Music Monday: Brouwer: Guitar Sonata

Before you accuse me of repeating a composer, today we‘re featuring Leo Brouwer, not Margaret (to my knowledge there is no relation). Leo Brouwer was born on 1 March, 1939 in Havana, Cuba, into a family of music enthusiasts. His father gave him informal guitar lessons, teaching him to pick out pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos and the like, largely without the use of sheet music. Brouwer started taking formal lessons at the age of 13, and quickly attained a high level of ability on that instrument, making his professional debut at the age of 17.

Right around this time he also started composing, writing in a predominantly folkloric, nationalistic idiom, tho also foraying into more European forms. In 1961, he attended the Warsaw Autumn festival (an annual new music festival in Poland renowned for its emphasis on the avant-garde), where he was exposed to 20th–Century European compositional idioms for the first time. He was quite taken with them — not only did he play and record guitar works by Hans Werner Henze, Sylvano Bussotti, and many others, he also pursued advanced compositional studies at Juilliard with Vincent Persichetti and later at the Academy of Science and Arts in Berlin. An injury ended his playing career in 1980, but it didn’t slow his compositional activity down, and he slowly wound up backing away from high modernist principles to incorporate more of his Afro-Cuban roots into his music. He currently lives in Cuba, but he travels extensively for guitar festivals around the world.

One might expect, looking at this biography, that he would have a lot of guitar sonatas, but while he has produced a large number of solo pieces for the instrument, as far as I can tell, only one bears the title of “sonata”, and it was written for Julian Bream in 1990. “Fandangos y Boleros” opens the work with a single, ringing harmonic, a sharp shock that echoes before a short fragment ripples out in answer. This happens a second and then a third time, and finally the answer settles on an insistent repeated note that launches the sonata proper. Despite the ornate figuration and the periodic headlong rushes, the mood is languid and airy, full of space and haze, like a humid August afternoon in the tropical sun. A little over two minutes in, the shimmers coalesce into a regular, dancing rhythm, and while interruptive ripples periodically flutter thru, the music is determined to press on despite them, at least to a point. It ultimately stops short for a more contemplative interlude, albeit one rife with uneasy eruptions. The uneasy ultimately comes to dominate the texture, at which point the music breaks into a fragmentary quotation of the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sixth symphony, which Brouwer included since both movements are formally somewhat fragmented and scrambled. (Brouwer has also likened the form in this movement to a puzzle of recombinations along the lines of Paul Klee’s “Magic Square” paintings.)

Unlike some works that aim for maximal contrast between movements, Brouwer seems to be going more for continuity with the “Sarabanda de Scriabin” that follows. Slow and even, the placid opening figure is soon overlaid with a discordant fragment that pushes and pulls against the prevailing harmony, evoking the mystical, mysterious soundworlds of the Russian Symbolist composer Alexandr Scriabin. This organic, haste-free unfolding builds to a brooding peak, only to see a return of the tranquil opening and its subsequent pained overlay.

We get another quotation in the finale, “La Toccata de Pasquini”, this time, as the title suggests, not from Beethoven but from the “Cuckoo Scherzo” of the 17th–Century Italian keyboardist Bernardo Pasquini. If the first two movements were often devoid of driving rhythmic pulses, the third seems determined to make up for this, launching into a rapid ostinato at the start, and keeping up the momentum thru a dazzling succession of textures and harmonies. There’s never really a sustained melody, but the fragmented melodic cells that emerge from the texture jump lightly and quickly from the top of the instrument’s range to its depths. At its midpoint, the motion stops, and the opening of the sarabande returns, sounding as a mystical vision of another world. But the tempo soon picks up again, bringing the piece to a close with a dazzling display of virtuosity and a subsequent delirious running-aground.