Exploring the Musical World of Peter Seabourne


They say that if you live long enough you’ll have experiences you never dreamed you could have when younger. Such has been the case for me with this music blog. Having yearned for years to write about the music that moved me, both classical and jazz, in terms that explain my own deep emotional reaction to the music, I am now able to do so. I try as much as possible to share my enthusiasm with the artists or composers whose work moves me. Some, like Neeme Järvi, Andrew Litton, Quartetto Energie Nove and violinist Bojidara Kouzmanova-Vladar, have written back and thanked me for my support. A few others, like harpsichordists Jochewed Schwarz and Emer Buckley, pianist Eduardo Fernández and composers Wolfgang Gernot and John Carollo, have been kind enough to send me CDs of their other work for further review. But I struck a goldmine when I reviewed Peter Seabourne’s Steps Vols. 4 & 5.

Mr. Seabourne, it turns out, is an effusively warm and generous soul who most loves people who enjoy and understand his music. In return for my glowing review of his piano music, he sent me a cornucopia of mp3 files covering a wide swath of his compositional output: one of the most masterful and interesting String Quintets I’ve ever heard in my life, two Piano Concerti, Tu Sospiri? for chamber orchestra, his Double Horn Concerto and Violin Concerto, his First Symphony, and a wealth of chamber works. I scarcely knew where to begin listening and evaluating this rich treasure, but the String Quintet grabbed me the strongest because I could not just download it as I did all the others. I had to record it as streaming audio on Vimeo, so I was able to listen to the complete piece as it came onto my hard drive.

And what a stupendous piece it is. Modern in harmonic language yet still tonal, it grabs the listener from the very first bars and does not let go. In a separate email to me, Seabourne described it thus:

The first movement is a passacaglia, but the theme is never stated nor indeed treated regularly in the usual manner, being instead a series of chords merely hinted at. These are actually my little family, like great aunts and cousins who must all have their say on matters. They crop up in all my works, paying a call as it were. The third movement reworks a song from my “The Garden in the Brain” set (Emily Dickinson). It is thus quite literally a song without words.

What I found most interesting was the way Seabourne used the string quintet more like an orchestra—i.e., they play together most of the time, with occasional spot solos here and here or obbligato pizzicato passages—than like a string quintet in the conventional sense. Both the first and last movements are the most emotionally powerful, the first movement being the most astringent harmonically while the last seems to combine elements of Bartók in Seabourne’s own highly personal musical language. You can experience the whole piece, as I did, by clicking on these links: 1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd & 4th movements. The performance is by the Mainzer Virtuosi at the 2012 Casalmaggiore Festival, and I will pass along Mr. Seabourne’s feeling that the second movement is just a bit slower than he wanted it. If you click here, you can see the first four pages of the score (my thanks to Mr. Seabourne for permission to use all score excerpts found in this article).

Turning from this to Tu Sospiri?, one hears the same basic voice as that in the Quintet, but slightly softened in tone and applied to an orchestra. You will note that, if nothing else, Seabourne’s orchestration closely parallels the way he wrote the Quintet. Interestingly, the tone of the music is also somewhat similar, somewhat edgy in feeling, if not quite as angst-ridden. Spot solos for various instruments (particularly a somewhat lengthy one for the flute) bring variety to the proceedings, and I detected, briefly near the beginning, a paraphrase of the theme from the third movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. This performance, by conductor Daniel Raiskin and the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie, can be heard here.

Turning to his first Piano Concerto, one hears an entirely different voice, particularly in the first movement where Seabourne’s use of almost constant syncopation creates a delightfully jazz-like feeling. It also has, somewhat, the feeling of George Anthiel’s Ballet Mécanique. The second movement almost floats across the mind like a slow-moving cloud; in this sense, it bears a similarity to the slow movement of Mahler’s famous Fifth Symphony. In the middle of the movement, the emotional temperature heats up and the music becomes quite edgy. The final movement, also syncopated, is quirkier in rhythm than the first, with odd little rests breaking up the meter and the orchestra punctuated by a highly energetic tuba! The xylophone skitters along with the strings in rapidly ascending and descending passages. Around 3:20, the piano’s rhythm suddenly goes in reverse while the rest of the instruments press on forward. Unfortunately, I cannot share the audio links for this concerto as the performance is under copyright protection, but below are samples from the first two pages of the score:

Piano Con 1 - 1

Piano Con 1 - 2

The Second Piano Concerto, written in only two movements, brings us into an entirely different universe. Here, the orchestral scoring is sparse and limited to very high winds and strings, which creates a shimmering effect. The piano part is both a bit richer and more ruminating in character, as if the pianist were picking his or her way through the music, occasionally stumbling or bustling as they go along. Here’s a score excerpt from the first movement to illustrate what I’m talking about:

Piano Con 2 - 1

Piano Con 2 - 2

In the second movement, marked “Lento molto,” is one of the darkest and most mysterious things Seabourne has written. It almost inhabits a Szymanowski-like world, poking around in dark corners of the mind, the pianist leading the way while the orchestra now acts as accompanist.

Happily I can also share this performance, by pianist Kristina Stepasjuková and the Academy Orchestra of the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Ondřej Vrabec, with you. You can stream it for free on YouTube.

Seabourne’s first symphony, titled the Symphony of Roses, uses similar techniques as those found in the previous works, but also strikes out on a different path. Once again, the music is largely tonal but frequently uses dissonances and harmonic “traps” which change the underlying chords via different positions. Here, too, Seabourne bring out some nicely lyrical passages, but they don’t last very long; indeed, their brevity is one of the techniques he uses to heighten tension, leading the ear to expect one course but abruptly (and frequently) veering off in different directions. Once again, quite appropriately, there are Mahlerian touches here and there though Seabourne’s sense of structure is quite different. It’s just the mood that strikes one this way, particularly in the first movement, “The Rose of Battle.” Nervous, low string tremolos come and go as the larger orchestral sound falls away, followed by a bassoon passage and then the play of winds against each other: flutes and piccolos way up high, clarinets in their middle and low registers.

The second movement, titled “The Rose of Peace,” is naturally more subdued in temperament though still using altered chord positions to heighten tension. Despite occasional solo clarinet and oboe passages, the strings are largely grounded in the lower register with the exception (once again) of high string tremolos here and there. Seabourne is clearly a master of the subtle gesture; he knows how to make his points without overwhelming the listener with too many notes and too much blasting. There is an extended violin solo, accompanied by harp and high winds, which adds to the movement’s lyrical quality, although the passage following is quixotic, made up of short, abrupt musical gestures that interfere with the lyricism.

The third movement, “A Rose Among Many Waters,” is both scherzo and finale, combining elements of both. There are shadows of darkness that pop up now and then, occasionally pushed back by a more cheerful mood that comes and goes. At about 4:30, a more sedate mood overtakes this rose, only to return to a more active lifestyle after a lyrical, mid-range trumpet solo and musings from the French horns. This performance by the Biel Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kasper Zehnder can be heard here.

Seabourne’s Double Concerto for Horn and Orchestra received a glowing endorsement from the work’s first soloist and conductor, Ondřej Vrabec. It opens quietly with glockenspiel and light pizzicato strings before a solo flute leads us into the first movement proper. A brief bassoon solo introduces the French horn. In the early going this is not a “classic” concerto in the sense that the soloist dominates the proceedings, though he is heard quite a bit, so much as Seabourne simply uses the horn to play extended commentary and those little “fills” that would otherwise go to other instruments. That being said, there is a virtuosic solo cadenza at around the four-minute mark (played beautifully by Vrabec), and as the first movement progresses the solo instrument takes a more prominent role.

One of the more interesting things about the second movement (“Cantilena”) is the fact that in both mood and structure it hearkens back to the first Piano Concerto. This could easily have made it sound out of place following the unusually structured first movement, but once again Seabourne gives the horn some a cappella solo spots and structures the music around it in such a way that both the mood and the harmonic movement match the first. It almost fades away into nothingness, only to suddenly jolt the listener out of his or her seat with the busy and quite inventive third movement, titled “Jaegers Lied.” The dramatic upward whoops of the horn after the five-minute mark, leading into a wild coda, is a strange but stirring finale. You can see and hear this performance on YouTube.

As for the Violin Concerto, I cannot do any better in describing the music than Bruce Reader did on his website, The Classical Reviewer (click link to article here). It is a surprisingly intense work, harmonically related to the stupendous String Quintet described near the beginning of this article. Indeed, it is even more dramatic than the first Symphony, good as that was, reaching an almost fever pitch towards the end of the first movement. After the more sedate second, the plunging, dive-bombing string figures that open the last movement almost take one’s breath away. Since Seabourne also kindly gave Mr. Reader permission to include links to the live performance by violinist Fenella Humphreys and the Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss conducted by Lavard Skou Larsen, you’ll be able to hear it there as well as read about it. I would be remiss if I didn’t enthusiastically praise Humphreys for her powerful performance. Here are the first pages from each of the three movements:

Vln Con 1

Vln Con 2

Vln Con 3

Moving on to the chamber music, we hear the discursive and sometimes whimsical mind of Seabourne at its most fecund in Last Dance for piano trio. Here, what seems like a fairly straightforward “slow dance” piece quickly turns into a complex set of variants, each one using slightly different techniques. Gradually the piano trio deconstructs itself, each instrument apparently wandering off on its own path, and when the music becomes more agitated they still aren’t on the same page, figuratively speaking, but sort of each person dancing his or her own “last dance” in quite wacky steps and rhythms. Little by little they come together, but the alliance is an uneasy one; harmonic dissonances suddenly creep in, pushing the dancers about the floor as if tipsy or a bit high. They do come back together near the end, but only (so it seems) to wish each other a somewhat grumpy goodnight.

Unlike Last Dance, Seabourne’s Pietà for viola and piano was commercially recorded. Divided into five movements, the musical progression is more lyrical and a bit more conventional (or perhaps, more correctly, just less unconventional). The opening Berceuse (click on each title to pull up a video clip) does, however, move into darker realms in the middle, with the harmonic underpinning collapsing as it progresses. This seems to be one of Seabourne’s most commonly used techniques, which always adds interest to the music. In this case, it is followed by some of the loveliest and most lyrical music he has ever written. This is followed by Enigmas, an almost abrasive piece using quite a few staccato piano chords and viola trills. In much of this suite, the viola plays so low in its range that it almost resembles a cello. At one point the piano takes over the proceedings and the viola becomes the accompanist, but not for very long. Soon enough the viola is playing edgy ascending modal figures while the piano energetically comps behind him. In Elegy, the viola begins very high up in the violin range before moving down into more conventional realms. The melodic line is touching and eloquent without being maudlin, something I always appreciate. Seven Roads, the longest movement at 11:19, is so dramatic and complete in its own way that it could easily be played separately, though it is related to the other movements in key and related to Enigmas in mood. Moreso than even in Enigmas, however, Seabourne uses here very powerful, almost explosive themes that jut up like jagged rocks at the seashore with violent waves crashing against them. There is a remarkably quiet passage for pizzicato viola beginning at the three-minute mark that goes on for nearly a minute and a half before the piano returns, quietly ruminating in the background. The abrasive choppiness returns, however, and makes a considerable impact as the piece progresses. The final Reminiscence is appropriately quiet and serene but features the viola playing very quietly on the edge of his strings in the opening.

On the Blue Shore of Silence for cello and piano is a quixotic, ruminating work in which Seabourne explores musical relationships between the two instruments. The opening movement, Whether my bark went down at sea, is a somewhat rough ride, almost a galumphing kind of piece, quite unusual for this composer. In Tu m’oublies, the mood shifts slightly; the music here is more in his regular composing style, even a bit lyrical in mood, with the cello dipping down into its lowest range. Two butterflies, though suggesting those insects, is very odd harmonically. Apparently, these butterflies are Oxford music academy graduates! Nonetheless, both the pianist and cellist have their fun with broken, skittering figures that run up and down broken chords and modal lines. In the last movement, Les roses sur la mer, we return to a more lyrical style, with the cello and piano working together to create a wonderful tapestry of sound, with a more energetic episode towards the end of the piece.

Then we have the two-movement A Music Beginning for violin and piano. The opening Con fuoco is in Seabourne’s most dramatic style, full of edgy tremolos and broken shards of piano chords; the slow, quieter passages only give one a temporary respite from the onslaught. This is one of those pieces in which Seabourne uses space as a means of enhancing the drama. The closing Desolato is actually somewhat nostalgic in mood, the emotion of the title coming from the manner of intensity with which the violinist performs it as well as more playing on the edge of the strings.

As opposed to the ultra-dramatic String Quintet, Seabourne’s String Quartet is a sometimes moody, sometimes dramatic piece in one 11-minute movement. Here he uses the quartet in a more conventional manner, playing the four instruments against each other either in pairs (the violins against viola and cello) or in individual lines. The music has an odd feeling of hesitation, as if the music wasn’t sure how it should proceed. This is not a defect of the performance by the excellent Coull Quartet, which can be heard and seen here, but rather the way Seabourne constructed the piece. It’s not until 2:40 that the hesitation stops and the quartet begins their drive through the more dramatic (but not ferocious or angst-ridden) central section. Again, Seabourne’s use of string tremolos fill space the way a choreographer would on a stage, by presenting a curtain or wall of sound around which the other instruments attempt to penetrate. After it is finished the quartet goes back to its uncertainty and hesitation, which makes this is a fascinating piece in its own way.

Storyteller, the title for Chamber Concerto No. 3, was written for a double bass and eight other instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, cello and piano), is described by the composer as follows:

The work’s “narrative” is of a slightly sinister spinner of “Grimm-style” fairy stories, holding a captivated audience in the palm of his hand (I imagine around a camp fire or such like). The piece is, though, not a specific musical story à la Richard Strauss; more a conjuring of the “very act of storytelling.”

My three chamber concerti all use similar forces based around a wind quintet with additional strings/piano combinations. I would very much welcome any interest in presenting all three as a set in a concert. (The other two can be seen/heard on my website, http://www.peterseabourne.com)

This is a simply magnificent piece; Seabourne manages to juggle the nine instruments in such a way that they almost sound as if they were randomly adding commentary to the ongoing trudge of the odd little melody by the bass, which acts more as the principal voice than as a support instrument (though, at one point, the bass holds a low note while the winds and horn play strange, bitonal floating figures above it. You can hear the performance, by Kaspar Zehnder (flute and conductor), Jaime Gonzalez (oboe), Fabio di Casola (clarinet), Monika Schneider (bassoon), Sebastian Schindler (horn), Kamilla Schatz (violin), Matthais Schrantz (cello) and Ava Aroutunian (piano) by clicking here. Below are the first two pages of the score to give you an idea of just how cleverly this piece is written:

Also available online are three movements of Threads (Nos. 2, 3 & 5) played by violinist Alberto Bologni. This is quintessential Seabourne string music, employing those high “whistle tones” created by playing on the edge of the strings in No. 2, interspersed with pizzicato passages. And once again the music assumes a strange quality by means of ambiguous rhythm, in which rests and pauses contribute to disorient the listener. In No. 3 we get a moto perpetuo, with the violinist spinning out a continuous line of music for the first minute, often tonal but sometimes ambiguously so, before Seabourne again throws us off with oddly-spaced rests. No. 5 has an even odder rhythm, sounding to me a bit like an awkward tarantella, with the violin screaming up and down the fingerboard with remarkable passages that include double stops and other violinistic tricks. Alas, the sound quality on this one is less than ideal, with a sort of “whoosh” sound in the left channel and the violin sounding very bright, almost brittle.

We end our current survey with Child’s Play for wind quintet. This might be considered a gentler, less sinister cousin of Storyteller, with less edgy harmony and generally pleasant melodic lines, but Seabourne wouldn’t be Seabourne unless there was a little something in the music to make you feel that you’re not in Kansas anymore (to paraphrase The Wizard of Oz). It is divided into six movements, each with its own specific flavor and character, played very well by a group of Italian, German and Hispanic musicians, and overall both the scoring and musical flavor bears a striking resemblance to French wind quintets and sextets of the 20th century (e.g., Françaix or Poulenc). You can access this one online as well here.

Having taken this long but exhilarating journey of Seabourne’s music, one begins to understand his piano works (reviewed here earlier) a bit better. Seabourne isn’t a composer “for” the piano the way Sorabji, Rachmaninov or York Bowen were, but rather a composer who simply uses the piano as he does other instruments, to project a singular voice in which the instrument(s) used are secondary to his vision. Truly a remarkable composer!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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