Essence of Love: Songs inspired by Renaissance and Elizabethan poetry
Poetry and music reinforced one and other in the Greek plays of antiquity and the two were hardly separable in the hands of troubadours and trouveres (travelling poet-composers of the Middle Ages). At times, the two arts verged on rivalry, that one became subjugated to another. The harmonious equilibrium between music and poetry was best perhaps exemplified by the Romantic lieder, and its predecessor, that is, in the form of Renaissance and Elizabethan songs.
The Renaissance sonnets became an oasis of inspiration for composers throughout the ages. While the majority of the sonnets were concerned with the essence of love, the rhetoric, the motifs and the perspectives came in a rich array of varieties. The Italian sonnet was epitomized by the works of Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). The idea of the bitter-sweet torments of unrequited love, usually unconsummated, was central to the Petrarchian sonnets. In the hands of Michelangelo (1475-1564), the sonnets took on a more passionate and sometimes overtly erotic tone. The subjects of suppressed sexuality, obsessive pessimism and fervent spirituality co-existed in his three hundred some sonnets.
By the time the Renaissance dawned on the British isles, the Italian sonnets were adopted and adapted by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), leading to a second flowering of the genre. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s unparalleled genius as a playwright and his keenness on including diegetic songs in his plays, quickly earned him the affection of composers. Music in Shakespearean plays often highlight moments of comedy or poignancy, but the expression never lost its relevance and appeal to the audience.
Tonight’s recital brought together some of the finest settings of Renaissance and Elizabethan poetry by representative British composers and their European counterparts. Among the British composers, Vaughan Williams stood at the vanguard with his madrigalian part-songs set to excerpts from Shakespearean plays. While a few of the texts selected for Roger Quilter’s songs overlapped with those by Ivor Gurney and Gerald Finzi, the phenomenon only serves a reminder of the timeless and unanimous appeal of Shakespeare’s plays. Despite the distinctively Englishness commonly found in the various settings of the same text, the signature style of each composer remained highly distinguishable.
At the crossroad of two currents was the towering figure of Benjamin Britten. His settings of Michelangelo’s sonnets not only marked a departure from the idyllic English idiom to a more immediate and dramatic approach to song setting, the song cycle also witnessed the ‘coming of age’ of Britten as a champion of vocal music and, as the torch-bearer of the English tradition.
In fact, Britten’s experiment with the dramatic capacity of art songs was not unprecedented. Franz Liszt’s settings of the Petrarch sonnets were a conscious effort in breathing new life to the genre of the Romantic lieder. Likewise, Franz Schubert also proved his versatility by venturing outside his German pedigree, drawing inspiration from Shakespearean plays. The result was a rare display of the effortless talent of Schubert, for once, unfettered by poetic nuances and musical craftsmanship.