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For three pianists and two pianos

Composition Date: 2020



Co-commissioned by the New Ross Piano Festival and London Piano Festival for pianists Katya Apekisheva, Finghin Collins and Charles Owen. First performed in 2021 at the New Ross Piano Festival, Ireland.

Programme Note:


for three pianists and two pianos

Sally Beamish 2021

It’s a plague year, and Shakespeare is commissioned to compose a series of poems to convince a young boy to marry. The parents invite him to stay in their country house, away from the dangers of the city.

In the course of his assignment, Shakespeare becomes obsessed with the ‘fair youth’, and the sonnets become passionate expressions of his unrequited love.

After a few years, Shakespeare’s affections are won by another mysterious figure: the ‘dark lady’. The sonnets he writes to the dark lady are different – erotic and sensual, rather than idealistic and spiritual.

It seems that the dark lady and the fair youth meet, and begin an affair. The agony for Shakespeare is palpable in his writing.

In this piece, the three characters are represented by three pianists, who are forced to share only two pianos. As the story plays out, the music reflects passion, jealousy, joy and desperation, as the characters portray their conflicting emotions – from humble page turner to triumphant soloist; pursuer, pursued; moving between the pianos rather like a game of progressive table tennis.

The music is developed from lute songs by John Dowland: My Heart and Tongue were Twinnes, and Unquiet Thoughts. I have also used wordless settings of fragments of Sonnets 18 and 129.

I have used the initials WS (Shakespeare), WH (the initials Shakespeare used in the dedication of the sonnets addressed to the young man), and DL (Dark Lady).

The piece opens with an ‘improvisation’ by WH on Dowland’s My heart and tongue were twinnes.

WS enters and joins. When he begins to play a sonnet, WH becomes bored, and WS joins him on pf2 to try and catch his attention again.

DL enters, and makes her opening statement on pf1. The two men are captivated, and the drama begins, with each of them vying for her attention. A short repeated chord sequence from Unquiet Thoughts forms a refrain. WS is agonised as WH and DL duet amorously.

The music turns into a kind of slapstick canon, as the players encircle the pianos, pushing each other off, turning pages, reaching across each other – even at one point ending up all on the same piano.

At the end of the piece after a climax when all three briefly play together, DL and WH settle into a performance of My heart and tongue were twinnes, while WS embellishes, gathering inspiration and finally standing up to write in his notebook, while the two others are suspended in time.

Sonnet 19

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Sonnet 129

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,

Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had

Past reason hated as a swallowed bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so,

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.


Available Recordings:


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