John Stevens
The Kleinhammer Sonata:
Bass trombone and piano

Cedartown, Georgia, United States
Publisher: Potenza Music
Date of Publication: 2016 / 2018

Score and solo part


Commissioned by a consortium led by Alan Carr, The Kleinhammer Sonata for bass trombone and piano allowed John Stevens to complete his cycle of works for the major orchestral and wind band brass instruments with piano. The beginning of the project coincided with the passing of the illustrious Edward Kleinhammer (1919-2013), longtime bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and everyone involved agreed to dedicate the work to him.

Movement 1 begins with a slow introduction before moving to the first of three cadenzas that serve as the transition to a rhythmically driving and highly syncopated Allegro section. Here the phrases are long and rhythmically diverse, most often in a recognizable arch form, starting low and climbing to a high point before descending once again. Multiple irregular meters are introduced as the movement proceeds to another, more extensive cadenza before returning to the slow introductory material at the close of the movement.

For Movement 2, Mr. Stevens chose to give the soloist the vocal line from the fourth movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.2. The song, “Urlicht” (Primeval Light), comes from a collection of German poems known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Mahler’s second symphony was one of Mr. Kleinhammer’s favorite works and the use of the Urlicht melody in particular, with the poem’s closing lines stating “Dear God will grant me a small light, Will light my way to eternal, blissful light” seem entirely appropriate. Mr. Stevens kept the melody in the original key of D-flat major and only made minor rhythmic alterations. However the piano part is completely different, resulting in what the composer considers a “fantasy” on the original song. In the introductory notes about the piece, Mr. Stevens explains that he hopes the music “is perceived as having a simple reverence and recollective nature with a solemn quality to honor Ed’s passing, yet a beauty to celebrate his life.”

The third movement is a fast-paced and energetic conclusion to the work with extensive dynamic contrasts and a considerable amount of low register work. Performers will need a substantial level of agility throughout the double-trigger and pedal registers to effectively execute large passages of this final movement. There is another cadenza that mirrors the first from the opening movement and other thematic material returns as well, reminding us, as the composer writes, of the “cyclical nature of life.”

In many ways this work is a monumental addition to the repertoire. John Stevens is a highly acclaimed and influential composer. The members of the consortium include many prestigious bass trombonists and the dedicatee, the late Edward Kleinhammer, was a legendary performer and teacher who played a major role in developing the modern-day bass trombone. That said, the piece is challenging and rewarding. Its melodic range is predominantly focused in the middle-to-low register, EE to f-sharp¹, giving the performer an opportunity to showcase the fullness and versatility of the instrument while still requiring the need to play with great beauty, control, and reflection.

Reviewer: Eric High
Review Published April 2, 2019