Music Monday: Coulthard: Cello Sonata

Currently, LA is baking under another heat wave, so this week we're visiting a Canadian composer because sometimes I need to remind myself that cool weather still exists. Jean Coulthard was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1908 to a musical family. Her father was a doctor, but her mother, Jean Blake Coulthard, was a music educator, and an important figure in the musical life of the city. It was under her mother’s tutelage that Coulthard (the daughter) began to compose at the age of eight.

On a scholarship from the Vancouver Woman’s Musical Club, Coulthard spent the 1928–9 academic year studying abroad at the Royal College of Music in London — where she had the opportunity to work with Ralph Vaughan Williams, among others — before returning to Vancouver to teach at various private schools. As her compositional voice coalesced out of various early influences, her output also increased, and she would maintain a high volume of compositional activity right up until her death in 2000 at the age of 92. Her formal education after her year at the RCM appears to have been sporadic at best — she studied with many of the luminaries of her day (including, of course, Nadia Boulanger), but seldom for long stretches at a go. Still, this lack of formal study was no impediment to her being hired at the University of British Columbia in 1947, where she would teach until her retirement in 1973.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Coulthard steered clear of the cutting edge of the avant-garde, writing in a language that was often criticized for being conservative and out of touch (criticisms that often carried more than a whiff of misogyny in the background), but one that she felt called to all the same. (In her last works, she did experiment with various contemporary techniques, but they were never a core part of her repertoire.) Her cello sonata, written in 1947, very much exemplifies this style.

Languid undulations in the piano part set the work gently afloat, with the cello entering shortly thereafter to sing out a heady, intoxicated theme. The music builds in energy before abruptly settling back into a mysterious, quiet mood, presenting a new theme that nevertheless has strong echoes of the opening melody. These echoes intensify almost imperceptibly until the movement breaks forth into the searching, soaring developmental section. After a lyrical, sentimental episode, the recapitulation gets underway, tho after the rigors of the central section, nothing remains unaltered, and the thematic zones seem even more heavily indebted to one another than before. The coda sees the movement out much as it began, in a mood of vague unease.

The sarabande that follows begins with the most delicate of chord progressions, over which the cello spins an ornate (baroque, even) line. The music preserves the old, aristocratic dance’s rhythmic structure — a slow dance in 3, with the weight on the second beat instead of the usual first — but we are in strange formal waters. The music unfolds organically, riding crests of sudden emotion and unexpected outbursts, each giving birth to the next in a cycle of perpetual renewal. A sustained climax sees the cello plunging from the upper register down to the earthy depths over and over, after which the piano drops out entirely for a brief cello recitative, entering again with a modification of the delicate chords of the opening. A few tender dregs remain — the last murky sonorities whirling around, clinging together long enough for a final impassioned cry before ebbing once more into silence.

However short the finale may seem, it is not for lack of music. Coulthard fits a manic whirlwind into the movement’s brief span, managing to write music of constant forward propulsion while still leaving it shrouded in the mystical, distant aura of the rest of the work. After all the clouds and vapors, the murk is at last boiling away, and as the air clears there is nothing to do but dance.