Essence of Love

Poetry in Music Series 1
Venue: Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 22 April, 2012 (Sunday)

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.

Jennifer To


Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Tre Sonetti del Petrarca, S.270
Pace non trovo
Benedetto sia il giorno
I’vidi in terra angelici costume
Amanda Li, soprano
Felix Suen, piano

The triology of songs based on Petrarch’s sonnets illustrate not only Liszt prowess as a composer of the Romantic lieder, but also his phenomenal gift as a pianist-composer – for these songs could readily be transcribed for the piano without losing their lyricism or virtuosic appeal. The first version of these songs, composed around 1842, was inspired by Liszt’s sojourn in Italy between 1835 and 1839.

The first sonnet Pace non trovo, with its tumultuous opening and the frequent use of declamatory singing, is closer to a concert aria but in name. The sonnet describes the torments of unrequited love, and the sudden changes in mood – from vehement self-loathing to nostalgic resignation – are meticulously matched by the structure of the music.

Benedetto sia il giorno is a celebration of the joy of finding one’s soulmate. The gently pulsating accompaniment suggests the palpitation of the heart. The gracefully written vocal line, adorned with gruppetti and a cadenza, is closer to the bel canto arias by Bellini and Donizetti than the tradition of lieder.

The otherworldly beauty depicted by Petrarch in I’vidi in terra angelici costume has found its musical equivalent in Liszt’s setting. After the piano introduction, marked dolce misterioso, the accompaniment and the vocal line immediately call to mind the preghiera. The recurring opening phrase played at the crystalline high register of the piano, together with the mezza-voce of the vocal part, bring an ethereal quality to the music.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22
No.1 Sonetto XVI. Si come nella penna e nell’inchiostro
No.2 Sonetto XXXI. A che piu debb’io mai l’intensa voglia
No.3 Sonetto XXX. Veggio co’bei vostri occhi un dolce lume
No.4 Sonetto LV. Tu sa’chio so, signor mie, che tu sai
No.5 Sonetto XXXVIII. Rendete a gli occhi miei
No.6 Sonetto XXXII. S’un casto amor, s’una pieta superna
No.7 Sonetto XXIV. Spirito ben nato, in cui si specchia e vede
David Quah, tenor
Stella Cheng, piano

Unlike his predecessors of English art songs, Britten’s song cycle revealed a remarkably personal voice which eschewed the traditional technique of word-painting. The composer carefully matched the poet’s obsessive thoughts with great economy of musical devices: be it a rhythmically charged ostinato accompaniment (nos.1,2,4,5,6), or a recurring melodic fragment of an extended chord (no.3), or the declamatory vocal style senza accompaniment (no.7). The result was that each sonnet was stamped with an unmistakably unique affect and atmosphere, yet they bore familial resemblances as a cycle.

Each of the seven sonnets focused on a particular aspect of love. The cycle was framed by the first sonnet which expressed the poet’s almost sadistic gratification in the pain and despair brought by love, and the final sonnet which pondered the question of immortality of love. The second and third sonnets shared the common thought of enslavement and surrender to the poet’s beloved. The next three sonnets were more tongue-in-cheek in style: the fourth sonnet oscillated between suppressed yearning and erotic cajoling; the fifth sonnet, despite its vengeful undertone demanding for the return of unrequited passion, was set to a strumming guitar accompaniment; whereas, in the sixth sonnet, the explosion of fury hypotheses was fraught by the resigning tone of the defeated lover in a row.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Trinklied, D.888
Ständchen, D.889
An Sylvia, D.891
Sandy Leung, soprano
Kam Wing-chong, piano

Although Schubert was not known to be proficient with foreign languages other than German, this did not deter him from setting English texts. He was also sensitive enough not to transpose the idiom and technique from German to English poetry, but rather, to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of the language in question.

Schubert’s settings of Shakespeare exemplified the composer’s attentiveness of language and context. Though not lacking in poetic imagery, the cruder tone of these Shakespearean poetry called for a more direct musical approach. Schubert’s answer was found in the exclusive use of strophic form for all three songs.

The sonorous opening of Trinklied easily conveyed the mood of the Bacchus festivity. The witty use of ornaments in the chromatically inflected vocal line was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion of intoxication. Despite its title, the text of Ständchen (the additional second and third stanzas were written by Johann Anton Friedrich Reil) is neither nocturnal nor introverted in character. Therefore, Schubert resorted to the use of the 6/8 metre, which gave a dance-like lilt to the song. An Sylvia is characterized by the pervasive use of dotted rhythm and ornaments in the melody, which was appropriate for the genre of eulogy.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
Five Elizabethan Songs
No.1 Orpheus with his lute
No.2 Tears
No.3 Under the Greenwood Tree
No.4 Sleep
No.5 Spring
Melody Sze, mezzo-soprano
Felix Suen, piano

Ivor Gurney was a rare example of the English poet-composer. In 1911 Gurney won a scholarship to study composition at the Royal College of Music with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who also taught Vaughan Williams, Arthur Bliss, Gustav Holst, John Ireland and others. However, Gurney’s rise to fame and recognition was blighted by the onset of the First World War, and his increasingly debilitating mental illness. He died of tuberculosis, alone, at the age of 47 in a mental hospital in Dartford.

The collection of songs, known endearingly to the composer as his five ‘Elizas’, was dedicated to a childhood friend Emily (Emmy) Hunt. They were composed in between 1913 and 1914, while Gurney was still a student at the RCM. The sources included the anonymous poet (Tears), John Fletcher (Sleep), Thomas Nashe (Spring) and two other poems from Shakespeare’s plays.

Gurney inherited the legacy of word-painting from English song composers, however, refreshing novelties abound in his music. In Orpheus and His Lute, while the piano suggests the sound of the lyre, the vocal line is set at intricate counterpoint with the accompaniment. The unconventional cadence on the submediant cleverly punctuates the transcendence behind the word ‘die’. The blithe and frivolous setting of Under the Greenwood Tree and Spring throw the preceding songs of Tears and Sleep into sharp relief. While the searching ostinato create a shrouding gloom in Tears, the descending vocal line reveals the true nature of these tears being shed for a loss love. A similar technique is found in Sleep: while the pulsating accompaniment depicts the soft breathing of the sleeper, the unusual choice of B-flat minor, a tonality closely associated with mourning, is a poignant reminder of sleep being an eternal, rather than transient relief. It is also interesting to note that Gurney chose to end both pieces in the major mode. The idea of a ‘welcomed death’ certainly lends these songs a strong Elizabethan scent.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Let Us Garlands Bring, Op.18
No.1 Come Away, Death
No.2 Who is Silvia?
No.3 Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun
No.4 O Mistress Mine
No.5 It Was a Lover and His Lass
Albert Lim, baritone
Stella Cheng, piano

Unlike the majority of song composer featured in this programme, Gerald Finzi was not trained at the Royal Academy or Royal College. The composer studied privately with Ernest Farrar, Edward Bairstow and R.O. Morris. Finizi came to wider recognition as he was offered the teaching post at the Royal Academy of Music from 1930-3. Finzi was a keen advocator of Ivor Gurney. Having heard the soprano Elsie Suddaby singing Gurney’s song Sleep in 1920, Finzi was determined to revive Gurney’s poetry and music. With the assistance of his friend Howard Ferguson and his wife Joy, they catalogued and edited Gurney’s works for publication. Finzi was also closely acquainted with Ralph Vaughan Williams. His song cycle, Let Us Garlands Bring, composed during the peak of World War II, was premiered on 12th October 1942. It was also a birthday present for the seventieth birthday of Vaughan Williams who was present at the premiere.

Come Away, Death begins with the descending bass line, a symbol of lament which pervades English songs since Purcell. The persistent droning of the death knell also befits the grim imagery of the poetry. It is contrasted by the jovial and gallant Who is Sylvia, from which the title of the song cycle is extracted. Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun, is set to a hymn like accompaniment. The sober melody is interrupted by a brief quasi-recitative at the climatic point, before the dirge resumes. O Mistress Mine, was described by Finzi as a ‘pleasant, light, troubadourish setting’. The gently swaying music of It Was a Lover and His Lass paints a vivid picture of recurring themes of English songs: spring time and lovers roaming in the idyllic country side.

Roger Quilter (1877-1953)
Five Shakespeare Songs, Op.23

No.1 Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun
No.2 Under the Greenwood Tree
No.3 It Was a Lover and His Lass
No.4 Take, O Take Those Lips Away
No.5 Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain
Carol Lin, mezzo-soprano
Kam Wing-chong, piano

Roger Quilter was educated at Eton and then studied for four years at the Hoch Conservatory at Frankfurt, where he became colleagues with Percy Grainger. Quilter devoted his career almost exclusively to song writing. His output included more than one hundred songs. Despite their seemingly lack of virtuosic challenges, Quilter’s songs appealed to both connoisseurs and amateurs. His musical language remained largely tonal and the settings are mostly strophic or recurring. Owing to his meticulous sensitivity to the natural rhythm of the English text, the music had a suppleness which fitted the text like gloves. His vocal writing was closer to long spun melodies of the bel canto style, which allowed plenty of room for subtle nuances by the singer.

The set of Five Shakespeare Songs was written in 1921. Quilter’s setting of Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun resorted to, once again, the allegory of the descending line and its association with lament. The general feeling of the song evokes more consolation than grief. Under the Greenwood Tree evokes a hearty and rustic atmosphere, with the clarion-like setting of the words “Come, hither!”. It Was a Lover and His Lass best exemplifies Quilter keen attention to details. While the melody is varied slightly to depict the various scenes in each stanza of the poetry, the accompaniment also becomes progressively enriched. The result is a vivid panorama of the English countryside. Take, O Take Those Lips Away stands out from the set not only for its melancholic text, but Quilter’s use of an idiom which faintly echoes the Romanticism of the previous century. The boisterous Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain is a sister work of Under the Greenwood Tree. Its bravura ending seems to hint at the influence of popular dancehall music of the roaring 20s.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The Willow Song
Come Away, Death
O Mistress Mine
Sandy Leung, soprano
Amanda Li, soprano
Melody Sze, mezzo-soprano
Carol Lin, mezzo-soprano
David Quah, tenor
Albert Lim, baritone

Vaughan Williams entered the Royal College of Music in London in 1890, studying composition first with Sir Hubert Parry and later Sir Charles Villiers Stanford He was also awarded a Doctorate at Cambridge in 1901. At the outbreak of the war, Vaughan Williams enlisted himself in the Royal Army Medical Corps despite his advanced age.

While Vaughan Williams was best remembered as the leading English ‘symphonist’ of the twentieth century and an avid collector of English folksongs, his contribution to both sacred and secular choral music was equally significant. He was responsible for editing the English Hymnal (1906). Together with Percy Dearmer and Martin Shaw he edited Songs of Praise (1925), and together they produced the Oxford Book of Carols (1928).

The choral setting of The Willow Song and O Mistress Mine were two of the three Elizabethan songs Vaughan Williams published in 1913. Nevertheless, these compositions traced their genesis back to 1891. Both songs are characterized by strophic form and simple syllabic setting of the text, which might be seen as the composer’s homage to the vocal music of Thomas Morley, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. Unlike the other two, Come Away, Death was a later composition written around 1909. It was written for five-part chorus reminiscent of the configuration of Italian madrigals by of the seventeenth century. The vocal style is also markedly different: the imitation between voices, the overlapping effects and the increasing tension converging at the cadential points strongly suggest the influence of Monteverdi.

Programme notes provided by Jennifer To.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.