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The cycle is framed by two statuesque songs of high rhetoric. The first asserts that, just as in art there are high, middle and low styles, so in love one evokes what is fitting to oneself – in the poet’s case pain, despair and longing. The song derives its rhythmic impulse from the opening fanfare-like figure in the piano. The final song is an intimation of perfection and the immortality of love. At first piano and voice alternate in broad paragraphs, but gradually they unite in their praise of love. These songs define the tonal scheme of the cycle, beginning in A and ending in D. Though the first song begins and ends in A, its sustained central section is chromatic and transitionary, though it establishes a Lydian C major as a point of departure (that is to say the fourth degree of the scale – F in this case – is sharpened). This C major prepares for the C minor of Sonnet XXI, in which the vulnerability of deep attachment is expressed in gentler, pleading terms.
Sonnet XXX is one of Britten’s very finest songs. Its intimation of things that can only be realised through the presence of the beloved is expressed in a seamless bel canto line over sostenuto chords in the piano. (Again, its G major is inflected by the Lydian sharpened fourth.) The song ends with a yearning, rising ninth for the singer that anticipates Grimes’s haunted cry, “What harbour shelters peace?”. The bitonal tension of Sonnet LV (again G in the voice, Lydian B flat in the piano) gives way to the wistful serenata of Sonnet XXXVIII in which the rejected lover begs for the return of his senses so that he may, in time, love again. The white-note tonality of this ardent serenade is soon swept aside by the ecstatic setting of Sonnet XXXII, its E-C sharp minor constantly undermined by persistent seconds in the piano. E and C sharp eventually yield to the Lydian D major of the final sonnet, ‘Spirto ben nato’.
from notes by John Evans © 1986
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