The Rose Fades

Doctoral Lecture Recital

Elizabeth R. Austin: “The Rose Sonata” for piano and reciter

During my undergraduate studies at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, I had the privilege of meeting Elizabeth R. Austin following her guest appearance at the School of Music in 2015. As a dear friend and colleague of Jerome Reed, the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Piano at Lipscomb University, Austin introduced our music class to some of her collaborations with Reed. The Rose Sonata for piano and reciter (2002) was one of the works mentioned, and quickly became a seed of interest planted in me that did not bloom until my doctoral studies began in 2019. After contacting Austin about the possibility of writing about the Rose Sonata for my document, Austin blessed me with invaluable materials to get started, including the first drafts of program notes and grant proposals, CDs, and unpublished manuscript sketches. Austin’s generosity quickly kindled my passion to serve not only as an advocate for the Rose Sonata, but also an advocate for her music. Since there has been no other in-depth research produced on the history of the Sonata and its development, this document will be the first scholarly work produced in that regard.

One of the immediately accessible parts of the Rose Sonata derives from the title: the ‘sonata’ label. Although the term was first used to refer to the musical genre of the sonata, it also doubly represented the sonata-allegro musical form, as is the case in the Rose Sonata. However, regardless of intentionality, sonatas have become a cornerstone in the piano repertory, making it difficult for newly produced sonatas to stand out. In light of Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental thirty-two sonatas composed from 1795 to 1822, many composers in the Romantic era were discouraged in attempting to surpass Beethoven’s legacy. “Most of the earlier Romantics longed to distinguish themselves in the traditional large forms; but the forms which had become traditional still seemed to be the property of the composers who had made them so.” As for Franz Liszt, there was more to be achieved not only with the sonata-allegro form, but also the sonata genre. His Sonata in B minor (1853) is a testament to this exploration and stands as one of the most significant sonatas ever produced. One of the crucial connections between Liszt’s Sonata and Austin’s Rose Sonata is that they are both identified as a single-movement entity rather than a multi-movement work. The multi-movement arrangement not only dominated the entire Classical period, but also a majority of the Romantic era, ultimately making the single-movement sonata exceptional. Since Liszt’s masterwork, the standard piano repertory has recognized only a handful of other notable composers of single-movement sonatas, including Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Scriabin, Nikolai Medtner, and Alban Berg.

Although the Rose Sonata’s single-movement structure stands with other monumental pieces, its incorporation of live poetry recitation separates itself from practically any other sonata ever produced. With a total of five poems recited at specific times throughout the performance, subsections of two larger sections are distinguished from one another by having each poem elaborating on its succeeding portion of music. During these readings, the pianist is sometimes called to softly improvise on a given chord, unifying not only the pianist and the reciter, but also the pianist and the composer in the form of a co-creative process.

Similar to the standardized ideologies of the Romantic era, much of Austin’s repertoire is influenced by literary and programmatic imagery. Given her use of programmatic titles in works such as A Falcon Fantasy for guitar and piano (2004)and “Wie Eine Blume (Like a Flower)” for woodwind sextet and percussion (2001), it is not difficult to identify these types of works. Following her first exploration of animalistic tendencies in the “Wilderness” Symphony No. 1 (1987), Austin’s Sonata for Soprano Recorder (1991) and Water Music I. “Beside still waters…” for eight celli (1996)reflect humanity’s futile and inevitable constructs such as warfare and timekeeping. In 2002, Austin sought to transform natural geometric forms into an overall musical form, producing two works that became a staple in her repertoire. The latter will be critical to the focus of this document: Ginkgo-Novo for English horn, cello, and piano, and the Rose Sonata for piano and reciter.

Regarding the previously discussed sonata form, the Rose Sonata exists as a double-function form: firstly, as a single-movement sonata, and secondly as a modified chaconne. The Sonata is organized by programmatic titles resembling the components of standard sonata-allegro form:

  • “…fierce light blooms…” (Exposition)
  • “Center of Rose” (Development)
  •  “…blooms, light, waves…” (Recapitulation)

As the listener progresses through the work, they aurally experience the physical action of approaching a rose, smelling its scent in the center, and departing from the rose. Just as a rose’s petals begin in the center of the flower, the Sonata’s primary theme appears in the center of the work rather than at the beginning. Immediately following the theme is a crab-retrograde presentation of the primary theme to conclude the center section, ultimately signifying the gradual departure from the rose. Every thematic quote – or rose petal –  expanding beyond the center progressively distorts the primary theme until the faintest idea of it remains. However, the presence of a functional harmonic progression remains regardless of the amount of thematic augmentation, resembling late-Romantic and even modern practices of chaconne writing.

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