Sonata Hymnica No 3 for Solo Piano

I. Were You There? II. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

For: Solo instrument (Piano)
page one of Sonata Hymnica No 3 for Solo Piano

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Sonata Hymnica No 3 for Solo Piano


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Year of composition
Year of arrangement
Moderate (Grades 4-6)
9 minutes
Blues music
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Program Note About the Sonata Hymnica Series

Composer James Siddons draws on the ethos of American rural hymns and spirituals to create evocations of the deeper, larger meaning of familiar church melodies. These sonatas for piano solo explore these deeper meanings in a variety of contemporary musical influences, while keeping in mind the acoustics of small rural churches of the late nineteenth century, with wooden floors and walls, high ceilings, and dimensions determined by local builders who knew how to shape a room for excellent acoustics in an age of no electricity and no microphones. These sonatas are but partly about the specific melodies and words, and mostly about their meaning in spiritual contemplation . . . and the piano, resonating, reverberant, sometimes whispering–-as a sacred harp. Although these sonatas have no specific titles, the first sonata may be thought of as the Prayer Sonata, the second as the Travel Sonata, as in a spiritual journey, and the third sonata is about our greatest fear, that of being alone and without God. Sonata Hymnica No. 3 draws on two melodies from the African-American experience. One, “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?” was first published in 1899 in W. E. Barton’s "Old Plantation Hymns" but existed earlier as a folk hymn. It became the first spiritual to be included in a major hymnal, The Hymnal 1940 of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” was sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University from 1870 on, and was also published in the Rev. Dr. Barton’s "Old Plantation Hymns" in 1899.

Performance Note

The pianist must keep in mind that these sonatas are about playing the piano as much as playing a composition. Musical effects characteristic of the piano in American culture in the 1870-1920 era are the substance of these piano solos. Touch is important. Both spirituals heard in this sonata vary from their published forms, in keeping with their origins in oral tradition, in order to permit new expressions and harmonic development, often drawing on piano jazz and blues singing.

Duration ~~ Sonata Hymnica No. 3 –- 9 minutes.

About the Composer

Composer, musicologist, and pianist James Siddons studied composition with Dika Newlin, a protégé of Arnold Schoenberg, and electronic music with Merrill Ellis, founder of the electronic music program at the University of North Texas, where he also earned a PhD in musicology. After a year at the University of London, where he studied musical analysis at King’s College and electronic music at Goldsmiths’ College, Siddons spent two years in Japan as a research scholar at Tokyo University of Arts, participating in the Ethnomusicology Seminar of Fumio Koizumi. Siddons has also studied theology and liturgy at the Duke University Divinity School. In addition to books and articles on contemporary music and music in Japan, Siddons was written compositions in many genres. Recordings of his piano performances are available at online streaming services.

Website: ––- His performing rights organization is ASCAP.

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