sonata for soprano saxophone and piano
for Branford Marsalis
2. The Souls of Lost Sailors
4. Bird Bone Whistle
When I knew that this new sonata would be given its premiere in St Andrews, by a passionate golfer, I wondered if there was a golfing term that might give me a starting point for the piece.
The first one on the list is ‘albatross’ – a term for the exceptional achievement of three shots under par. (In the USA this is known as a double-eagle).
The first movement of the sonata, which is driving and energetic, takes this as inspiration, with a short repeated motif which curls around a single note, like a ball finally dropping into the hole. The Latin name for the albatross, Procellariiformes, derives from procella: a violent wind or storm; and the unpredictability of sea weather is never far away.
Albatrosses have been described as "the most legendary of all birds", and they can be an omen of either good or bad luck - or even a burden to be carried as penance (as in Coleridge’s famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner). These huge birds are regarded in some cultures as embodying the souls of lost sailors. The second movement is a ‘barcarola’ – a kind of ghostly ‘sea-lullaby’ in 6/8 time.
The ‘Dance’ is a response to the extraordinary mating dance of the albatross – a kind of synchronized, symmetrical duet, interspersed with pointing and calling.
Ancient tribes used the wing bones of the albatross to carve flutes, and the last movement begins with a solo ‘open-air’ call. This is followed by a fast, quirky toccata section, which abates into a reprise of the ‘bird whistle‘ music, before a short, fast coda.
Albatross was commissioned by the World Saxophone Congress XVI with funding from Creative Scotland and The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain, and first performed by Branford Marsalis and Sally Beamish at the Younger Hall, University of St Andrews on 11th July 2012.