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A Broken Arc

author of text

Unusually for the period Somervell’s song cycles have a narrative thread, which puts them in the tradition of the early Romantic song cycles such as Schubert’s Winterreise. Wordsworth and Shakespeare were his favourite poets, as well as Robert Browning, whose verse he sets in A Broken Arc, which like all his cycles deals with the dual themes of love and death. It was published in 1923 and apart from its dedication to The Society of English Singers nothing has been discovered about the background to its composition or its premiere. For his texts Somervell created an anthology from several sources, using either complete poems or extracts, from The Two Poets of Croisic, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Men and Women, Dramatis Personae, Easter Day and Pippa Passes. The overall title may allude to a line from another poem, Abt Vogler: ‘On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round’.

From them Somervell creates a narrative about a relationship in which both love and friendship are betrayed. On paper the storyline from one poem to another seems tenuous, and in reality only the fifth and sixth songs narrate specific situations. However, by his subtle use of thematic references between songs and the creation of an effective sequence of moods the narrative unity of the work becomes convincing through the music. The first four songs serve to extol the object of the protagonist’s affection and to establish his deep love for her. A sense of ardour characterises ‘Such a starved bank of moss’; in ‘Meeting at night’ there is colourful word-painting in the accompaniment’s evocation of the seascape and the piano also clinches the image of the climactic embrace of the lovers. ‘My star’ has an ecstatic quality created through the grace notes in the accompaniment figure, and the threefold repetition of the final phrase ‘I love it’. His love for her is further emphasised in ‘Nay but you, who do not love her’ with yet another passionate climax on the word ‘love’ heightened by a rising chromatic scale in the harmony underpinning it.

However, ‘The worst of it’ brings an abrupt change of mood with the discovery of his love’s infidelity. This song is the heart of the cycle in which the vocal line is more arioso than song and the music takes on a mood of disbelief and sadness as the hero muses on events. The nadir of his despair is reached after the words ‘There’s a heaven above may deserve your love’, when an arpeggiated chord of unutterable sadness occurs and lingers on a dissonance before resolving. In ‘After’ he has wreaked terrible vengeance, but the rival he has killed is revealed as his childhood friend. The song opens in the manner of a recitative, then the accompaniment takes on the sombre tread of a funeral processional. A touching recollection of their youthful companionship is accompanied by a quotation of the theme representing childhood happiness from Somervell’s choral setting of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality. However, reality returns as the man orders that the corpse’s face be covered: a spine-chilling moment which the singer is instructed to perform ‘with a shudder’.

In the wake of this double disaster, ‘From Easter Day’ shows the man turning to God for solace in a setting which makes thematic references to the two previous songs. This paves the way for the cathartic climax to the cycle as the shimmering accompaniment and affirmative vocal line of ‘The year’s at the spring’ indicate that his troubled soul has found peace.

from notes by Andrew Burn © 2003


Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel; Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad


No 1: Such a starved bank of moss
Track 1 on CDA67378 [1'36]
No 2: Meeting at night
Track 2 on CDA67378 [1'39]
No 3: My star
Track 3 on CDA67378 [1'28]
No 4: Nay but you, who do not love her
Track 4 on CDA67378 [1'39]
No 5: The worst of it
Track 5 on CDA67378 [3'15]
No 6: After
Track 6 on CDA67378 [3'38]
No 7: From Easter Day
Track 7 on CDA67378 [2'15]
No 8: The year's at the spring
Track 8 on CDA67378 [1'20]

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