Duration: 23 minutes
First performance: 12 November 2006 at the Holywell Rooms, Oxford by Nathan Vale (tenor), Graham Lloyd (piano) and Bob Porter (clarinet).
Commissioned: Nigel and Gilly Lowson on the occasion of their 25th Wedding Anniversary.
- Ionian Song – Cavafy
- When the Moon Sails Out – Garcia Lorca
- Sonnet XI – Jean de Sponde
- Epitaph – Emperor Hadrian
- Reluctance – Robert Frost (withdrawn-see note below)
- When You Are Old – W. B. Yeats
The title ‘On the Wings of Love’ is taken from Plato’s Symposium. In this great socratic dialogue, Plato examined the various forms that love can take, and so, in this set of songs, I have sought to explore this universal theme of ‘Love’. Of course, I am looking at ‘Love’ in its widest possible sense and not just in the realm of human affections.
The first song in the cycle, Ionian Song, is a setting of a short lyric poem by Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933). I have always had a strong affinity with Greece, having visited it on many occasions. Although 2500 years have passed since the time of the ancient Greeks, one feels, even today their palpable presence. Naturally, Cavafy felt this more acutely, and in his poem he suggests, that despite having ‘driven them [the gods] out of their temples’, they are nevertheless, still watching over their land. Musically, I have tried to evoke the timeless atmosphere of ancient Greece in the piano’s opening material. The voice enters with a dramatic recitative that leads to an emotionally charged outburst on the words, ‘the Gods did not die because of this at all’. This gives way to a poignantly lyrical section and to the all-important line ‘O Ionian land, it is you they still love’. The second half of song attempts to capture the stillness of an August morning, when, as through a veil, one can almost see Apollo himself crossing over the Arcadian hills.
By contrast, the second song in the cycle, ‘The Moon Sails Out’, is vibrant and energetic. The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) spent much of his early life in Granada, and from 1909 to 1929 he lived in the small village of Asquerosa in the middle of the Granadan plain. In 1921, he wrote to a friend, “A few days ago a purple-green moon came out over the bluish mist of the Sierra Nevada and in front of my door a woman sang a berceuse that was like a golden streamer entangling the whole countryside. Especially at twilight one lives in the fullest fantasy, a half-erased dream… There are times when everything evaporates and we’re left in a desert of pearl gray, of rose and dead silver. At night our very flesh hurts from so many bright stars and we get drunk on wind and water”. The ‘Moon Sails Out’ was thought to have been written in July 1921. Draped in Surrealist imagery, Garcia Lorca’s poem expresses the joy and excitement of an evening spent amidst a moonlit landscape, in which the comforting world of daylight has been replaced by a nocturnal world of shadows and dreams. However, this world of imagination and fantasy also reveals to the poet a deeper realm of meaning – one that brings him into contact with the infinite and to a true understanding of Plato’s famous phrase.
I discovered the 16th century French poet, Jean De Sponde, quite by accident, whilst rummaging around a second hand bookshop in Pershore. The first translation into English of Sponde’s Poems of Love and Death appeared in 1964, translated by Professor A. J. Steele. In his introduction to the book, he gives a brief account of Sponde’s life. Born in 1557 in the Basque country, Sponde held court offices under Henri VI of France. In 1588, he married Anne Legrand and published his Meditations and later his Amours. The major theme running through the Sonnets d’amour is that of constancy, although Sponde does accept that Love can also be a moral challenge. This is very much in evidence in Sonnet XI. The introduction to this song creates a mood of tranquillity and peacefulness in which the narrator reflects upon the changing nature of his love. Such constancy is evoked in the minimalist figuration of the piano accompaniment. In the second stanza, this serenity is broken as the music gives way to a passionate outpouring of emotion that tries to recaptures something of the ‘burning love’ of youth. But as the narrator reveals, love it was, and love it always will be. The musical language become more overtly chromatic, adding layer upon layer as the song builds to an fff climax and a dramatic release of tension on the words, ‘That, loving you, I love without regret’. Following a brief bridge passage, the song returns to the reflective mood of the opening – a mood that is sustained right up until the coda. Here, the music grows in affirmation reaching a vocal climax on the words ‘My fire, till I am dead, will never die’. After this fortissimo climax, the piano accompaniment continues its relentless figure, slowly decreasing in dynamic intensity as it fades away to a barely audible echo – a reflection upon the eternal nature of love.
The Emperor Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire for 21 years from AD 117 to 138. Hadrian was from all accounts a highly cultured individual who took much pleasure from art. It is also known that he wrote a great deal of poetry, although there are only a few surviving fragments left to us today. One of these fragments is a poem he wrote during the last year of his life. In his Epitaph, Hadrian muses upon the age old question of what happens to the human spirit after its earthly life is over. Although Hadrian spent his whole life exploring ancient mysteries and various religious cults, in the end, he could not find an answer to this ultimate question – nor perhaps can anyone. So in order to allow the words to speak for themselves, I have composed a simple vocal melody that is supported by a chorale-like piano accompaniment. In this way, I have tried in musical terms to articulate the poet’s unanswered question.
The poem ‘Reluctance’ comes from Robert Frost’s first book, ‘A Boy’s Will’, published in 1913 in London. The poem itself was written many years before in 1894 and was the result of an intense personal experience. Frost was deeply in love with Elinor White, whom he had met as a college student. He was convinced even then that he would spent the rest of his life with her, and so took no time in proposing marriage. Sadly for Frost, his proposal was turned down, and in a distressed state he decided to leave his hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts and head for the infamous and dangerous Dismal Swamp that runs along the Virginia-North Carolina border. Such a place he thought would suit his anguished mood. Whether he intended to commit suicide or not, is not really known, but after some time spent travelling he eventually returned to Lawrence. The result of this strange sojourn was the poem ‘Reluctance’, where his obvious disappointment is echoed in a dying landscape. But Frost will not ‘yield with a grace to reason’ and ‘The heart of man’ does not want to give in, and go ‘with a drift of things’. Our inner life may well be irrational and overwhelming at times, but it also refuses to let ‘a love or a season’ pass away. In the poem’s four stanzas I have sought to create a feeling of restlessness in the outer stanzas by providing an energetic vocal line that is underpinned by a pointillistic piano accompaniment. In contrast, the two central verses are much more reflective and questioning in character. The last verse returns to the song’s opening mood and ends with a passionate climax. NB: It is with great sadness that this song has been withdrawn due to copyright restrictions. The trustees of the Robert Frost Estate would not grant their permission for ‘Reluctance’ to be set to music. As a consequence of this unfortunate decision this song will not become available until the year 2033. Robert Frost, would I am certain have thought it appalling that creativity has been stifled in this way.
The last song in this cycle, ‘When you are old’ is a setting of W. B. Yeats’ well-known poem. This poem was a real challenge to set. The seemingly simple poetic form in three four line stanzas belies a subtly changing metre; one that builds in emotional intensity up to the poem’s denouement on the lines, ‘And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars’. The long instrumental opening presents some of the song’s principal thematic ideas and attempts to evoke a heightened mood of subdued intensity in anticipation of the poem’s opening line, ‘When you are old and Gray’.
A programme note
‘On the Wings of Love’ Op.38are all settings by non-English poets. Ionian Song is by Constantine Cavafy. The poet suggests that, in spite of having ‘driven them [The Gods] out of their temples’, they are nevertheless, still ‘watching’ over their ancient land. The music moves from being dramatic to poignantly lyrical; the second half of the song attempting to capture the stillness of an August morning, when, as through a veil, one can almost see Apollo himself crossing over the Arcadian Hills.The Moon Sails Out is an energetic setting of a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. Draped in Surrealist imagery, it expresses the joy and excitement of an evening spent amidst a moonlit landscape in which daylight has been replaced by a nocturnal world of shadows and dreams. The major theme running through Jean de Sponde’s 26 Sonnets d’Amour is that of constancy. The introduction to Sonnet XI creates a mood of tranquillity and peacefulness in which the narrator reflects upon the changing nature of his love. This is evoked in the minimalist figuration of the piano accompaniment. In the second stanza, this serenity is broken as the music gives way to a passionate outpouring of emotion that tries to recapture something of the ‘burning love’ of youth. After an intoxicating middle section, the song builds to a ff climax, with a dramatic release of tension on the words ‘That, loving you, I love without regret’. A return to the reflective mood of the opening is sustained right up until the coda. Here the music grows in affirmation, as the piano accompaniment continues its relentless figure to ffff, slowly decreasing in dynamic intensity as it fades away to a barely audible echo.In his Epitaph, The Emperor Hadrian muses upon the age-old question of what happens to the human spirit after its earthly life is over? Venables has set the words to a simple melody, which is supported by a chorale-like accompaniment and which is also presented both as a prelude for solo clarinet, and a postlude for clarinet and piano. The poem ‘Reluctance’ comes from Robert Frost’s first book, ‘A Boy’s Will’ published in 1913 in London. The poem itself was written many years before in 1894 and was the result of his deep love for Elinor White. Set against a dying landscape, Frost expresses his obvious disappointment following her refusal to take his hand in marriage. Ultimately, Frost will not ‘yield with a grace to reason’. Our inner life may well be irrational and overwhelming at times, but it also refuses to let ‘ a love or a season’ pass away. In W. B. Yeats’s famous poem When you are old Venables evokes a heightened mood of subdued intensity in anticipation of the opening line. The seemingly simple poetic form in three four line stanzas belies a subtly changing metre; one that builds in emotional intensity.