Sunset for piano is, at its core, a simple piece, but one with a long and somewhat storied development. Its first iteration came in 1998 as a work for piano or guitar, accompanied by strings; the theme, however, had been completed some three years earlier. In 2008, Magle reworked the piece for its current instrumentation of solo piano, with some final revisions coming in early 2023.
A simple piece it may be, but each component included within it is tuned to its respective finest. A song without words of sorts, Sunset is clearly driven by its melody, a wistful, tender theme that progresses in long, sweeping arcs over the rest of the texture. A sense of melancholy clearly pervades it; its phrases are played out in dogged half notes that seems to fall in perpetuity, landing on expressive suspensions before inevitably being rent from them. And yet, it steers clear of ever drifting into the territory of kitsch and melodrama, and the full scale of emotion at play is kept tightly under wraps at the head of the piece.
A good song is not made by its melody alone, however, and the accompaniment is as carefully constructed as the theme it underpins. The most auditorily distinct motif of the work is the string of second-voice undulating couplets that supply a near-constant quarter-note pulse throughout the work. These couplets provide a gentle rhythmic lilt that keeps Sunset moving forward without ever pushing it into becoming frenetic. The harmonies similarly strike a balance between fraught and peaceful – they are decidedly rooted in Romantic tonality, but as such often rely on extensions and inversions. The resultant mood leaves Sunset emotionally tense, torn between senses of comfort and apprehension.
Once the structure of the work is then taken into account, the above tensions and conflicts allowed to play out in real time, some sort of narrative, or at least emotional progression, begins to play out in the mind of the listener. Sunset begins unassumingly enough, a wistful air permeating the sound, with the principal theme. However, the mood cannot remain so placid, and from there, it begins to stir – the bassline drops down, extending the registral inventory of the piece, and the texture thickens out further to match. A tenor countermelody engages the principal theme in mournful counterpoint over an increasingly low-reaching bassline, while the undulating couplets extend their intervals; the widening stretches in the hands lend a sense of developing physicality that intensifies the emotional strain the music seems to bear.
From there the material develops further, but the harmonies start to jar – the sun may be going down, but there seems to be, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, a certain sense of rage against the dying of the light. We come to the work’s climax, a reiteration of the first theme in pedal octaves and full-handed walls of cascading chords that fully capitalise on the physicalities of before – but it is in vain. The struggle conceded, we lose our grounding at the foot of the piano, and a final haunting rendition of the theme at the highest reaches of the composition leads us away. The sun has set, and we are left staring into the stars.
notes: Acorus Calamus
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