Into the tunnel ... while playing Patrick Hawes's 'Into the Light'
Updated: 6 days ago
It is a beautiful autumn day in Canberra – crisp and sunny – difficult to reconcile with the changed reality that surrounds us. The number of Australians infected with COVID-19 is likely to reach 3,000 today or tomorrow, and the government-ordered shutdowns have overnight robbed hundreds of thousands of Australians of their livelihoods and all sense of security.
In these anxious times, I’m finding that the music that both soothes and sustains me is Patrick Hawes’s Towards the Light (first published by Novello in 2006). This is a collection of 16 pieces for solo piano, most no more than two or three pages long, and most at an upper intermediate level.
UK pianists are probably already familiar with Hawes’s compositions, as he wrote the Towards the Light collection while composer-in-residence for the UK’s Classic FM. But I only recently stumbled upon two of his most lovely pieces – Arioso and Ave Maria – in a compilation called The Library of Modern Piano Music published by Amsco/Hal Leonard. More on that collection in a later post. As only a couple of the 16 pieces are available as digital downloads from online music stores, I ordered the full collection from my favourite classical music store in the UK, https://www.prestomusic.com/classical for AUD$22.75.
You may, like me, hesitate to buy collections. How often do you end up really liking only one or two of the pieces in the book? But I promise you Towards the Light is an exception. I fell in love with at least 10 of the pieces the first time I sight-read them. The quiet, slow-moving rich harmonies of Towards the Light seem to encapsulate the sombre sadness of the present while offering, as the title suggests, hope for a brighter future.
So I have made it my goal to learn every piece in the collection during the COVID-19 shutdown.
This should be do-able, even with my currently fragmented concentration, as most of the pieces are technically approachable, probably sitting at around grade 6/7 level, although a few do require a good hand span for repeated chordal tenths. Almost all the pieces hone your music reading skills with Hawes’s signature emphasis on tied notes, suspensions, four-note chords, flowing arpeggios, clef changes and occasional hand crossovers.
Here are some comments and links to my favourites:
Towards the Light: Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvsDecaav94 The collection’s title piece is amongst the two most accessible (the other is Ebb Tide, discussed below). ‘Warm and gentle’, as the expression mark indicates, this piece forces you to slow down and listen to the mostly diatonic chords and arpeggios played under a sweet, simple melodic line. With few technical complexities other than needing to get your fingering sorted early, the challenge in this piece is to not rush the long notes and bring out the gentle, light melodic movement.
Arioso: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yp44MXCy-k Absolutely gorgeous, with lots of four-note major 7thchords. The challenge is to hold the bass note while lightly repeating the upper notes in the left hand. ‘Lightly’ is essential here, so that you don’t swamp the lovely simple (mostly) single-note right-hand melody.
Ebb Tide: This is such an evocative piece that I’ve suggested that all the members of my adult piano group give it a try. Notes are sparse but timing, lightness of touch and the ability to bring out the contrasts between sections are essential if this is to work. You can hear Hawes playing it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ral_b8_P6QM
And here's a link to Hawes talking about the piece, although it’s a shame the sound quality isn’t better: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_ZhGpDKTf0
Reflexionem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohAl4yiW2j4 This piece is all about ties and voicings. If you’re a bit visually challenged as I am, you’ll really have to look closely at some of the chords to work out exactly which notes are held and which are played, but the effect of the slowly moving right-hand chords against the simple bass is stunning.
Perhaps one reason this music suits the time is that the majority of the pieces in the collection are slow(ish), with the emphasis on an unrushed expressive performance (Ave Maria, Serenitas, Sleep Song, Stargazer, The Gift, Quanta Qualia, Pavane). But there are several more vigorous ones that are also fun to play: My Beloved Spake, Song of Innocence, Waltz. The only piece I’m struggling to enjoy learning is The Time of Sacrifice, with its repeated tenths in the left hand that sound an almost funereal tone. But then perhaps both this and the title sum up the current situation across our world.