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Songs for Peter Pears

Robin Tritschler (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Download only Available Friday 14 June 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: 14 June 2024
Total duration: 73 minutes 30 seconds

From Benjamin Britten's famous 'Michelangelo' sonnets, to a set of 'Chinese' lyrics by Arthur Oldham and Geoffrey Bush's twelve 'Zodiac' songs, Robin Tritschler and Malcolm Martineau pay homage to the musical legacy of Peter Pears.

For a period of the 20th century, due to his talent and association with Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears was perhaps the world’s most famous classical singer. Pears inspired Britten to create great works of art precisely because Pears was a compelling artist with an exceptional voice, an inquisitive mind, a knowledge of art, history, literature and poetry. They became a self perpetuating duo, inspiring each other to even greater heights of artistry, technical ability, and emotional certainty.

However Pears was not just a singer of Britten’s music. In addition to his exemplary performances of Dowland, Purcell, and Schubert, Pears also sought out new music by many composers; championing, commissioning and performing their new works. Whether inspired by the man himself, or his voice, it could not have been too difficult to compose for Pears. The voice’s agility, range, strength and focus, combined with his ability to float the sound or be surprisingly resolute, gave composers a broad palate of musical options.

Pears’ influence on and association with certain music remains so firm, that all english-speaking tenors since shall forever be compared to him. The constant challenge when singing the works presented on this album, and similarly with many others, especially those by Britten, is breaking free of the Pears sound which seems ingrained in the fabric of the music. Many of the composers who wrote works for Pears may be delighted if later generations of tenors aped his performance and delivery. But I imagine Pears himself would prefer the singer to revel in the joy of their own voice and music making.

Berkeley, Britten and Pears
It is not necessary to know history or biography to appreciate music. A great tune, moving harmony, tonal colour are such strong bearers of emotion and meaning that they are enough for most concert-goers to enjoy a performance. But in the case of the Housman and Michelangelo settings on this album, I think it helps to know a little of the tangled web from which they were born.

Lennox Berkeley’s friendship with Benjamin Britten blossomed after they met at the 1936 festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music in Barcelona. Despite very different approaches to composing they helped each other and even collaborated. Berkeley, 10 years older than Britten, lacked the younger man’s confidence in his own music making but meeting Britten caused, in Berkeley’s biographer Tony Scotland’s words, a ‘tremendous imaginative release’ in him.

The two men grew close and decided to try living together. Berkeley hoped this signalled a move to a romantic relationship. Britten may only have wished for companionship and someone to share the burden of running a house. He was fond of Berkeley, but he did not fancy him. Their differing sexual tastes made for an unfulfilled relationship.

Eventually Britten found the Old Mill in Snape and bought it alone. Berkeley was, in essence, a tenant. While the Old Mill was renovated Britten moved into a London flat with a new acquaintance, the tenor Peter Pears.

Berkeley and Britten moved into the Old Mill in April 1938. They lived together easily but in separate bedrooms, however Britten continued to maintain the flat in London. While planning a trip to America with Berkeley, Britten began to spend a lot of time with a young German named Wulff Scherchen. They had first met in Italy when Wulff was 14 years old. He was now 18 and living in Cambridge. Berkeley knew of Britten’s feelings but perhaps did not believe the younger man could supplant him. Britten’s infatuation soon grew into an obsession.

By December Berkeley had lost all hope of any romance with Britten. He decided not to spend Christmas at the Mill as Britten had invited Wulff, Pears, and his sister Barbara. The ever-mannerly Berkeley wrote to Wulff ‘I’m sorry not to see you … in any case I don’t think it would be any fun at all the three of us being here together. It’s a pity, because, strangely enough, I like you.’ To Britten he wrote ‘… I can’t think of anything but you … It’s a sort of illness which I suppose I shall recover from one day …’.

Britten, though, soon began to feel uncomfortable; Berkeley and Wulff were encroaching too much upon him. This was a time when he was still coming to terms with his homosexuality and yet to decide how he would live. He needed to escape. Just before departing for America he told Berkeley his place on the trip had been taken by Pears, and told Wulff they should try to forget each other. Both men left behind were devastated by the rejection.

During the sea crossing and their first few weeks in America, Pears slowly replaced Wulff in Britten’s heart. By mid June 1939 he had cemented his place by Britten’s side. They remained together for the rest of their lives.

Five Housman Songs (Lennox Berkeley)
The wounds may have been raw but Berkeley began to come to terms with the loss of Britten and expressed his feelings in music. The poems of A E Housman (1859-1936), who had been extremely popular amongst the Georgian composers a generation before, may appear an odd choice for the urbane, civilised and forward thinking Berkeley. But both composer and poet knew the pain and disappointment of unrequited love and its associated abandonment. A E Housman called the love he held for Moses Jackson, his straight friend whom he loved for thirty five years, ‘unlucky love’.

Berkeley completed four songs by January 1940, later adding a fifth. As Tony Scotland says, these songs ‘laid the ghost of his love for Ben’ to rest.

In April 1940 Berkeley wrote to Britten ‘I’ll send you a copy of my Housman songs—perhaps Peter might like to sing them’. Needless to say neither Britten nor Pears were keen to revisit such recent history. The songs were put away and lay undiscovered for over 35 years until Pears gave the manuscript to Peter Dickinson. On 25 September 1978 tenor Ian Partridge gave their first performance, and they were published in 1983.

The half-moon westers low
In 1922 Moses Jackson died in Canada. His final letter was cherished as a relic by Housman until his own death. For Housman, only death could reunite the two men and many of his poems relate to that theme.

As the half-moon westers low, two men are separated not just by distance but by life. One is not aware he is dead, the other alive but equally lost and alone. In Berkeley’s accompaniment, both hands play in unison an octave apart, like the two men walking a path together, close but separate. The vocal line slowly rises, expanding toward the climax and the certainty of one’s death; he is sound asleep. The final chord sees the right and left hands finally diverge and the voice completes the chord, singing the 5th, further compounding the isolation of the man still living. For Berkeley’s own lovelorn situation this poem must have been painful to set, and for Housman painful to write.

The street sounds to the soldiers’ tread
Housman had a complicated attitude towards soldiers. His admiration of their courage and sacrifice, his compassion for soldiers who died young yet perfect, and his support of family members who enlisted all lay equal beside the sexual allure of a uniformed soldier. In this poem, a man salutes a detachment leaving town and sadly waves farewell to their potential. He singles out one particular soldier. Through their shared gaze, they recognise their interest in each other. Divided by society, class, and soon distance, they are unable to explore each other beyond a look.

Berkeley sets a confidant march but the inclusion of the 9th is uncomfortable. Everyone is on the move to an uncertain future. The right hand mirrors the voice and slinks to a more legato figure as the men’s heads turn to each other. As their eyes lock Berkeley halts the march and time stands still. The two men are locked in a private moment over a sensual chord of A flat, but the moment must pass. The march returns but now a slur in the left hand bass recalls that lingering look. As the two men fall out of step, the vocal figure is now echoed in the accompaniment.

In an attempt to reach each other the left hand rises towards the right and stops marching. Briefly they are in unison, sharing a private moment again. It lasts just one bar before the march rips them apart. The heartbeat of the man left behind is heard in the right hand, but it is slightly irregular, skipping a beat. 'Soldier' is a final cry of anguish for the departing man as the incessant march drives him into the shrinking distance.

He would not stay for me
In 1885 an incident occurred between Housman and Jackson which soured their friendship. Perhaps Jackson discovered the extent of Housman’s affection. We only know they remained friends, but at a distance. In 1887 Jackson got married. He left to work in India, and later moved to Canada. Housman felt this loss forever.

Berkeley must have known that feeling all too well as Britten pursued Wulff before leaving with Pears.

The first phrase of this song is a template for the rest. The slow pulsed introduction seems peaceful, perhaps even calm, but the diminished 7th and augmented 5th belie a deeply felt seething torment. He would not wait for me; and who can wonder? Berkeley seems to question his own self-worth by including a crescendo over who—was he ever good enough for Britten? In the interlude the three falling 6ths seem to suggest an acceptance of the situation. But a fleeting touch of skin in the handshake causes the blade of pain to twist in his guts until a scream bursts forth as the melody continues to employ awkward 7ths and 5ths. This last ditch effort to be noticed and re-live the brief but searing contact leads to a sorrowful acceptance that he must go on alone. The chords only slightly resolve, sitting in second inversion. The lingering 7th hints at the bitter residue left on his heart.

Look not in my eyes
'Look not in my eyes for there you will see my naked emotion and desires'. Housman must have feared showing any signs of his love for Jackson beyond friendship. History does not tell us what happened between them but Housman moved from the house they shared to another area of London. Perhaps Jackson finally saw the longing in Housman’s lingering glances.

For Berkeley this too must have been a fear, or perhaps a torture. Maintaining a cordial nature, continuing some contact, and championing Britten’s music was the defence Berkeley employed to endure after Britten left.

On first hearing, this song has a perky rhythm which disguises the melody and the emotional text it portrays. But the odd phrasing of quavers (2 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 5), the prosody and the ignored bar lines hint at the uncomfortable reality of the moment. The strength of the attraction of one man for the other is such that no-one else has a chance. The only release or escape is death.

Because I liked you better
Because I liked you better recalls the painful episode when, as Jackson and his wife Rose emigrated, he asked Housman to forget him. Housman never could, and perhaps never seriously tried. Instead their friendship endured. Rose Jackson and Housman became friends, and Housman was named godfather to one of their children.

At the time of this song’s composition, Berkeley was in a difficult relationship with Peter Fraser, a 20-year-old airman who lied and was unfaithful. Perhaps not the ideal relationship Berkeley hoped for. Whatever its state, Berkeley cared deeply for the welfare of his companion. ‘How would Peter manage …?’

Both Housman and Berkeley maintained friendships with Jackson and Britten respectively for the rest of their lives. The strength of their character places emotional affection above any romantic or physical love. They would rather have the person in their life than strike them from it.

The opening note in the piano slowly rises in small steps; a tone, a 3rd, even a 4th, but always within easy reach, much as the two friends may have felt. Not until one man walks among gravestones is a melody heard. As he stands by the grave of his former lover, the comfortable 3rds of the opening return. Think of me then as a faithful friend who had your trust. A single right hand D is doubled in the left as the two men’s thoughts are reunited again.

It took several years, but Berkeley did manage to find someone else, someone more permanent, stable and sharing. He married Freda Bernstein in 1946. She encouraged her husband in his compositions, and his music took on a more relaxed style. His doubt seemed to ease. He was now secure in himself as a composer, a husband and father, and no longer feared comparisons to Britten.

Songs of the Half-Light Op 65 (Lennox Berkeley)
For the 1965 Aldeburgh Festival Peter Pears commissioned Berkeley to compose songs with guitar accompaniment. Berkeley chose poems by Walter de La Mare (1873-1956), a poet he had set twenty years before.

Like his earlier choice of Housman, Berkeley appears to be out of step with the time’s modern thinking. De La Mare, who often wrote of the innocence of children and the desire to return to that state, had been dismissed by the modernists who thought his verse structures and themes at odds with their movement and response to World War 1 (and by now WW2). So for Berkeley this was a personal choice.

Berkeley always had an individual approach to his music. He rejected the English nationalism of Vaughan Williams and the post-Romantic style. Instead he trod a line between his English predecessors and the tonal experiments of the Second Viennese School. As Peter Dickinson puts it:

His musical inheritance, unpretentiously European, finds its centre of gravity somewhere in the English Channel.

Pears gave the first performance of the songs on 22 June 1965 with guitarist Julian Bream.

The poem features three of de la Mare’s favoured topics; innocence, the desire for childhood, and ageing. A little boy is entranced by Rachel’s singing and her movements over the piano, but he also sees the darkness of her thoughts.

Berkeley uses the long guitar theme economically throughout the song as it plays Rachel’s music. Its distinct rhythm almost hypnotises the boy, while the constant alteration between the melodic and harmonic minor unsettles Rachel’s sense of reality. The vocal line is not Rachel’s, rather a third person observing the scene. Only when the interloper speaks of memory does the voice mimic the guitar. The protracted and legato melisma inspire their own examination of past experience.

Full Moon
Here is a lunar liaison of a most delicate nature beautifully described in words and music. Berkeley’s opening theme introduces the listener to a gentle moon. The upbeat, a written out strum which would sound like an ornament in a faster tempo, portrays the slow but constant movement of the moonlight which envelops objects in the room, until finally vanishing. Dick is undisturbed by the fascinating and welcome visitor. Otherwise, why would he leave the curtains open?

All that’s past
De la Mare offers a grim reality in this poem. Nature exists in a cycle of replenishment; the roses entangle themselves with their surroundings and bud each year, the snows and rain maintain the winding river as it winds through the landscape. Those have seen eons pass and have grown wiser as result. Men alone age. Our initial young dreams may be the same as our predecessors but as our own time passes our thoughts develop individually. They are barely a whisper to the world. Only in death do we become an eternal part of nature.

Berkeley seems to want to race through this tale. Like nature his music does not settle for a moment. The guitar theme tugs back and forth, the ostinato mingling major and minor modes as it surges on. The inevitability of this unremitting music strangely makes the realisation of our own temporary state easier to bear.

The Moth
This song highlights for me why Berkeley is a brilliant composer of vocal music. The simplicity of the idea; the theme and its execution combine to make an immensely satisfying song to perform and to hear. The moth’s efforts are heard as it rages towards the light. Berkeley’s accompaniment perfectly captures the moth’s hectic path; frantic to our ears (and eyes when you see the score) but light and delicate for the moth. However the wonder for me is how the same music also seems to describe the creature; its furry wings and feathery eyes, its weightlessness, its determination.

The Fleeting
If Berkeley’s whooshing wind were any more powerful the point of the poem would be obliterated. But the composer judged the pitch, length and speed of the underpowered wind to perfection. Now the eerie silence de la Mare describes can be discerned among the distant gusts.

In this placid moment the movement of the stars is perceptible and the enormity of the universe, and our minuscule role in it, can be fully appreciated.

Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo Op 22 (Benjamin Britten)
‘I’ve a sudden craze for the Michelangelo Sonnets & have set about half a dozen of them.’ (Britten, 7 April 1940)

During the 1930s when most English composers were setting the Georgian Poets, Housman, or harking back to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Britten took a different path and chose poems by W H Auden; a deliberate choice to set new and strange words. The departure from English was another deliberate choice. Britten spent almost two years setting French (no doubt influenced by the bilingual Berkeley) and Italian texts. The reason is not difficult to guess. Pears said Britten had a ‘natural fascination that such extraordinary geniuses must exercise’. In Rimbaud (1854-1891), poet of Britten’s Les Illuminations, Op 18 1939, and Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), Britten found a sensitivity with which he could identify and the languages held no close emotional or musical associations for him. Britten was also longing to go abroad. He may have preferred to visit Europe, but his passage to America and his departure from setting english poetry happily coincided.

Britten’s ‘sudden craze’ may have begun some years earlier. It is possible that Auden introduced Britten to a biography of Michelangelo, or that Pears left the sonnets lying about for Britten to discover. However he found the poems, the dual inspirations of life and love drew from Britten a new musical style and emotional depth.

The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo were completed in Amityville on 30 October 1940. They were the first set of songs Britten composed specifically for Pears’ voice. It is impossible to discuss Britten’s vocal writing without frequently mentioning the tenor. Britten’s music progressed alongside Pears’ training and development. Indeed throughout their life together Britten’s own mental wellbeing became entangled with the health of Pears’ ‘golden box’. The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo are written for a young but mature voice, lyrical and flexible, firm but with an ability to float and soar. The text demands sensitivity, and its long arching phrases test the singer’s breath. Pears was more than able to meet the challenge.

Composer and tenor gave the first private performance on 12 May 1941 in New York. The first public performance was given in Wigmore Hall, London on 23 September 1942.

Of the sonnets Britten chose, all but one had been composed for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri who had approached Michelangelo with a desire to study under him. Michelangelo was captivated by the younger man’s beauty, and almost immediately sent him poetry and drawings. The poetry is passionate and sexually charged. In his own lifetime Michelangelo was accused of homosexuality, a crime against state and church. His defence, as recalled in a contemporary account, was his love for Beauty in all things. As an artist endeavouring to recreate beauty he must, to an extent, worship it. Later studies of the poetry conclude that Michelangelo was clearly expressing both emotional and physical love for Cavalieri whether or not any such relationship existed.

I am certainly no authority on Michelangelo’s sonnet style, but a basic note might be helpful to understand the difficulties faced by Britten and later performers. The formal sonnet structure, as established by Dante and Petrarch, is an octave (divided into two quatrains; a statement followed by its elaboration) and sestet (two tercets; drawing the statement to a conclusion or a counter-statement). The octave rhyming scheme is always abba abba. The sestet scheme can vary but it is usually cde cde.

Michelangelo strays from the prescripts of the sonnet form, and his metaphors or similes are often confusing and tangled. Instead of a statement closing within the abba abba form, his lines will often continue into the next quatrain or sestet. He altered the form to suit his own ideas, making it all the more difficult for anyone to set to music. Britten’s basic level of Italian was a further complication to an already complicated nuance of a complicated poem.

Britten’s solution is interesting. His phrasing often matches a rhyming couplet, aa bb cc, and he also prefers to pursue the sonnet’s poetic form rather than track Michelangelo’s extended texts. This sets the music in a far more accessible way than the poetry might reveal on first reading. Similarly Britten’s defined order of the poems suggest the path of a romantic relationship. Each step leading onto the next until the necessary compromises have been struck to result in a satisfying union.

Sonetto XVI (1534—written for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri)
In this sonnet Michelangelo follows the traditional rhyming scheme, but twice within the octave he continues a sentence without pause (lines 1-2, and 7-8) and his punctuation of the sestet divides it into four lines and two lines. These are small details which corrupt the sonnet form and the musical pattern which can be applied to it.

Michelangelo suggests the artist must reveal the Beauty which already exists within the natural stone and ink. The resulting art is a reflection of the artist’s mood; if in pain he will create a sorrowful artwork. Here, however, the Beloved is the artist’s medium. He must be approached without fear or doubt to avoid the 'pene acerbe e certe' ('bitter an certain sorrows'). The potential Michelangelo sees in Cavalieri (as a medium) is only good, but because the love is unrequited this goodness brings sorrow to the artist.

It was probably not lost on Britten that this philosophical vision helped Michelangelo in his work. In 1504, from a huge block of marble, which several other artists had forsaken as too brittle and too enormous, Michelangelo revealed his breakout success, the statue of David.

Britten sets the tone of the entire cycle with his dramatic opening; a rhythmic and melodic force of octaves which crash onto the downbeat. It recurs with few changes throughout the song.

Sonetto XXXI (unknown date—written for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri)
Here the sonnet form is twisted further. The octave is wide open as several lines run together and the sestet rhyming scheme is ccc ccc.

The sonnet questions whether love is futile if death is inevitable. Michelangelo ponders why a lover should burn with desire if there is no relief, and pleads that a lover be allowed to love so his final moments of pain before death will be better than his life beforehand. In the sestet he asks, will death or love alleviate his pain? Before finding his resolution in the final line; his happiness is to be tethered to the beloved despite the pain he endures. To avoid any confusion as to the object of desire, Michelangelo even names Cavalieri in the last line, 'Resto prigion d’un Cavalier armato' ('remain the prisoner of an armed Cavalier').

Britten continues the forward march of the lovers’ journey in a syncopated rhythm. The vocal line rises and falls melodically with explorative chromatic passages during each four bar phrase. The music is asking ‘must this fate be accepted?’ When an explanation is suggested, 'dunque per queste Luci l’ore del fin fian men moleste' ('So to these eyes the last hour will be less painful'), the vocal part seems more easily convinced than the piano accompaniment. While the voice is resolutely in E major, the piano alternates between major and minor modes as if it just cannot make up its mind.

Sonetto XXX (circa 1534—written for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri)
Unlike the two previous sonnets, this one enjoys a normal rhyme scheme and Michelangelo finally has Cavalieri’s full attention. The besotted lover believes he will only be complete when with his beloved. Then he can endure any burden, see only good, and can ascend to heaven. Their relationship is one of dependency; every desire of the beloved becomes the command of the lover. So consumed by his yearning for Cavalieri, Michelangelo dismisses his own self. Seeing through his beloved’s eyes, he understands Cavalieri’s desires and can then wholly indulge them.

Britten clearly conveys the dependency of this relationship; the piano totally supports the vocal line with root position major chords for the opening nineteen bars. Only when the lover admits to being lame and needs to be carried is there a shift to minor chords and inverted positions. Britten’s long right hand phrases slowly rise and fall, sweep higher and higher as the wings of the beloved carry the lover onward. The weight ('pondo') that burdened the lover has been taken off his back.

At 'nel voler vostro è sol la voglia mia' ('only within your will is my will'), the total submission of the lover is beautifully captured by Britten. B major chords resound in the piano and the voice sings D sharp; literally trapped in the middle of the chord. In the soaring flight which brings the song to an end, the lover becomes an active participant, no longer carried but working in partnership.

Sonetto LV (1532—written for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri)
This sonnet seems private and personal. The you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know implies something furtive but actually this poem is quite candid, helped by a traditional rhyme scheme. The lover tells his beloved that his feelings are not a secret, so why wait to recognise their love. The wall between them should be razed so that their love can be fulfilled. The sestet conclusion is a balm to any previous concerns; their love is spiritual, pure and inevitable.

Britten uses a sort of polytonality and a tritone to convey that there are still differences between the two men. The clashing keys seem to resolve and the anger diminishes when the lover says 'S’i ‘amo sol di te …' ('If I love in you … only'). After this the right hand of the piano detaches itself from the rhythm of the left, and flies to new heights (the highest note of the cycle so far). Then the agitation stops and Britten allows the lover to declaim 'Quel che nel tuo bei volto bramo e ‘mparo, E mal compres’ e degli umani in gengni' ('That for which I yearn in your noble face is but ill-understood by mankind'). The final bars’ clashing return could symbolise the chiding of the beloved for not making the commitment which the lover has already made.

There is a hint in this song that Britten has reached a point of no return within himself; to accept his homosexuality. Previous innocence is gone, but his way forward in the world is now more determined. Performing these songs with Pears before a public audience must have been a daunting prospect.

Sonetto XXXVIII (circa 1534-8—written for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri)
In Sonnet XXX the lover states that the operation of his own eyes and feet are dependent on those of the beloved. Now, in Sonnet XXXVIII, whose rhyme scheme is also standard, the lover requests his own eyes and feet be returned to him, so that he may give them to another. The lover implies that his union with the beloved (uncovered in LV) had consumed him. He has given up everything of himself, effectively becoming lost within the beloved while the beloved had not reciprocated. He must confront the fear of rejection. Now the lover needs to reclaim his eyes, his feet, his very voice, and find a more suitable recipient. (During this period Michelangelo had initiated a short-lived relationship with Febo di Poggio.)

However there is no going back. To create a more conciliatory mood Britten writes a sort of serenade accompanied by a guitar figure, but as the strummed quavers continue, they become an irritant, constantly growing until the line 'di me non ti contenti' ('you are not satisfied with me') when the piano stops under 'ti', leaving the voice to hang alone. Well, being alone is not what the lover wants, so he quickly slips back into the 'contenti' of the serenade.

Sonetto XXXII (1532—written for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri)
This sonnet conforms to the traditional form: two quatrains and two tercets, but Michelangelo adapts the tercet rhyme scheme to a cdd pattern. The adaption is quite apt here as the poem describes the compromises a couple make to create an ideal relationship. The lover and beloved should be one and the same; one body and soul. But there are several conditions to maintain such unity. They must be chaste, compassionate, have shared fates and troubles, love only each other not themselves, and die together. Only then can love be eternal. Yet it seems that while Michelangelo wished for such a relationship, Cavalieri refused. Their frustration rings clearly in Britten’s music.

The syncopated rhythm in the opening four bars of the piano suggests a desire to escape. A game of cat and mouse begins when the voice enters on the downbeat and lists Michelangelo’s arguments until the piano comes to a stop at 'S’un spirto, s’un voler duo cor governa' ('one single spirit, one will commands two hearts'). Well maybe Cavalieri wasn’t ready for that subordination, so the piano races to escape once more, but this time the voice catches up after just two bars. The piano stops again three bars later, but now up a tone. Britten is literally cranking up the tension. Compromise seems to have been struck as the voice offers some syncopation and the piano does not halt playing like it had before. The vocal line now stretches over two bars instead of one. It is a more comfortable legato delivery and matches the piano phrasing. Britten paints a floating vocal line reminiscent of the flight in Sonnet XXX when both lovers flew together. The only thing left for the lover to do is ask 'E sol l’isdegnio il puo rompere e scione?' ('Can paltry anger break and dissolve it?'). The piano ends as if it has run out of battery, no longer able to offer a counter argument.

Sonetto XXIV (circa 1530)
This poem follows the same rhyme scheme as the previous sonnet. The beloved’s beauty is a reflection of nature and heaven corresponding to the artist of the first song whose work reflects himself. Britten may have ordered the songs thus to enjoy that arc. Unlike the previous songs, the beloved, appearing kind and sending sweet glances, seems to encourage a union and the possibility of spiritual fulfilment. It is the only one of Britten’s sonnet selection which was not written for Cavalieri.

This song ends Britten’s journey towards the fulfilment two people can achieve in a relationship. There is no fanfare. Instead the music is reminiscent of a ceremony. A slow and noble piano introduction rises until the vocal part takes over at the highest point and declares the devotion both have for each other. The lovers are united. However, even after the cajoling and convincing Britten allows them musical independence as if the comfort of being in a union grants each individual total freedom of expression without the fear of losing the other.

In bar 28 the voice and piano finally join together: 'L’amor mi prende, e la beltá mi lega' ('Love takes me prisoner, and Beauty binds me'). I cannot help but think of Britten and Pears refreshing their commitment to each other every time they performed this line. (I have a similar thought when singing Canticle 1: 'I gave him all my vows; I gave him songs, he gave me length of days'.)

The piano’s last phrase answers the lover’s final question: 'Qual uso o qual governo al mondo niega, Qual crudelta per tempo, o qual piu tardi, ca si bei viso morte non perdoni?' ('What cruelty now or ever to come, could prevent Death from sparing such a lovely face?'). Having broken free of physical limitations, it ascends towards the heavenly goal of love.

Five Chinese Lyrics (Arthur Oldham)
These five songs (setting translations of unknown poets) were composed in 1945 while Arthur Oldham was studying under Britten. The songs are heavily influenced by Britten’s style, and I think, Pears’ voice. The vocal line follows a very Brittenish path; clever use of tempo and rhythm, and a wide vocal range, over an evocative, sometimes percussive accompaniment. The famous duo performed the songs several times, and recorded three of them. When the songs were published in 1951, Oldham gifted a score to Britten and Pears with the inscription:

To Peter and Ben,
in deepest gratitude for so many wonderful performances.
Arthur, 28.5.51

Under the pondweed
There are competing realms in this song; the fish in their murky, muddy, dark world, and the King celebrating in the heavens, basking in the sunshine of Hao, the expansive and limitless sky. Humans could not be higher than the sky, so kings would often use Hao in their names and claim ancestry to the legendary ruler, Fuxi. Their rank above the hoi polloi is thus assured by nominative determinism. Oldham depicts the atmosphere and comfort of these different realms in a rather ingenious way. While the King is in total unison with his accompaniment, the fish are always just out of step with the piano, and the dragonflies flit between the two.

The herd boy’s song
The daily task of taking your ox to pasture does not seem to be a chore for this young herdsman. He is happy whatever the weather to steer his ox to food in the morning, and in the evening hitch a lift home on the fattened ox’s back.

The boy’s playful character and jaunty step are infectiously captured in the opening bars. As the companions walk side by side, the boy must take more steps than the ox. The lumbering ox a steady 2 in a bar, while the boy needs 3. This alternating step transforms to depict the rain and, when the boy finally falls asleep, the comfortable journey home.

If ever a song could capture that millisecond of contentment before a responsible thought can reenter the mind, this is it. The simple opening of repeated G major chords puts us at ease instantly. This comfort is not lost despite the supplanting chromatic movements. The briefness of moment, and liberty’s stretched triplets only further celebrate the ecstasy.

The pedlar of spells
The introduction to this song somehow sounds wrong. The ear struggles to discern what is actually composed. Its secco nature and sleight of crossing hands imitates the deception practised by the Pedlar. Once he is at work, the piano part becomes a little clumsy. Perhaps he is better with the visual aspect of the charade than the wording of the spell. In any case it is certain he cares not for the result of his magical promises as long as he can drink himself into an oblivion on the proceeds. It is his apprentice I feel sorry for.

A gentle wind
The song opens in a refreshing, calm pastoral scene but memories and delusion soon creep into mind. Oldham twists the knife on the serenity by shifting up a semitone to F sharp minor and forcing the vocal line to jerk and leap unexpectedly when sights and sounds are unexplained; the haunting voice, the skulking shadow. Even the comfortable memory of being served food and wine is jarred by the disquiet of clashing semitones and tones between the pastoral piano and the more frantic vocal line. One feels these to be the sentiments of someone who turned their back on material wealth and privilege but perhaps not willingly.

Tom O’ Bedlam’s Song (Richard Rodney Bennett)
The anonymous text was probably written in the early 1600s. The term 'Tom O’ Bedlam' was used to refer to wandering beggars who suffered from or feigned mental illness. After the dissolution of the religious houses the numbers of such beggars increased. Some may have been former inmates of the Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam). This institution began as a poor house in 1247. By the early 1400s it specialised in caring for and treating the mentally ill. It is the world’s oldest psychiatric institution and its name became synonymous with madness. Beggars from Bedlam were so common that Shakespeare disguised Edgar as one in King Lear:

Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul
Fiend hath led through fire and through flame …
… Do poor Tom some
Charity, whom the foul fiend vexes.
(Edgar, Act III: iv King Lear)

Composed when Richard Rodney Bennett was only 25 years old, Tom O’ Bedlam’s Song was commissioned by Peter Pears, to whom it is also dedicated. The first performance was given in Edinburgh in November 1961 when Pears was joined by the celebrated cellist Joan Dickson. (The Dickson family is a very musical one. The pianist on this album is Joan’s nephew, Malcolm Martineau).

Tom O’ Bedlam’s Song is composed in a twelve tone serial style however the song’s underlying lyricism gently disguises the serial technique. No one tone or tonality dominates the piece but performing it, I experience the feeling of a minor tonality despite the dissonance of clashing semitones.

All twelve tones sound in the opening bar. The voice opens all but one verse with a declamation; the opening line yelled on one pitch. Over the next few bars the remaining eleven tones are sung, usually ending on a pitch which did not appear elsewhere in the phrase. This emphasised atonality further confuses the ear as it searches for some resolution to the declamation.

The semitone clashes between voice and cello are harsh, but as they reoccur their effect turns from musical to something more like the mental anguish that Tom endures. His sense of reality after years in Bedlam is off balance and he speaks in something akin to riddles. His reactions to what he sees are unpredictable. Bennett’s twelve tone style is extremely effective at portraying this. Tom’s method of begging is to proclaim his harmlessness. Through his song we learn how his personal history landed him in this lowly position. We also see evidence of his education, and his visionary perspective. The literary critic Harold Bloom called this poem ‘the most magnificent Anonymous poem in the language.’ Bennett’s setting captures and even relishes in Tom’s poetic humanity and fear.

Songs of the Zodiac (Geoffrey Bush)
Composed in 1989, Geoffrey Bush's Songs of the Zodiac are dedicated to the memory of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten whose music and performances had so often inspired him. Their first performance was given by Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson on 20 March 1990 in Wigmore Hall, London, at a concert to celebrate the composer’s 70th birthday. Bush’s song style is very economical yet passionate, humorous while lyric and melodic. His keys shift quickly, chromatics drive the harmony to sometimes unexpected places, and the word setting is always sympathetic to both the meaning of the word and the pleasure of singing it.

The, quite quirky, poems by David Gascoyne, allowed Bush to delve into his imagination for ingenious solutions to the odd topics. The characters of the poems are not true representations of the Zodiac signs. Gascoyne sometimes references their mythological properties, but generally describes the terrestrial actions of the creature.

In a further quirk Bush instructs the accompanist to announce the title of each song before starting, a simple act I find very effective in performance.

Aries: The Ram
The song opens with a unison dash down the keyboard followed by a declamatory introduction to the Ram’s magnificent leap. But just as pure peace could bring the song to an end, Bush includes a warning interlude; a descending clashing scale. For like headstrong Absalom, whose golden skin sways gently to a calm siciliana, the Ram hangs in the heavens. Bush closes the song with an echo of the initial dash this time in a heavenly direction, reminding us to look before we leap.

Gemini: The Twins
Castor and Pollux may be identical in appearance but in Gascoyne’s interpretation the fighter and the rider barely know each other and enjoy no other link beyond their symmetry. Bush however allows the two estranged brothers to share the piano’s simple but shifting harmony. The left hand melody shadows the vocal line, lengthening into a hesitant echo every few bars as if the twins speak over each other.

Taurus: The Bull
The bull in this poem is not the beautiful white bull Zeus became, but rather a dull beast, foaming at the mouth. The lumbering repeated piano music ploughs heavily through this song. It only rests to contemplate the demeaning and monstrous tasks undertaken by this bull. The piano and voice then thrust to their highest notes before blood is spilt.

Cancer: The Crab
Gascoyne’s short description of the Crab is purely physical but Bush turns this short poem into a minacious song. The inspired accompaniment depicts the scurrying movement of the Crab, and its sudden halt lends the final line of the poem, which is unaccompanied and spoken, a sinister and dismissive air.

Leo: The Lion
The powerful creature depicted here is not the beast Hercules defeated but rather the king of an earthly savannah; as small on the plain as the sun is in the sky. The accompaniment, a drop of two tones within repeated chords, makes me think of the lion’s rolling shoulders as he tours his kingdom. Only as the bright flowers dot the ground does the piano smirch the song with a punctuated leap of register.

Virgo: The Virgin
Gascoyne may have intended this Virgin to maintain her innocence, but Bush had other ideas. With one repetition of 'chastity' Bush creates a delicious subversive twist. The pastoral scene, beautifully flowing in the music, disguises the maiden’s thoughts. She appears satisfied in her garden. But actually she is preparing a wreath for the day her chastity is gone. The postlude’s syncopated chords herald the carnal pleasures she dreams of enjoying.

Libra: The Scales
Libra is the only inanimate object among the Zodiac signs, but Gascoyne personifies it, adding a blindfold to Pomeroy’s figure of Justice. The dotted rhythm illustrating the certainty of fate at the beginning of the song slowly morphs into the gentle, final balancing of the scales. The range of the song narrows towards the final bars as judgement is decided. Finally resting on an F natural the unjust man receives the sentence he deserves.

Scorpio: The Scorpion
The scorpion is a scourge of both gods and man, stunning in more ways than one. The song’s opening bar trumpets the beauty of this shellac syringe. The rest lays out the nervous steps necessary to reach freedom from fear of a sting. Bush’s dry yet tender tiptoe provides the platform to leap from the wasteland.

Sagittarius: The Archer
Gascoyne introduces us to a junior Sagittarius in this poem, a boy preparing to defend and impress his father. Bush offers a swift accompaniment to match the boy’s enthusiasm which forces the boy (and the singer) to grunt as the arrow is released. Like the leap of the Ram, Bush allows the arrow to take flight at speed, up and high. Sadly the boy’s aim is untrue, and the arrow cascades uselessly to earth.

Capricorn: The Goat
A floating unaccompanied voice slowly gathers pace until tripping over itself in a lamentable way. When the piano finally enters, it takes over the dotted motif and totters to the end of the song. But one cannot expect a perfect step from a goat with the tail of a fish.

Aquarius: The Water-Carrier
It is not certain who the water bearer is, but it is not the handsome Ganymede. Gascoyne describes a man, gnarled and strained, from whose pot spills something unknown. Bush conveys the nervousness of the observer in the introduction, a unison vocal line of triplets and duplets followed by an unresolved leap of a sixth. Just who is he and what is he spilling? The voice and piano diverge when the liquid is falsely identified as seawater. Its classification remains a mystery.

Pisces: The Fish
For the final sign Gascoyne once again offers a less mythological character in favour of a semi-earthly mix of fish and siren. The fish soar through the water, from the spume to the still deeps where, if pursued, no man could survive. Bush lets the pianist do the musical somersaults as the voice rushes like an excited commentator. But even if those fish sing, no man listens.

Robin Tritschler © 2024

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