¨My first ambitions as a child were to compose, but my one-line violin pieces were interspersed with drawings of fir trees. Despite this, and to everyone’s amusement, my father’s only regular student, Alberto Lysy, attempted to play them. Many years later I went to study with Nadia Boulanger. After I had become versed in the various rigours of harmony, counterpoint, structure and solfeggio, Nadia suggested that if I were to become a composer I had better write a piece. She offered to pay me 500 francs for three minutes of music, to be submitted within the next three months At the last possible moment I set about writing a set of variations for piano and presented it to her.
Her ability to assess a score at first sight was legendary. She nevertheless found my short work good enough to suggest a renewal of the contract. I felt uncomfortable that my wonderful teacher should need to bribe me to write, and was obliged to turn down the kind offer.
For decades my career was that of a concert-giving pianist, and the only experience I had had of composition was to write cadenzas for those Mozart concertos to which he had not contributed his own.
It was undoubtedly a discipline, as the parametres I set myself were very clear: sticking to the limits of Mozart’s keyboard, using only elements that originated in the concerto movement itself, respecting the language (no anomalous modulations or harmonies), and adopting counterpoint specific to his time. Strangely, the respect for these rules gave me a sense of freedom. Much later, in the peaceful seclusion of our home in Switzerland, the inspiration to transcribe a movement from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet came to me.
In so doing it became obvious that a simple transcription would be prosaic. Why bother to listen to a two-piano version of a great quartet when it is more authentic and beautiful in the original version? So I decided that, with every repeat, I would transform the variation into something more personal.
Soon after, the Brahms sextets caught my attention I had heard them being rehearsed from an early age, and adored the works. Unlike his own transcription of the piano quintet, Brahms rewrote the slow movement of the B-flat major Sextet for only one piano. Although beautiful, reducing six instruments down to one brings with it significant harmonic losses. The variation movements were ideally suited to the same treatment, consisting of one straight delivery followed by a second of a more personal nature, a “transformed” version.
To my surprise I then had the urge to write a piece without reference to anyone else, and embarked on the Baroque Suite.
The inner drive to write my own music brought me back to Bach, whose partitas, suites and concerti I had performed throughout my career. The dances from Bach’s violin, piano and cello suites were frames within which to develop autonomous ideas. They have a clearly-defined form and require the composer to use counterpoint. As ever, Mookie listened with clarity and objectivity, and always commented if something seemed out of place or didn’t convince her. It was my intention to play the suite with my wife for our own pleasure. It also happens that there is, to my knowledge, no suite of the Baroque period written for this combination of two pianos.
My daily challenge is to convert a musical thought, in its raw form, onto paper, whether it appeared in the middle of the night or while fulfilling some trivial task. The piano is the obvious tool to establish more accurately what it is I hear If it is a theme, it will often reveal itself already harmonised, although to go from a fuzzy to a clear image requires substantial work .¨