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Composing for the Flute: November Sonata

                by Bruce Lazarus

Published in Flute View, August 2013

Throughout my career as a composer I've been fascinated with the the expressive and technical possibilities of the flute; its apparently unlimited agility, high register which may be strident or delicately bell-like, breathy harmonics, and the darkness of its lowest tones.  Flute music suffuses my work, from childhood pieces composed in the 1960s for my flute-playing sister, to an Elegy for flute duet composed as a Juilliard student in 1976, early flute sonatas composed in 1980 and 1988, inFlight for advanced student flutists, Galaxy for flute orchestra, my more recent Green Golly and Her Golden Flute series of arrangements of classical standards (published by T. Presser) for flute quartet, flute with piano, and flute with small orchestra; and my artistic arrivals at Far Corners (2007) for solo flute (see Featured Compositions),  and November Sonata (2011).

November Sonata is a three-movement, 15-minute work for flute and piano where the piano is on more-or-less equal terms with the flute. The first movement - with the eponymous title "November" - is a reference to my favorite time of year: late autumn, when late afternoon light is soft and diffused, shadows are long, and leaves which haven't yet fallen are in their technicolor glory. My goal in composing “November" was to capture this view of autumn in abstract musical terms. The subsequent "May" and "August" movements share musical motives with "November" while continuing and expanding on its expression.

"May" flowerings are represented with a lyrical flute melody, but the primarily quick, propulsive "August" scherzo exploits the aggressive, almost percussive attack of which the flute is uniquely capable above all other wind instruments. This is late summer in New York City; hot, steamy, dirty. Towards the end we find cool solace in an extended slow interlude featuring the flute's most sustained, shakahachi-like tones. A quick, noisy coda ensues, but the entire work concludes quietly on an enigmatic chord suggesting - one last time - autumnal light, color, and shade.

November Sonata didn’t come easily;  it may have set a new record for flute sonatas with long gestation periods, as the project was begun at some point prior to 2006 and wasn't proclaimed "complete!" until 2011. The prevailing autumnal mood was far from obvious; the general idea of "November" did not even occur to me until 2010 or so. Before then the composing process was long, draw-out, almost evolutionary. Several well-developed movements were put aside and used later in my major solo piano work, Musical Explorations of the Messier Catalogue of Star Clusters and Nebulae (CD/download Comcon0014/Naxos, available at iTunes and Amazon), while a never-performed woodwind quintet and a seldom-performed piano piece were completely transformed and absorbed into "November" and "May" respectively. At times I really did yearn for those 1970s days when, as a young composition student, I'd start composing every new piece at the beginning and simply power my way through all difficulties straight to the double bar. Techniques change, but, as they say, love never dies.