RTC-38: 1971 Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestras

Commission: Garth Beckett and Boyd McDonald with a grant from the Canada Council
Length: 18 min.
Completed: July 1971, Mallorca
Premiere: 1972-01-22/23, Garth Beckett and Boyd McDonald, WSO, Piero Gamba (cond.)
Other: 1974-03-24, Beckett & McDonald, TSO, Gary Bertini (cond.)
Publication: CMC
Recording: 2012 CD: Beckett & McDonald, TSO, Bertini


Program Notes by Robert Turner:

The Concert for Two Pianos and Orchestra was commissioned by duo-pianists, Garth Beckett and Boyd McDonald, with a grant from the Canada Council. This will be its premiere performance by these artists with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The work was written during the month of July, 1971, on the island of Mallorca, and the music may exude a slight Spanish flavour, although this was not a conscious intention.

There are three movements, titled “Scena,” “Rituale” and “Ballo”, each exhibiting a markedly different character for a number of “extra” musical reasons. The first movement employs only the middle and upper ranges of the instruments (soloists and orchestra). These include the woodwinds (except piccolo), horns, violins and violas, and nine types of percussion instruments of wood timbre. The movement is a kind of prelude or curtain raiser and presents at the outset a rhythm (metrical and march-like), a melody (Locrian mode) whose first four descending notes are basic to other themes in the concerto, and a harmonic passage (Derived from the 8-tone scale alternating tones and semitones). These three elements are then heard in their four possible combinations, forming a miniature set of variations.

The second movement exploits only the middle and lower ranges of the instruments. These include trumpets, trombones, violas, cellos, and nine types of percussion of metal timbre. The movement is in ABA form, the first section beginning (on the cellos) with the inversion of the first six notes (all different) of the first movement melody, forming a tone cluster to which are added the six other notes of the chromatic scale (o brass or violas) making a twelve-tone chord. Against this, the pianos enter in the two-apart counterpoint, the upper voice being a rhythmically altered version, in the Dorian and Aeolian modes, of the plaintive old ballad “When you and I were young, Maggie” – a song, incidentally, that has a Canadian origin. Throughout this movement the pianists play only on the strings of the piano with various types of beaters or with the fingers. The B section consists of a three-voiced canon for glockenspiel, vibraphone and tubular bells based on the whole melody of the first movement (also inverted) in the Phrygian mode, with an improvised, vibrating accompaniment by the soloists and suspended cymbal. The music is marked “lontano ” (far away). A shortened and slightly varied from of the A section concludes the movement. Most of the rhythms are of the intellectual, proportional type, prominent in much contemporary music.

Representing a third type, the last movement employs a dance-like, syncopated rhythm in seven-eight metre, as well as the whole gamut of ranges and instruments, adding piccolo to the top and tub and double basses to the bottom. Again there are nine types of percussion, this time of membrane construction, i.e. mainly drums. This movement is also a three-part structure, but with each part in itself divided into three subsections. The opening section for orchestra is in the Ionian (major) mode and features a “double” theme, reminiscent of “La Cucaracha” and “South American Way,” always heard in combination. The two soloists introduce the second section with a theme derived from the hymn tune, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” in the pentatonic and Mixolydian modes. This is followed by fragments of six or seven other well-known tunes (which the listener may discover for himself) tossed back and forth in a kind of dialogue-cadenza. This bit of satire is interrupted by the drums which provide a relentless accompaniment of fiery, “primitive” phrases (in the Lydian and whole-tone modes) for the lower instruments and the pianos. The music eventually subsides into a slower tempo (“lontano”) for the B part which, like the second movement, is a canon based on the first movement theme. Here, however, it is in four voices based on the original and inverted forms of the melody for the two pianos, with a soft, rhythmic ostinato for timpani and tambourine. At the point where the pianos begin the retrograde forms of their theme, the drums and bass instruments intrude (bitonally) in the original fast tempo of the third section against which the soloists peter out in their own slower tempo. The hymn tune of the second section is then recapitulated by the pianos, followed this time by an Aeolian version of “Oh Susannah” on the horns. Both soloists and orchestra then lead the “double” theme of the first section to a vigorous climax. A brief, suspenseful Coda on the theme of the first movement (pizzicato strings with sustaining notes from the soloists and winds) quiets the music until a final rush and flourish by soloists and orchestra conclude the work.

In the writing for the two solo pianos, several kinds of textures are introduced which are not possible with one piano. For example – two different modes of attack (legato and staccato) on the same note; melody and accompaniment in the same register; or the greater power obtained from doubling the two pianos on a passage. The treatment of the pianos in the second movement was intended to provide a notable contrast to the more conventional performance techniques in the rest of the concerto, particularly in respect to soft and slower moving sonorities. In fact, the two pianos themselves could be said to represent a more refined percussive and melodic extension of the large variety of percussion instruments.

Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Performed 22, 23 January 1972.