PIANO SONATA NO. 3 (Sonata Macabre) (2006) Op. 83 

Opus number: op. 83

Title: Piano Sonata No. 3, Sonata Macabre

I. Adagio

II. Allegretto–Meno mosso–Allegretto

III. Largo (In memoriam: György Ligeti (June 12, 2006)

IV. Scherzando

Date written: 2006

Length: 12 minutes

Premiere performance: October 15, 2006, Jordan Hall, Larry Bell, pianist

Subsequent performances: February 9, 2009, Larry Bell, pianist. David Friend Recital Hall, Berklee College of Music

Program Notes: My Third Piano Sonata was written in June of 2006 and grew out of a desire to understand the musical language of one of my teachers, Roger Sessions. After a thorough analysis of the Sessions nine symphonies, I began to notice a consistent (although unorthodox and unsystematic) approach to the choice of pitches.  Most notable, however, was the absence of any techniques associated with dodecaphony or serialism.

Instead, I noticed a distinct preference for half-step fluctuations between scales of the same type (such as whole tone and octatonic scales). Furthermore these scales were embellished with “non harmonic” tones that lay outside of these collections. Although these groupings were clearly not tonal, they also seemed to eschew any type of system. The pitches were chosen rather freely, but always in relation to a principal motive or theme.

My own sonata follows the classical scheme: first movement, sonata form with three expositions (a form dear to Sessions and derived from Beethoven); an elegiac slow movement; a third-movement minuet and trio; and a frenetic and somewhat sardonic finale. The overall character of the music shows the influence of  Sessions, as well, in its preoccupation with a kind of black comedy; thus the subtitle Sonata Macabre. In addition, while composing the sonata, I learned of the death of the great Hungarian composer, György Ligeti, hence the dedication at the head of the second movement.

I recorded my first Piano Sonata on “New American Romantics” in 1996 on North/South Recordings (N/SR 1007) and my Piano Sonata No. 2 (Tâla) on “Piano Music of Larry Bell,” Albany Records (Troy 828).

Recording: Larry Bell, Casa Rustica Recordings CRR 001



Opus number: op. 82

Title: Harmony of the Spheres

I. Jupiter

II. Mars

III. Saturn

IV. Earth

V. Uranus

VI. Venus

VII. Neptune

VIII. Mercury

IX. Pluto

Date written: 2006

Length: 25 minutes

Premiere performance: October 16, 2006, Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory, Larry Bell, pianist

Program Notes: The sculptural mobiles of Alexander Calder, which I saw at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in March 2006, inspired this work for solo piano. Calder’s preoccupation with the planetary orbits and his unique sense of motion and balance gave me the idea of doing something similar in a musical medium.

While this work has no direct connection to Holst’s “Planets,” indirect references to the characters of the Greco-Roman gods can be heard. Jupiter, for instance, begins with a lightening bolt, Mars has a certain militaristic rhythm, and Mercury is quite rapid and fanciful.

Unlike Pythagoras, who was preoccupied by the relationship between harmonic intervals and the proportional distance of the other planets to the earth, my main interest was to derive the rhythmic proportions of the music from the planets’ relative distance to the sun. One underlying macro-speed connects all the movements with their respective proportions. That fundamental speed is expressed in time as dotted half note equals 33: In both Mars and Earth the quarter note equals 99, which means the dotted half equals 33. Uranus is scored at dotted quarter equals 66 (so the dotted half equals 33). In Neptune the dotted quarter note equals 44, in Pluto the quarter equals 44 (both two-thirds of 66; a 2:3 ratio); and in Jupiter that quarter is doubled to equal 88. Saturn’s quarter equals 66 (twice 33), while for Venus and Mercury it equals 132 (twice as fast as 66, or four times 33).

Earth here is considered to have a 1:1 relationship to the sun. The uniqueness of the Earth is characterized by unison and octave textures. Mercury, the shortest distance, has a relationship of about .4 of that of the Earth, its relative distance closer to the sun. Its relationship in the music is expressed as the polyrhythm 5:2–another way of expressing .4, that is, two-fifths of a beat, or five sounds against two beats. Pluto is approximately 39.5 times further from the sun than the earth, and this is expressed musically in chords whose durations are 39.5 sixteenth notes. In Venus the proportion 5:4, which expresses its .8 of the distance of the Earth to the sun.

Uranus is nineteen times the distance from the Earth to the sun, therefore the chords in its movement occur every nineteen sixteenth notes. Similarly, Pluto has a chord every 39 sixteenth notes. Jupiter, which is 5.2 times the Earth’s distance from the sun, is first rounded down to five and written as groups of phrases with five beats. Mars, at 1.5 the distance to the sun, lends itself nicely to 2:3, two beats sound against three beats. Neptune, on the other hand, is thirty times our distance from the sun, and therefore is broken into 5 times 6, or six five-beat phrases = 30. The swirling, circular figures of Saturn represent its rings. Saturn is 9.5 times the Earth’s distance from the sun, which I rounded down to 9:2 to represent nine and a half eighths.

In order to present nine separate pieces in a dramatic sequence, I arranged them so that the increasingly further away orbits alternate with the increasingly closer: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto become slower and alternate with Mars, Earth, Venus, and Mercury, which become faster. Thus the work ends with fastest piece, Mercury, followed by the slowest, Pluto. In addition, the first piece, Jupiter, functions somewhat as an overture that foreshadows each of the other movements. Just after I had written and learned these pieces did astronomers decide to renumber the planets and eliminate Pluto!

Recording: Larry Bell, on Casa Rustica Recordings 001


ELEGY (2005) Op. 72

Opus number: 72

Title: Elegy

Dedication: Dr. William A. Silverman and Dr. Edwin G. Olmstead

Instrumentation: solo piano

Date written: January 20, 2005

Length: ca. 7 minutes

Premiere performance: May 25, 2005, Larry Bell, pianist, New England Conservatory

Important subsequent performances:

Program notes: Elegy, op. 72, was written in memory of Dr. William A. Silverman and Dr. Edwin G. Olmstead. I learned of Dr. Silverman’s death while writing my cello concerto “The Triumph of Lightness” in the late fall of 2004. Elegy was completed on January 20, 2005,  the day we learned of the death of my father-in-law, Dr.Edwin G. Olmstead. A recording of the work was performed for the first time at a “Celebration of Life” for Dr. Silverman in Greenbrae, California, on March 18, 2005.

Reviews: (performances) (recordings)

Excerpt: (coming soon!)



Opus number: 67

Title: Four Chorale Preludes

Dedication: Jonathan Bass

Instrumentation: solo piano

Date written: December 2003

Length: ca. 25 minutes

Premiere performance:

Important subsequent performance:

Program notes:

Reviews: (performances) (recordings)

Excerpt: Four Chorle Preludes (Coming soon!)



Opus number: 65

Title: Suite from Hansel and Gretel

Instrumentation: piano

Date written: January 2003

Length: ca. 12 minutes


Program notes: These short piano pieces were drawn from  Hansel and Gretel, a Fable for Narrator and Orchestra. Thery were written especially for Angel Rivera’s young pianist seminars at the NEC Preparatory School. See program notes for Op. 59.


PIANO SONTAT NO. 2 “TÂLA” (2002) Op. 61

Opus number: 61

Title: Tala

Instrumetation: piano

Date written: February 2002

Length: ca. 10 minutes


Program notes: This piece was heavily influenced by Messiaen’s piano music, especially Cantéyodjay^a. Bell uses Hindu rhythms to create an additive structure.



Opus number: 46

Title: Reminiscences and Reflections; Twelve Preludes and Fugues [may be played individually]

Instrumentation: solo piano

Date written: 1993, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts–1998, Boston

Length: sixty minutes

Premiere performance: Sara Davis Buechner, pianist, March 30, 1999, Jordan Hall, Boston; New York premiere, Sara Davis Buechner, April 27, 1999, Merkin Hall, New York.

Subsequent performances: Jonathan Bass, pianist, 2001–2002 season various venues, including March 26, 2002, Piano Masters Series, The Boston Conservatory

Recordings:  CD in progress, Jonathan Bass, pianist.


I. Prelude in C            Glissando Study

I. Fugue in C

II. Prelude in C#            Habenera

II. Fugue in C#

III. Prelude in D            Chase

III. Fugue in D

IV. Prelude in Eb              Habenera No. 2

IV. Fugue in Eb

V. Prelude in E            Recitative

V. Fugue in E

VI. Prelude in F            Sentimental Muse

VI. Fugue in F

VII. Prelude in F#    Backward Glances

VII. Fugue in F#

VIII. Prelude in G    Song and Dance

VIII. Fugue in G

IX. Prelude in Ab              Sing-a-long

IX. Fugue in Ab

X. Prelude in A            Last Dance

X. Fugue in A

XI. Prelude in Bb              Study for the Left Hand

XI. Fugue in Bb

XII. Prelude in B              Recitative No. 2

XII. Fugue in B

Program notes:  Reminiscences and Reflections is a series of twelve Preludes and Fugues–one on each pitch–written intermittently over a five-year period from 1993 to 1998. Initially it operated as a kind of sketch book for other pieces I was composing on commission. Often the fugues were written first and the preludes was designed to reflect the harmonic content of the fugue.

The references in the title were to some of my own pieces for which I had written piano models. For example, the Prelude and Fugue in F, “Sentimental Muse,” is largely the model for the second movement of my Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra called The Sentimental Muse. The Prelude in C#, “Habanera,” and its accompanying fugue are elaborations on the first movement of my Song and Dance for thirteen instruments. Similarly, the G (“Song and Dance”), Ab (“Sing-a-long”), and A (“Last Dance”) Preludes and Fugues are the piano models for the second, third, and fourth movements of Song and Dance. The Fugue in A also provided the conclusion of Four Pieces in Familiar Style, for two violins. The Fugue in Bb is adapted from the first movement of my trio for saxophone, ‘cello, and piano, Mahler in Blue Light. “Backward Glances,” the Prelude and Fugue in F#, not only refers to my 1986 work for cello and piano River of Ponds, but also refers to the previous Prelude and Fugue (in F).

About half of the composition was written independent of my other music. The Prelude in C, “Glissando Study,” and the Prelude in Bb for the left hand are designed as etudes. Their fugues were written to complement the etudes. Many of the Preludes and Fugues, such as the ones in D, Eb, E, and B, contain cross references to one another. For instance, the Prelude in Eb, “Habanera No. 2,” is based on the same thematic material as the Prelude in C#. The Prelude in B, “Recitative No. 2,” is a reflection of the Prelude on E. All the pieces, including the fugues, whether sketches for other works, adapted after the fact, or newly composed, all were the result of my own piano improvisations.

Despite the casual and improvisatory genesis of these works, they are united by two short motives. One is a gruppetto (a turn) followed by a leap; the other is an angular five-note figure that is often presented in a jazzy, syncopated manner. The Preludes and Fugues are tonal in the conventional sense that progressions are used to gravitate to a central triad. Each pair of pieces, however, is based on harmony drawn from a different six-note collection of pitches, that is a hexachord used freely. One of the technical goals of these pieces was systematically to use all possible transpositions of these hexachords. In other words, I like to use tonal and serial techniques simultaneously.

Like the WTC, the Reminiscences and Reflections could be played piecemeal. The bi-partite construction of a prelude and fugue was obviously suggested by Bach’s famous “48.” The character of my work, however, is closer to Robert Schumann’s works with canons and the Chopin Preludes (also modeled after the Well-Tempered Clavier). I admired Robert Schumann’s comment on Felix Mendelssohn’s Preludes and Fugues, Op. 35: “The best fugue will always be the one that the public takes–for a Strauss waltz; in other words, where the artistic roots are covered as are those of a flower, so that we only perceive the blossom.” Most listeners today might perceive my preludes and fugues as dance music or popular songs without words; the technical aspects of fugal writing are there for the connoisseur to discover.

Reviews: “The world of new music is, perhaps, a stranger place than it was during the experimental rages of the ‘50s. Just as the brilliant sonic experiments of the post-war generation were working themselves into the vernacular, and Schoenberg was beginning to enjoy his rightful place in the glorious lineage of pedestaled German masters, many composers just gave up and reverted to Neo-Romantic gesture and classical formalism. Accessibility is in, even in music which still exercises free dissonance, and old-fashioned tonality has a new wardrobe, more often than not recycled from early 20th-century French music. The two works by composer Larry Bell presented in Jordan Hall last night are largely of this type, but they’re distinctively American both in the sources from which they draw, and in that ineffable way that was first caught by Charles Ives, and made almost tangible by composers like Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland, themselves conservative for their time.

“Bell’s work is very attractive, lyrical, and as regards his writing for the piano and violin, Romantically idiomatic and unadventurous. In the case of his series of preludes and fugues for piano, ‘Reminiscences and Reflections,’ it can saturate your senses like a pleasant but persistent aroma that eventually becomes either cloying or dulled.

“Pianist Sara Davis Buechner performed the 24 pieces in ‘Reminiscences and Reflections’–a prelude and fugue on each of the 12 tones. Buechner is a very accomplished player with a long list of credentials to support the claim, and for the general tenor of the work, hers was just the right approach–singing melody supported by blended and diffused pedaling, with lots of color in the pastels. . . . .

“The declamatory style of the opening Prelude on C, a study in glissandi, recalled the C Major Transcendental Etude of Liszt in the sense that it served to enunciate a beginning. The two habaneras, Preludes No. 2 and No 4, were reminiscent of Debussy’s habanera, ‘La Soiree dans Grenade.’ The fugues were not the least bit academic in their design, and many replaced traditional contrapuntal interest with color, redefining the notion of a fugue subject as a textual object.” “Buechner plays Bell with lots of color,” Michael Manning, Boston Globe , March 31, 1999.

“A Larry Bell piano premiere is a noteworthy new-music event in itself, but when a fascinating artist is also engaged for the performance, you can be sure the event will be well attended. Sara Davis Buechner (formerly David Buechner) drew a sophisticated audience and immediately dove into some Bach-based Busoni and Busoni-arranged Bach with impressive results. . .

“Mr. Bell’s huge 56-minute work took up the entire second part of the concert. It’s a series of preludes and fugues which pays homage to J. S. Bach and his Well-Tempered Clavier without neglecting the 250 years since then. The opening C-major Prelude states that idea with chromatic glissandi between sturdy chords, which seem to warn us that this is important writing, only to be followed by a disarmingly lyrical Fugue in that key. And so it goes throughout–interesting surprises set up by carefully descriptive titling–with often unexpected but subtle delvings into jazz, “Sing-along,” the Habanera, a Prelude titled “Last Dance” which is wild and desperate in tempo, and even a “Study for the Left Hand.” And while the 24 preludes and fugues are keyed from C to B, the chromatic hexachords, the teeth and bones of serial writing, assert themselves in equal proportion to any clinging to a true tonality.

“Did this very careful balancing of the serial with the tonal create a problem? Ms. Buechner played the work with great repsect, indeed a certan austere reverence. Whether this seeming absence of a truly dramatic mise en scene (for which Bell is noted), or a modicum of sentimentality, was what the composer intended, we cannot say. But this pianist’s assets–the faultless technique, the powerful dynamic range, the ability to get the piano to sing in those lyrical passages–certainly commanded the event.” Barry L. Cohen, New Music Connoisseur, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1999)



Opus number: 37

Title: Blues Theme with Variations

Instrumentation: two pianos

Date written: 1992, Boston

Length: eight minutes

Premiere performance: Larry Bell and Michael Dewart, pianists, 1992

Important subsequent performances: Moscow Autumn 1995, Elena Ivania and Alissa Smith, pianists; New England Conservatory Preparatory Division students; Bell and Carmen Rodriquez-Peralta, April 16, 1992

Recordings: Larry Bell and Michael Dewart, pianists, WGBH-FM radio; tape at Boston Conservatory; tape of Bell, Rodriquez-Peralta 1992 performance at Boston Conservatory

Program notes: “Blues Theme with Variations” is an arrangement of the second movement of Bell’s Piano Concerto. He performed this pieces many times with his duo-piano partner, Michael Dewart. The work is a set of variations on an original theme. The theme’s major-minor third interplay suggests a blues inflection.


PIANO SONATA NO. 1 (1990) Op.34

Opus number: 34

Title: Piano Sonata

Instrumentation: solo piano

Date written: 1990, New York City

Length: sixteen minutes

Dedicatees: Penelope Rosekell, Wu Han, Michael Dewart, Carmen Rodriguez-Peralta

Premiere performance: Larry Bell, pianist, February 1, 1991, Boston Conservatory. Other pieces on the program: Bartok, Improvisations, Op. 20; Hindemith, Sonata No. 2; Berg, Sonata Op. 1; Persichetti, Mirror Etudes

Important subsequent performances: Larry Bell, pianist, Salzburg, Austria, April 1994; U-Mass-Amherst, 1994; Dartmouth College, May 24, 1995; December 10, 1995, Larry Bell, New Music Ensemble, The Boston Conservatory; Micheal Dewart, April 17, 1991, The Boston Conservatory; Carmen Rodriguez-Peralta, pianist, April 16, 1992 and October 22, 1992, Greenwich House, New York; Larry Bell, March 1996, Temple University, Tokyo, Japan; NACUSA Christ and St. Stevens Church, New York

Recordings: Larry Bell, pianist, North/South Recordings CD N/S #1007; tape of premiere at Boston Conservatory; also tape of Dewart performance and Bell performances at The Boston Conservatory; video of October 20, 1992 Rodriguez performance

Program notes:  This first piano sonata was written in summer of 1990 in New York City. Previous works for piano include Variations for Piano, Miniature Diversions, Revivals, First Tango in London, The Parable of the Parabola, and a Piano Concerto. In the Sonata each of the four movements is dedicated to a pianist who has played my music.

The first movement,  Appassionatamente mesto,  dedicated to Penelope Rosekell, is a monothematic sonata form whose principal theme consists of the cross-relation clash between A major and the cadential a minor.

Wu Han is the dedicatee of the second movement, Canto agitato, a song form with variations. The tonal stability of this movement acts as a kind of resolution to the stormy first movement.

The third movement, Scherzo pop, is in scherzo-trio form. The “joke” in this movement consists of a parody of the first movement; the A major/a minor conflict of the opening movement, now with inflections of pop music, is reversed to end this movement in A major.  Michael Dewart is the dedicatee.

Ballo risoluto, the fourth movement, is a perpetual mobile toccata, written throughout in 11/8 + 7/8 creating the feeling of an American folk dance. This movement is dedicated to Carmen Rodriguez-Peralta.

Every movement is based on the same harmony and the same polyrhythms. This represents the underlying sound and rhythm of the entire work, although each movement differs in style as much as possible from the others without sacrificing the unity of the whole. Any resemblance between the personalities of the movements and their dedicatees is up to the listener to determine.

Reviews:  [recording] “The most substantial, and by far the most compelling, work on this program is the 1990 piano sonata of Larry Bell. A broad, passionate composition, Bell’s music has something of the anxious, highly embroidered density of Rachmaninov. There are sections of the sonata that seem to be overcrowded with ideas and energy, and some of the writing is overly florid, but there is a sense that such excess is basically a result of the youthful exuberance of an exceptionally talented composer. I would expect fine things yet to come from this fresh and exciting voice.” –Peter Burwasser, Fanfare  July/August 1996

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