The sonnet does not, at first sight, seem the ideal poetic form for musical setting. Most successful songs have far fewer than 14 lines, and the length of the hendecasyllabic line of the iambic pentameter would likewise seem to militate against song composition. Yet the sonnet (which derives its name from the word ‘song’) has always attracted composers, from Monteverdi’s miraculous settings of Petrarch, to Britten’s profoundly moving Holy Sonnets of John Donne. This highly original CD presents the sonnets of nine different poets from the 14th to the 20th century set to music by 10 different composers.
The sonnet was born in Italy, and amongst the earliest practitioners was Guittone d’Arezzo (1230-1294) who divided its 14 lines into two stanzas. It was not, however, until Dante (1265-1321) and Petrarch (1304-1374) that the sonnet became associated, almost exclusively, with the theme of love. Dante’s great Vita Nuova cycle, and Petrarch’s Canzoniere remain two of the greatest collections of sonnets in world literature. Petrarch, in his poems to Laura, often puns on her name: laurel wreaths were presented to poets in recognition of their poetic gifts – hence the term ‘poet laureate’. Petrarch’s love of Laura is well-known, and it originated from the time that he caught a fleeting glimpse of her as a young girl in an Avignon church. Although she does not appear in the first of the three sonnets set by Schubert (Sonett I [Apollo, lebet noch dein hold Verlangen]), August von Schlegel tells us in a note to his translation that the laurel tree mentioned in Petrarch’s poem is a symbol for Laura herself. In the poem, Petrarch apostrophises Apollo and begs him to restore Laura to life. Schubert solved the demanding problem of composing a sonnet by setting the poem as recitative and arioso. For Sonett III (Nunmehr, da Himmel, Erde schweigt) Schubert used the translation by Johann Diederich Gries. This poem, perhaps the most celebrated of all Petrarch’s sonnets, was set to music of incomparable beauty by Claudio Monteverdi – a madrigal for six voices from Book Eight of the Madrigali guerrieri e amorosi, published in 1638. Although the twenty-one-year-old Schubert is no match for Monteverdi at the height of his powers, he composed a song that does more than justice to the various moods of Petrarch’s poem: the serene opening description of nature; the lyrical outburst when he thinks of Laura; the depiction of his war-like state; the cantabile expression of the bitter-sweet emotions that Laura arouses in him; and the wonderfully bare setting of the passage describing the poet’s metaphorical death (‘So weit entfernt noch bin ich, zu gesunden’).
Schubert’s syphilis was probably diagnosed in late 1822, a period which saw the composition of Schatzgräbers Begehr, a sonnet by his close friend Franz von Schober. The song shares the same key as ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, and a striking Death figure rumbles throughout the whole song, which ends with the plea: 'A grave is surely granted to every man; / Then will you not grant me one too, my friends? ’ The shift to D major in the final stanza can be deeply moving, as the composer longs for the peace of the grave.
Ein Sonett, one of Brahms’s earliest songs, is also one of his finest. The 13th century text – a translation by Herder of a sonnet by Thibault de Champagne – talks about an infatuated lover’s adoration of an inaccessible lady – and Brahms’s song breathes devotion in every bar. Note, in particular, how in the opening bars the accompaniment descends for more than two octaves in helpless subjugation; then rises again at ‘Mein Herz, mein Herz kann es nie! ’, as the lover realizes that he cannot forget the object of his passion.
Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets exist in four versions, two for voice and two for piano. First to appear was the early vocal version (c. 1839) for tenor which was quickly followed by the first piano version. Liszt then made a much freer adaptation of the first piano version, which was eventually included in Volume 2 of the Années de Pèlerinage. The second vocal version for baritone (1861, and not published until 1883) is to a large extent a new composition, much more restrained and austere than most of the earlier Lieder. We hear the earlier version on this CD. The songs are dedicated to the opera singer, Mario Rubini, a famous tenore di grazia with whom Liszt toured in 1842-3, and require a singer with an enormous range (the highest notes are given ossia versions). The virtuosic accompaniment is demanding throughout, and reminds us that Liszt came to Lieder by way of the piano – in a similar way to Schumann. His first original songs were composed immediately after his transcriptions of songs by Rossini and Schubert, and he adapted some twenty of his own songs as piano solos. Though dedicated to Rubini, the Tre Sonetti di Petrarca were clearly inspired by the Countess Marie d’Agoult, who bore him three children. What better way for Liszt to express his love than to set to music these love poems that were written in 1327 by Petrarch, inspired by his love for Laura?
William Aikin was an English eccentric, whose great wealth enabled him to employ two servants and a cook, and live a life of luxury. He retired at the age of 54 and by the time of his death in 1939 had spent the huge inheritance bequeathed him by his father. By profession a surgeon, he was a passionate amateur musician and in 1910 published The Voice, an introduction to practical phonology. He composed a number of songs, the most successful of which is Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, published by Stainer & Bell in 1911 – a poem that has attracted more composers than any other of the Bard’s sonnets, most notably Havergal Brian, Alan Bush, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Deryck Cooke, John Dankworth, Gerald Finzi (only a sketch survives), Philip Hagemann, Frederick Keel, Hubert Parry, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Mátyás Seiber.
The 12 sets of Hubert Parry’s English Lyrics, published between 1885 and 1920, represent a pioneering achievement in English art song. Inspired perhaps by his own love of German Lieder and his passion for English literature, Parry set about demonstrating that great English poetry could be enriched by serious musical settings. Of the 74 songs that comprise English Lyrics, well over half are settings of poems of undisputed pedigree by such writers as Byron, Herrick, Jonson, Keats, Lovelace, Rossetti, Suckling, Shakespeare, Shelley and Sidney. Parry did for English song what Gounod, born three decades before him, did for the mélodie: he showed how poetry and music could interact in a way that hitherto only Lieder had been able to express. Set Two (1886) is devoted to Shakespeare – all poems from plays, except No longer mourn for me, a Brahmsian setting of Sonnet 71. Farewell, thou art too dear belongs to Four Sonnets, published in 1887 and translated into German by Friedrich Bodenstedt, the poet of Grieg’s celebrated ‘Ein Traum’ from Opus 48. It was originally set in Bodenstedt’s German translation, although Parry also provided a setting of Shakespeare’s original with some rhythmical alterations. Bright star sets a sonnet written by Keats in October 1819. Fanny Brawne, Keats’s beloved, inscribed the poem in her own hand on the fly-leaf of Dante’s Inferno, which the poet had acquired for her and which they would read together – and that Fanny is the subject of this famous sonnet is suggested by a letter Keats wrote her on Sunday, 25 July 1819, which ends: ‘I will imagine you Venus to-night and pray, pray, pray to your star like a heathen. Yours ever, fair star, John Keats. ’ Although Keats is writing about the North Star in his poem, and not Venus, the way ‘fair star’ at the end of the letter echoes the vocative ‘Bright star’ at the start of the poem, is perhaps not entirely coincidental. Parry’s setting forms part of Set Four of English Lyrics; composed in 1885 and revised for publication in 1896, it shows Parry’s mastery of through-composed song and reminds us that most composers, when setting sonnets, use the through-composed form rather than the strophic or modified strophic.
Silent noon comes from Vaughan Williams’s The House of Life, for which he chose six of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 101 sonnets. It was composed before the others in 1903, and published the following year as the second song of the cycle. ‘Silent noon’, like Debussy’s ‘Green’, is a description of amorous fatigue, and has, with its softly pulsating accompaniment, arpeggiated bass line, expressive rests and that wonderfully suspended moment at ‘the dragonfly/Hangs like a blue thread’, rarely been surpassed as an expression of languorous content.
Pierre de Ronsard, the poet of Caplet’s Doux fut le trait, was the leading figure in the Pléiade group and the greatest poet of the French Renaissance. His achievement was to assimilate Greek, Latin and Italian models, whilst retaining his own individuality and creating his own style. Though he wrote philosophic, political and pastoral verse, his reputation is now largely based on his love poetry, especially the Sonnets pour Hélène of his middle age. Originally written for voice and harp in 1924, ‘Doux fut le trait’ was Caplet’s contribution to the 400th anniversary celebrations of Ronsard’s birth.
When Henri Sauguet came to compose his Deux Poèmes de Shakespeare (1929), he had already tried his hand at the sonnet form in the wonderful Six Sonnets de Louise Labé (1927). Je te vois en rêve is a setting of Sonnet 43 (‘When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see’), a poem that has also attracted Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten (in Nocturne), Aribert Reimann, Bernard van Dieren and David Bowerman. Bowerman, a largely self-taught composer, has composed many songs, some of which have been performed by Felicity Lott in the Music Room at Champs Hill. This 160-seat hall in the West Sussex countryside, where this CD was recorded, has given many young artists the opportunity to play in public and make recordings (Champs Hill Records was founded in 2010 and now boasts over 100 titles) ; and many established artists have also performed there, including Christine Brewer, Sir Thomas Allen, Ian Bostridge, Felicity Lott, Stephen Isserlis and Graham Johnson.
Auden’s sexually suggestive sonnet, To lie flat on the back, describes the poet and a friend sunbathing on a roof, aware of the rising sexual tension between them – conveyed both by the piano’s triplets and the vocal line that in the middle section sings twelve whole bars of repeated E naturals. It is surprising to find the word ‘sidewalk’ in a poem that was written before Auden went to America – a word that Britten stresses, unidiomatically, on the second syllable. The sonnet was sent by Auden to Christopher Isherwood in 1934, and the song dates from 1937.
Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940) were dedicated ‘To Peter’. It is not surprising that Britten warmed to Michelangelo’s sonnets; they were, after all, an expression of the octogenarian artist’s love for the young Tommaso Cavalieri and, as such, a scarcely veiled expression of Britten’s own affection for Peter Pears, whom he had met four years earlier in 1936. There is a muscular lyricism in these songs that we have not seen in previous collections – as though Britten were reinterpreting the bel canto tradition, allowing the vocal line to determine the shape of the songs.
The cycle is meticulously planned to climax in the final song. The noble tone of the opening, marked tempo giusto, of Si come nella penna (Sonnet XVI), is conveyed by the marcato octaves that double the voice; the second song, A che più debb’io mai (Sonnet XXXI), should, according to Britten, be performed con moto appassionato to convey the ‘intensa voglia’ (‘ardent desire’) of the poem, which invokes death and, in its final lines, puns on the name of Cavalieri: ‘Resto prigion d’un Cavalier armato’. The song ends on a quiet C minor chord, thus introducing the andante tranquillo of the third song, Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi (Sonnet XXX) which, with its Verdi-like lyricism and radiant G major opening, expresses Michelangelo’s utter dependence on his beloved.
The fourth song, Tu sa’ ch’i’ so (Sonnet LV) starts restlessly (poco presto ed agitato) but attains an extraordinary serenity at ‘Quel che nel tuo bel volto bramo’ (‘That which I yearn for in your lovely face’). Rendete agli occhi miei (Sonnet XXXVIII) is marked allegretto quasi una serenata, and conjures up the serenader’s guitar and the plashing fountain; while S’un casto amor (Sonnet XXXII) with its tumbling semiquavers seems to mock gently the rapidity of Italian speech.
The cycle ends with Spirto ben nato (Sonnet XXIV), a song that speaks of the perfection and immortality of love. The grandeur of the theme is reflected in the gravity of Britten’s music, which begins with a solemn introduction and ends with a grave coda.
© Richard Stokes, 2016