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Brian Raphael Nabors

Example Musical Analysis

Carl Vine: Piano Sonata No. 1 (1990)

The music of composer Carl Vine first came to prominence throughout his native Australia,

then gained a wide audience of many professional musicians, scholars, teachers, and young

students. His music utilizes the elements of color and timbre through a unique blend of

conventional and eccentric harmonic choices. It offers a well-balanced range of accessibility for

the conventional listener and modernist alike. Vine has indeed risen to popularity through his

orchestral and chamber works, but most disputably, his piano compositions. They have become

his most widely performed works, and many would argue that Vine’s piano writing is some of the

freshest that has been produced throughout the end of the 20th into the 21st century.

The Piano Sonata No. 1 is undoubtedly Vine’s most popular piano work. It has been

performed worldwide in recitals, festivals, and highly acclaimed international competitions such

as the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition and the Van Cliburn International Piano

Competition. The piece is written as an unfolding narrative throughout and contains all of the

many characteristics listeners associate with Vine’s music as a whole. It is a true representative

work that captures the spirit of the composer’s communicative voice.

Movement I:

The sonata is written in two movements, which to most individuals who are knowledgeable

about the formal structure of a typical sonata, would find that to be unbalanced in a piece as a

whole. Vine ultimately defies that norm by constructing two movements that contain enough

compositional variety to satisfy the categorical requirements for a sonata.

The first movement of the piece is a narrative in its own right. The movement is written

as an arch, starting simply and then undergoes a continuous metamorphosis throughout, growing
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with immense rhythmic and melodic complexity, and finally reverting back to the waiflike

atmosphere presented in the beginning. Vine has developed a strong niche for generating a string

of sections that seem to flow together seamlessly. These sections are assisted by various “arrival

points” which will be discussed in detail throughout the course of this essay. To begin the piece,

Vine invites the listener into a dark, vast soundscape initiated by a soft gesture in the low register

of the keyboard, accompanied by the opening chords that become the “home base” for the

beginning and the end of the piece.

Ex. 1, Piano Sonata No. 1, Mvt. I, Mms. 1-4

Vine introduces the opening of the piece with a pattern of descending chords along with a

looming upper voice that slowly continues to detach itself from the underlying rhythmic chordal

scheme (Ex.1). The pattern of chords presented throughout the first 12 measures of the piece can

be referred to as quartal chords, as noted by my most recent composition/theory professor, Dr.

Miguel A. Roig-Francolí in his text Understanding Post-Tonal Music. These chords are

completely built up of stacked intervals of 4ths. Another technique Vine is using in the opening

passage, also in reference to Roig-Francolí’s text, is the art of plaining, or voice leading in parallel

motion. Specifically, the technique used by Vine would be called chromatic plaining, because

they do not follow the harmony of a certain diatonic scale, but yet the sonorities of the chords

themselves are preserved. Vine will return to this technique later within the piece. To the listener,

there is a slightly compressed dissonance to the harmony that still manages to satisfy the tonal ear
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because of the top voice resolving to consonant intervals above the underlying voices. Also, notice

the use of the sostenuto pedal beginning in m. 1. Vine instructs the performer to silently depress

specific pitches so that once the sostenuto pedal is down, the selected pitches will continue to be

sustained throughout the course of the first 12 measures as the upper frequencies of the chords

played match the lower strings sustained. This is another factor that contributes to the overall

atmosphere of the first section.

One of the composers’ main niches is the use of single line melody over an established

accompaniment. In his piano writing, specifically, Vine lays the foundational atmosphere with the

left hand and often combines it with a supplementary, rhythmically adventurous, melodic figure

in the right hand.

Ex. 2, Mvt. I, Mms 5-8

Vine often writes in a way that is rhythmically written to sound improvisatory (Ex. 1).

There isn’t much use of specific themes in his music, but rather recurring rhythmic motifs or

harmonic progressions that occur in passages and sections. This gives him the freedom to compose

supplemental melodies that enhance the texture of the atmosphere. In the next section, the upper

melodic voice continues as the piece reaches its first formal “arrival point” (Ex. 3).

Ex. 3, Mvt. I, Mms. 14-15

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In measures 13-19, the melodic figure from the first section is continued in its cantabile

style while the left hand accompanimental gesture has changed (Ex. 3). This is the first of a series

of metamorphoses that will occur between these melodic and accompanimental gestures as the

first movement grows more complex. Our second and third arrival points (mms. 20 & 30) display

heavy usage of syncopation and disjunct melodic figures. The vast atmospheric landscape that

Vine introduced at the beginning of the piece is increasingly becoming unstable (Ex. 4).

Ex. 4, Mvt. I, Mms. 20-22

At the first significant climax of the movement (m. 50), Vine completely changes the

atmosphere from a lush, romantic appassionato, to a strikingly pointillistic agitato.

Ex. 5, Mvt. I, Mms. 47-52

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In the example below, notice how Vine destabilizes the metric feel (Ex. 6). The listener is

easily thrown off by a constant stream of 16th notes that seem to interject randomly. The composer

has written a pattern of 16ths and removed certain 16th notes from different places in each measure

of this passage so that they would contain no trace of rhythmic predictability. The rests are

scattered throughout so that the listener hears no constant rhythmic pattern.

Ex. 6, Mvt. I, Mms. 56-57

Meanwhile, the top voice, floating over the rhythmic pandemonium, can be seen as a

looming reminder of the lyricism of the atmosphere from the first section. The syncopation of the

melody also does nothing to aid the listener in figuring out a thematic scheme or pattern. This

rhythmic passage is constructed to intensify the listener’s curiosity. The listener is at the “mercy”

of the composer until a noticeable shift happens. Leading up to the main theme of this movement,

Vine continues to tease the listener with anticipations of a possible metric feel or pattern (Ex. 7).

Ex. 7, Mvt. I, Mms. 76-78

These short anticipations are saturated with polyrhythmic textures that keep the listener

guessing (Ex. 7), until the first true foreshadowing of the main theme is revealed in m. 81 (Ex. 8).
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Ex. 8, Mvt I, m. 81

At measure 81, Vine provides the first appearance of what will become the main thematic

sequence within the heart of the 1st movement. The accents within the measure allow the

performer/listener to clearly identify the rhythmic groupings that are the staple of the “climactic”

theme in this movement. Vine repeatedly gives a grouping pattern of 3-3-3-3-2-2 (groups of

16ths) in 4/4 with an occasional 3-3-3-3 in 3/4 to once again manipulate rhythmic predictability.

In measure 92, the climactic theme is finally presented.

Ex. 9, Mvt I, Mms. 90-92

The theme explores a variety of key areas and continues to push to the far extensions of

the high range of the keyboard. The performer then brings the momentum to a halt with a

sweeping glissando from the lowest octave G of the piano to a bombastic tone cluster played

with the left forearm at the top of the keyboard in measure 104.

Ex. 10. Mms. 104-6

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From measures 105 to 141, Vine moves into a section of development. In many of the

piano sonata 1st movement developments of the classical period from the mid-18th through the

early 19th century, we see distinct transformations of thematic material being broken down into

segments and also traveling through various key areas to reach a “destination” in which the main

theme is reintroduced to bring the movement to a close. In comparison to Vine’s model of a

sonata, his development section undergoes a series of metric transformations rather than the

development of a melodic theme. Vine’s compositional basis for building themes are rhythmic

motifs, where harmonic content is prominent and melodic phrasing is often supplemental.

Because the main theme of measure 92 and 148 is not a seemingly tangible melodic phrase, Vine

instead uses its main rhythmic grouping of 3-3-3-3-2-2 as the foundation of his “development” to

connect the initial statement of the theme (m.92) and its final statement (m.144).

Ex. 11. Mms. 124-128 [Groupings]

[2 2 3] [3 2 2] [3 3 2] [2 2 3] [2 2 3]

Throughout this section, Vine breaks apart the initial metric motif like a group of puzzle

pieces and scrambles them to come up with what sounds to the listener as a series of

unpredictable metric changes, constantly shifting. In Ex. 11, notice how the composer takes 16th

note groupings of 2 and 3 and shuffles their order. Through a sequence of grouping

combinations he explores several time signatures (2/4, 7/16, 9/16, 13/16). In measures 142-147,

we are finally reunited with the familiar metric grouping of 3-3-3-3-2-2, however, Vine has re-
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harmonized the passage, descending through the key areas of A-G-E-C before finally returning

to the key area of B for a second restatement of the main theme from mms. 92-104 (mms. 148-

160). At the final climax in measure 160, instead of proceeding with another passage of

strenuous rhythmic material, Vine returns to the Tempo Primo ( ) (Ex.12).

Ex. 12. Mms. 160-164

In this final section, the composer reintroduces the idea of single-voice melodic phrasing

with accompaniment set on creating an atmosphere. He uses two compositional techniques. The

first is the sustained chord. From measures 161-168 & mms. 188-193, Vine implements a

supplemental figure of 32nd note septuplets in which the notes of the right hand are sustained and

tied to whole note tetrachords in the following beats of the measure. The notes of the left hand

are played but not held, as to simply decorate the harmonic quality of the chord. Out of each

sustained tetrachord sneaks the single line melody that reminds the listener of the initial

atmosphere set by Vine at the beginning of the movement. The second technique is what we
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have categorized as “Vine’s Niche,” creating a rhythmically exploratory melodic line over an


Ex. 13. Mms. 175-176

In this case, the composer has used mixed groupings of the quarter note triplet as the left

hand accompaniment to create a free flowing atmosphere that sounds to the listener as seemingly

improvisatory, although precisely scored rhythmically. With the combination of these

compositional procedures, Vine brings the movement to a close with a contemplative suspended

tetrachord as a notion of solace and completion to the listener (Ex 14).

Ex. 14 Mms. 191-193