully into the spirit of the work, too, digging into the keyboard and producing some hair-raising effects. The pianist’s biography is fascinating: as a youngster he quickly became bored with exercises and instead attacked a new piece of music every week, “playing anything and everything (except jazz!).” Why he forsook jazz, we are not told, and I despair that he no longer has an imagination for the open-ended quality of that music. Nevertheless, I liked his playing, even within the context of the gentler pieces, more emotionally engaged than Menchetti on Vol. 4, and now begin to wonder what that music might have sounded like if Viale played on both volumes.

Christ on the column

Caravaggio, “Christ on the column”

Seabourne lays much more heavily into motor rhythms in these pieces in addition to louder volume and and a sharper, almost violent keyboard approach. True, some of the scenes are gentle and lyrical, i.e. the third piece, titled “Gentle – Berceuse-like” and the tenth piece, “Lento – Semplice,” but for the most part the score is rife with directions such as “relentless,” “ominous,” “troubled,” “brutal,” “lamenting – increasingly crushing” and “violent.” Moreover, I felt that there was more continuity from piece to piece in this suite…not that the Libro di Canto Italiano were poorer pieces, only that they were more isolated from one another. Here mood, if nothing else, connects them like a glue. I was fascinated by the variety of rhythmic displacement Seabourne used here to create tension; terse, crushed chords abut one another like an angry mob trying to reach its prey. In piece No. 9, “Vicious – Brutal,” one can almost see the mob accosting Christ and throwing him over to the Romans.

All in all, this is music of great rhythmic-harmonic variety though it never really leaves the tonal system, and tremendous pictorial and emotional power. I was continually struck by how very different this Peter Seabourne was from the composer presented in Vol. 4. It was hearing a baritone sing Schubert’s Die Forelle, followed immediately by Carl Loewe’s Edward—sunshine and light followed by brutality and darkness. To my mind, this is a real masterpiece.

Thus although I will give a positive spin to both releases, they are completely different in content: one jovial and playful, the other just the opposite. You may, however, choose to own both because of the contrasts in style.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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