Piano Sonata (Barraqué)

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The Piano Sonata by Jean Barraqué is a significant serial composition from the period of avant-garde composition in France shortly after World War II.

Composed between 1950 and 1952, it is a large piece, lasting around fifty minutes,[1] in a single movement divided into two connected sections, roughly equal in length. The densely dissonant polyphonic texture of the work resembles the Second Piano Sonata of Pierre Boulez, a work Barraqué knew well. In performance, however, the overall impact is quite different from anything of Boulez, and has often been claimed (e.g. by Hodeir (1961)), to be akin in spirit to the late sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven.[2]

Paul Griffiths has written of the music of the sonata: 'contrasts of themes or keys are replaced by other polarities, in particular between perceptions of notes as sounds (acontextual, as if heard alone) and as tones (part of the unfolding of a serial form), between freedom and fixity in the registral placing of notes, between pulsed and pulseless rhythm and between sound and silence. In his preface to the composition Barraqué drew attention to another opposition, between a "free style" of motifs and chords in easy flow and a "strict style" of intensive, quasi-automatic process acknowledging the total serialism of the time. Compulsion, embodied in the strict music, may seem to spur protest in the free passages. But protest is compromised by having to be voiced in the same language, based on the same series.'[3] Herbert Henck has also noted: 'The overall structure was based on juxtaposing a fast movement with a slow one of equal weight. But as the fast movement built up, slow sections were increasingly introduced, and the slow movement contained some fast ones, so that there was a balance of contrasts within the work as a whole. The piece closed in unision in a mediating tempo with a twelve-tone row, whose basic form determined the pitch structure of the whole work.'[4]

The sonata was recorded commercially by Yvonne Loriod between 28 and 30 October 1957 and issued in 1958, but it was not given its first performance in public until 24 April 1967, when the Danish pianist Elisabeth Klein played it in a recital in Copenhagen, seemingly unaware that she was in fact giving the world première.[5] It was subsequently recorded commercially by Claude Helffer in 1969, Roger Woodward in 1972, Chen Pi-hsien in 1996, Stefan Litwin in 1997, Herbert Henck in 1999, and Jean-Frédéric Neuburger in 2011. The Sonata had been published by Aldo Bruzzichelli, Florence in 1966; the rights have since transferred to Bärenreiter-Verlag of Kassel. The original edition is rife with notational errors, and performers (e.g. Henck) had to prepare their own editions.[6] However, there is Roger Woodward's recording of the sonata which was recently re-issued by Celestial Harmonies. Woodward could bypass the printed version and its shortcomings by working with Barraqué in Paris over months before Barraqué's early death at the age of 45. There are photographs, some of which were reproduced in the booklet of Woodward's CD, showing Barraqué and Woodward in two different settings, one working together at a desk and the other one working together in a recording studio with Woodward at the keyboard and Barraqué standing near, talking. Woodward's notes on his recording tell the story in great detail. As can Woodward, Claude Helffer can claim authenticity as he also had worked with Barraqué. Whilst Woodward's recording is in print, Helffer's can only be obtained as used vinyl and is increasingly difficult to find.


  1. ^ 46 minutes 23 seconds in Herbert Henck's performance (ECM 1621), 54 minutes 23 seconds in Stefan Litwin's (cpo 999 569-2).
  2. ^ "Without doubt the most significant since Hammerklavier" – Halbreich (1987).
  3. ^ Paul Griffiths, notes (1998) to 'Jean Barraqué, The Complete Works' (cpo 999 569-2), booklet pp. 24–5.
  4. ^ Herbert Henck, 'Jean Barraqué's Sonata', in booklet for ECM 1621 (1997).
  5. ^ Griffiths, Paul, The Sea on Fire: Jean Barraqué. Rochester NY, Rochester University Press, 2003, p.47
  6. ^ Henck (1997).

Published edition[edit]

  • Jean Barraqué, Sonate Pour Piano 1950–1952. BA 7284. Kassel, Bärenreiter-Verlag, 1993.


  • Halbreich, Harry, Jean Barraqué: Complete Works, essay (1987) translated by Elizabeth Buzzard and first published in programme-book of 1989 Almeida Festival.
  • Hodeir, André. 1961. La musique depuis Debussy. Paris: Presses universitaires de France. English edition, as Since Debussy: A View of Contemporary Music. Translated by Noel Burch. Evergreen original, E-260. New York: Grove Press, Inc.; London: Secker and Warburg, 1961.
  • Hopkins, Bill. 1972. "Barraqué’s Piano Sonata". The Listener (27 Jan 1972).
  • Hopkins, Bill. 1993. "Portrait of a Sonata". Tempo new series, no. 186 (September) 13–14.