Sonata ‘Deep River’


Violin and piano

ca. 25'

Written for the Duo Philippens & Van Nieuwkerk. Commissioned by the Stichting Slotconcerten Zeist. Financially supported by the Stichting Slotconcerten Zeist, the Municipality Zeist and the Van Veenendaal-Bot Foundation First performance on March 24, 2013 at the Slot Zeist.


1 – Allegro

2 –  Adagio-andante

3 –  Scherzo

4 – Rondo

Rosanne Philippens, violin & Yuri van Nieuwkerk, piano

This sonata, commissioned by the chamber music series Slotconcerten Zeist in the historical mansion Slot Zeist, was written for two young musicians, the Duo Philippens and Van Nieuwkerk.

The piece is based on the old African-American song Deep River, a nineteenth century spiritual that became especially famous in a solo concert version that Henry Thacker Burleigh composed in 1917. In my sonata, the song is never presented in its entirety, but everyone acquainted with the melody will surely recognize parts of it as they keep turning up in each of the sonata’s four movements as a kind of ‘motto’ or idée fixe. In addition to Burleigh’s lyrical version of the melody, I also use the much earlier nineteenth century version that used to be sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s. It is the oldest version available in print and I know of no recording of it. This older version is very interesting because it is far more rhythmic and less ‘romantic’ than Burleigh’s.

This is how the famous Marian Anderson interprets Deep River, in Burleigh’s version:

The song itself is hymnal in spirit, but my four movements show somewhat different qualities. The first, Allegro, in c minor, is a passionate commentary on the song’s opening invocation ‘Deep River, my home is over Jordan’, contrasting solemn hymnal gestures with temperamental, almost impatient rhythmic ones. The second movement, an Adagio in f minor, elaborates in a highly romantic way the lyrical, soaring second episode that Burleigh composed to the question if we do not all want to go to ‘that promised land – where all is peace’, the central trio having a very different type of melody that sounds like an early French or Italian love song.

The third movement, a Scherzo in g minor (and B flat major) explores rhythmic, jazz-like possibilities of the opening motive. This movement as a whole is modelled after the Scherzo of Beethoven’s sonata op. 30, no. 2.

The fourth movement explores a different version of the song. I was surprised to learn that the earliest known version of Deep River (as sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870’s) shared with Burleigh’s version the hymnal opening invocation, but was then followed by a very rhythmic, call-response section, whereas in Burleigh’s later version that same text is set a very lyrical, romantic fashion. This rhythmic, almost African sounding ‘Fisk’ version is the source of the refrain (rondo theme) of my fourth movement, a Rondo, again in c minor. The Rondo’s other episodes (around a contrasting f sharp minor) refer in different but increasingly dance-like ways back to Deep River’s invocational opening melody.

The sonata as a whole is therefore a kind of free variation on Deep River, absorbing the motives of both the Burleigh version and of the earliest known Fisk version, expanding them into a freely invented instrumental narrative.

In this narrative I play with the contrast between the earlier, rhythmic version and Burleigh’s more lyrical-romantic conception. The narrative has many European classical elements but I also anachronistically introduce diverse elements of what, from about the time Burleigh’s version was published, would become the African-American heritage in twentieth-century popular music.
What is retained throughout, I hope, are the original’s religiousness, directness, and artful simplicity, conveying to me a sense that man’s deepest despair may be expressed not only in music that suggests fear, loss and confusion but also in music of love, grace and clarity.