1. Fanfare: The Bird’s Nest
2. Repetitive Strain
4. A flat
In May 2012, to coincide with the London Olympics, Anthony Hewitt cycled 1200 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats to raise money for charity. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge in itself, at the end of each gruelling day he gave a piano recital. He even took a piano with him – in the ‘BeethoVan’, which accompanied Anthony from one end of Britain to the other.
Piano Cycle was written specially for the Olympianist tour. There are five movements, one for each of the Olympic rings, which represent the five continents. Anthony specifically requested that the piece should have as many references to cycling and to Beethoven as possible; it is also riddled with puns.
The cycle opens with a musical portrayal of the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing: it is grand, majestic, and ceremonial. The piece only uses the white notes of the piano – reflecting the dazzling monochrome exterior of the stadium (and obliquely referring to the fact that the stadium has become something of a white elephant since the 2008 games). The dynamic shape of the piece mirrors the shape of the stadium’s roof, high at both ends and lower in the middle.
The middle three movements all refer to Beethoven to some degree. Repetitive Strain is about the repetitiveness and relentlessness of training and draws on American minimalism. It’s also designed as a training study in preparation for some specific passages in the Beethoven piano sonatas (for example, the opening movement of the Waldstein Sonata Op. 53). Arioso is the still centre of the set: it evokes the wide-open spaces of the Australian outback. The musical material is roughly based on the Cavatina from Beethoven’s Op. 130 string quartet. Bell-like chords punctuate a static, timeless melody. In the fourth movement, A flat, the fugue subject from Beethoven’s sonata in A flat Op. 110 is transformed into a hypnotic texture of chords in alternating hands (mimicking the action of pedalling on a bike). However, a cycle ride that starts calmly enough, ends in disaster as the breaks fail during a steep downhill descent and the cyclist is brought to a sudden halt by a puncture. You can hear the air escaping form the tyres in the final chord.
The final movement is set inside the London velodrome, which was built for the 2012 Olympics. Velodrome is in the form of a three-lap sprint race, the music imitating the circular motion of bicycle pedals, wheels and laps of the track. The pianist is instructed to play hell-for-leather all the way through. It’s very loud and extremely fast.
© Stephen Goss