• John McCabe
  • Sonata on a Motet (1976)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Manchester Camerata with assistance from the Gulbenkian Foundation

Derived from Tallis's 40-part motet 'Spem in Alium'

  • str(min
  • 19 min

Programme Note

This work was commissioned by the Manchester Camerata, with financial assistance from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and BBC Radio Manchester, and its derivation is unlikely to be easily heard, since the motet provides simply the major source of inspiration for this piece, which is not a set of variations in the usual sense. There is a slow passage of expressive counterpoint quoted directly from the motet on its first appearance, and varied only slightly at its important subsequent reappearances, while the chords heard at the opening and at crucial moments during the work are again derived immediately from the Tallis. Otherwise, the piece might well be sub-titled 'Reflections on Hearing Tallis's 40-part Motet' - it is, in short, an independent work on its own in style, though the influence of Tallis's work extends more subtly into the piece than simply a few short quotations.

As an example of this might be cited the fourth of the five sections, a vigorous and full-blown fugue. Here, the fugue theme, surprising though this may seem, is derived (by variation technique) from the through-bass line which runs through the Tallis; it is to be doubted, however, if any listener would ever perceive this without being told about it. The five sections are played without a break, and are formed as follows: i) a slow opening, ii) a quicker movement of rather aggressive nature, iii) a long slow movement which is intermittently interrupted by a brief scherzo-like passage, though the basic lyricism is never disrupted for too long, iv) the fugue, and v) a final epilogue which returns to the opening feeling of the work, against which the fugue subject stutters into oblivion.