The Holy Sonnets of John Donne
fling us into altogether a darker world. The set dates from 1945 when Britten had returned from his self-imposed American exile. The war was over. On his return, he (with, amongst others, Yehudi Menuhin) took part in a visit to a recently liberated concentration camp. The dark, serious songs of the Donne set seem to rise from this appalling experience of human cruelty. The poetry is of an older age, and deals with the struggle to make sense of human sexuality and fallibility in a world dominated by inhuman doctrine and hierarchy. God stands at once both distant and personal; faith is sorely tested, but remains secure. Britten finds here fertile ground. This is a profound and intellectual work, and makes great demands on both performers and audience. I find it hugely moving to perform, feeling that we and the audience have travelled a significant path together. The symmetry of the work is clear and effective. We begin with a strident, sweeping vocal line set against the rhythmic heartbeat in the piano. We shall re-meet this vocal line in the passacaglia of the last movement ('Death, be not proud') where the melodic resolution of the span of the minor ninth to octave is mirrored by the harmonic resolution from B minor to major. This declamatory, fearful, almost empty (two-part writing, by and large) opening movement leads us to the first fast movement ('Batter my heart'). The poet begs to be overwhelmed by the divine, so that his earthly preoccupations—surely devilish work—should be drowned in a sacred love. The terror of his helplessness when confronted by his human passions is mirrored in mood and motif in the eighth song ('Thou hast made me') where the melodic shape of 'Batter my heart'—three descending notes followed by a rising fourth—is reversed. Within these four symmetrical outer movements the inner five distil their shapes and structure from the outer shell. 'O might those sighes and teares' uses exactly the same melodic shape as 'Batter my heart', but Britten plays with crushing seconds to sigh and weep with the guilty lover. Agitation and despair return in 'Oh, to vex me', with a piano part composed almost entirely of seconds and fourths. The poet bewails his own hypocrisy: preaching one day, sinning the next. Rising fourths underpin What if this present. The sentiment feels uncomfortable and logically flawed: beauty can only be an outward manifestation of goodness, wicked souls are housed in ugly bodies. But the pillow-talk insincerity seems to emphasise the falsity of the sentiment. There is no hint of insincerity in 'Since she whom I loved'. Donne had risked his life and soul for the love of Anne More (grand-niece of Sir Thomas); this sonnet is a product of his grief at her death. Britten’s treatment is tender, rich and compassionate. It is the heart of the work, and a glorious song. Britten puts rests in the vocal line in, at first sight, unusual places, avoiding the obvious breathing places, or the natural ebb of syntax. Over a rocking triplet rhythm of softly shifting major chords, the result is an unbreakable extended vocal line arching over time. Trumpets peal in shimmering fourths in 'At the round earth’s imagined corners'. There is something in this song that has echoes of 'Oh my Black soule!': the slow-moving tempo, the pivot of F sharp, the death-bed setting, the arpeggiated figuration. After the desperate, breathless 'Thou hast made me', 'Death, be not proud' (one of Donne’s most well-known poems) is a homage to Purcell. Britten (and Tippett) had been bringing the work of Purcell to public attention, and both composers found themselves deeply affected by this meeting over the centuries. 'Death, be not proud' is set over a ground bass of five bars' length. Britten's working—especially the delightful refusal to conform to the metrical beginnings and endings of the bass—mirror Purcell's genius when working in this form.
from notes by James Gilchrist © 2012