The Second Piano Sonata of Poul Ruders

The Danish composer Poul Ruders (b. 1949) has been prolific; his mature style confidently occupies a liminal space between abstract and figurative. I enjoy all the Ruders I’ve heard, but one work is a personal touchstone, in my view one of the authentic masterpieces from its era, the Piano Sonata No. 2 of 1982.

The four movements total between 25 and 30 minutes.

Vivace e ritmico

Tempo di sarabande

Leggiero e elegante

Monumentale e senza espressione

In the CD era, there were two professional recordings, first by Rolf Hind, then by Thomas Adès. I was exposed to the live Adès performance when in the first flush of exploring Adès’s discography as a composer. “If Adès thinks this is a good piece, then it must be a good piece,” was my reasoning.

I liked the sounds but craved the notes. Before the internet, I had no way to easily purchase the score. Within a year or so, on tour with Mark Morris at the Kennedy Center, I managed to go down the street to the Library of Congress and photocopy what must have been one of just a few copies in all of North America, and thus have been in regular touch with the pitches for well over two decades.

Many post-war composers looked to mathematical systems when shaping their narratives. Indeed, once thousands of atonal (or nearly-atonal) notes is part of the style, a system is almost required.

As far as I know, Ruders was the first composer to base a piano sonata on change-ringing. Ruders was directly inspired by a Golden-Age mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors. Her introduction is famous:

The art of change ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world. To the musical Belgian, for example, it appears that the proper thing to do with a carefully tuned ring of bells is to play a tune upon it. By the English campanologist, the playing of tunes is considered to be a childish game, only fit for foreigners; the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations.

Ruders’s work is structured very clearly. The first and third movements are sequences of change-ringing, and the second and fourth are contrasting theatrical ideas. From the composer’s own notes:

An athletic, rhythmic melody kicks off the movement in lightning-fast tempo. More layers are added and the work opens like a large-scale symphonic/polyphonic fan: the tempo gradually slows, and the coda is a gigantic bell-like passage executed con tutta forza (with the utmost force).

The second movement, Tempo di sarabande, is related to the similarly sarabande-like slow movement of the Dante Sonata [Ruders’s first piano sonata], but is less compact, more polyphonic in the treatment of its tonal and polytonal sounds.

The third movement is the scherzo of the sonata and like the first movement is governed by the change-ringing tables. A lightning-fast scherzo, which I will immodestly call intelligent minimalism.

Through most of the movement the left hand accompanies with shifting ostinati, the right-hand plays change-ringing melodies in alternating 7/8 and 5/8 time.

The last movement consists exclusively of chords. Everything freezes to ice. Huge chords follow one another without any rhythmic variation at all. Towering and unbearably slow as icebergs.

The initial sounds seem to be atonal chaos, but as the argument develops, the skies clear and bells can be clearly heard. For those that are patient, this is a rewarding journey, for the way that tonality encroaches and finally takes over is quite spectacular. The second movement is comparatively straightforward, with pretty melodies and harmonies over a “lurching” bass. The third grooves away like anything (possibly my favorite piece in this now-familiar “minimalism with chromatic notes” idiom) before the closing “ice” contradicts all that has come before.

Again, a touchstone. I’m pleased to learn that Christopher Guild has done a casual video of the whole sonata in one go for YouTube. As I say in my comment, “Thank you so much, this is one of my favorite sonatas and I have never heard it live. However at least I could watch this terrific video!”