Sheila Silver ‘Nocturne’: A Complex Concoction for Piano

Hello readers! It has come to day S in my August Alphabet Challenge and wow was it difficult to pick from such a wide-range of composers! But I have decided to delve into another modern-day composer – Sheila Silver. She is a wonderful and dynamic composer, and this blog will be on her well-known solo piano work, Nocturne. This truly is a wonderful work, so I do hope you will join me in this exploration of Sheila Silver and her music.

Sheila Silver is an American-born composer, who grew up in Seattle. She began receiving piano lessons from the age of 5 and her love and passion for music grew and grew until she earned her place at the University of California, Berkeley. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1968. When she graduated she also won a the George Ladd Prix de Paris, which allowed her to study in Europe for the next two years. During her bachelors, Silver started learning composition, so when she went to Europe (namely Stuttgart, Berlin and Hamburg), she was studying chiefly composition. Whilst in Berlin and Hamburg she studied under prolific Hungarian composer, Gyorgy Ligeti. Subsequently, she earned her doctorate from Brandeis University, which, during her course of research, allowed her to travel around the world.

Silver has worked with a wealth of different ensembles, a lot of which are highly acclaimed. For instance she has had commissions from the LA Philharmonic, RAI Orchestra of Rome and the Muir Quartet. One of the wonderful things about Silver is her ability to compose in a plethora of different genres. She has composed large-scale orchestral works, concertos, solo works and choral music. Her compositional style is dynamic and colourful, and she uses her experience from different teachers which make her, for me, a stand-out female composer of the modern-day. She has recently spent an extended period in India, learning the art of Hindustani music. Now, however, Silver lives in New York, with her husband John Feldman and their son. She is a Professor of Music at the State University, New York.

Nocturne is a piece Silver composed in 2015 and was consequently published by Argenta Music. The work is a Co-Commission by Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre for Gilbert Kalish. Due to this work being so new, there is only one proper recording of it, and hardly any information on it – so I will try my best! The piece is for solo piano and the New York Classical Review said that “The music has a purely expressive quality, with a rocking bluesy, harmonic motion.” There are a lot of exciting twists and turns within the music, some of it leaves you on edge, but then Silver cleverly brings you back into the heart of the music. The work lasts between 10-11 minutes.

The piece begins with a low pedal note, which is sustained whilst the right hand plays a simple melodic figure, based around a trill. The harmonic language, to me, is bordering on jazz. This small cell of music is then varied until an interlude from the right hand is heard. A fast broken chord passage is heard from both hand, which gives an air of mystery. The initial theme is heard again, except again it is a slight variation. A beautiful chord progression is heard in the upper register of the piano, which leads into a trill in the left hand. An Alberti-esque bass line then begins, with the right hand playing a very blues-inspired melody. This section is incredibly syncopated at times, which gives you the ‘on the edge’ feeling.

A pass-over between the left and right hand occurs, with the general tone being low and quite dark. The use of blue notes and trills seems to be a growing theme within this work for Silver. It gives a sense of familiarity within this work. The next section sounds very atonal, which gives a feeling of uncertainty that we have not heard yet. The next, more climactic section is louder and much more prevalent. Both hand are playing a moving line, so it is a much busier texture. This breaks down into a chord vs scale section between the left and right hand. The occasional use of dissonance is extremely effective as it creates that kind of magical feel within the music. The right hand then starts playing scalic runs into the very top register of the piano, with the left hand still playing a consistent scalic pattern.

A small glissando is heard, and the trill motif is heard once more. The uncertainty hasn’t quite left, and this section reinforces that feeling. The left hand plays a moving line, whilst the right plays a small melody over the top. This leads to a passage in unison, which cuts the texture down a lot. Silver’s use of the whole piano is also incredibly powerful, as it makes the work bold and colour in tone and texture. The texture stays very busy, with each hand going to opposite ends of the piano, and then eventually meeting each other in the middle again. The music still sounds fairly atonal at this point. The left hand plays a very dark passage in the lower end of the piano, with the right playing also in the lower end of the instrument. A tone motif is heard between two notes in the left hand, and this is accompanied by a chord in the right. The piece is at its lowest in pitch here and this motif eerily ends the work.

I personally find this work incredibly expressive and powerful in its complex harmonies and rhythms, but also with the simplicity of some of the sections, most obviously, the introduction and ending of the work. The work is very interesting and I really do admire Silver for her dedication to music and her compositional style, which is enjoyed by so many. I hope you can give this work a chance and can find enjoyment in it too – although this may take a few listens if you are a novice to the genre! A fantastic inspiration for female composers – bravo Sheila Silver! Tomorrow is day T tomorrow, so make sure you come back to what that is!

Happy Reading!

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