The Music of Poetry – An Introduction to the Song Cycle Love’s Voice

When the composer Gerald Finzi was asked why the poetry of Thomas Hardy was so important to his song writing, he talked about a ‘compulsive chosen identification’ – the need to express something of his inner life by linking it with that of the poet’s. In my own way, it was clear from my first reading of the poetry of John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), that I too had found that ‘chosen identification’. It was an empathy borne from a shared philosophical outlook on life and a common conviction about the nature and purpose of artistic endeavour. Symonds was a deeply introspective man who was naturally drawn to existential reflection. He was acutely aware of the transience of life, and, as his poetry reveals, he ardently believed in such things as eternal and spiritual values. In particular, he handled with uncommon sensitivity the universal themes of love, and death.

As a composer, I believe as Vaughan Williams did, that ‘the object of art is to stretch out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty. The duty of the composer is to find the mot juste. It does not matter if this word has been said a thousand times before as long as it is the right thing to say at the right moment’. The song cycle Love’s Voice is my attempt to express something of these ‘ultimate realities’ through the words of another.

To capture a poem’s essence, is to discover, as Symonds puts it, the ‘hidden music’ that is woven into the fabric of all true poetry. A further dimension can be added by the composer’s skilful placing of each song within the cycle, so that in performance they combine to act upon the other and so produce a single effect from a seemingly continuous narrative stream.

When embarking upon the composition of a song as opposed to a purely abstract work such as a string quartet, my general approach is in the first instance, to immerse myself in the atmosphere and imagery of the words, and then to allow the free flow of my musical imagination to create a complex mood. This mood is built up from variety of musical metaphors. Such metaphors or symbols connect the external world with the internal realm of self, and are in my opinion the key to unlocking the ‘hidden music’ that lies beneath the surface of the words. For example, by using oscillating triadic harmonies in the central section of the song ‘The Invitation to the Gondola’, I hope not only to portray the image of the beauty of Venice at sunset, but also to connect inwardly with the states of mind and feelings it inspired – the timeless beauty of nature captured in a timeless moment.

Symonds’ Venetian poems are to be found in his second volume of verse New and Old, within a section called ‘In Italy’. Of the five poems that he entitles ‘In Venice’ I chose to set three: The Invitation to the Gondola, The Ponte Di Paridiso,- subtitled Prelude (this poem also appears in Animi Figura under the title The Passing Stranger), and In the Small Canals (re-titled Love’s Voice by myself). The only poem that does not form part of this series is Fortunate Isles. With its dreamy sunlit atmosphere and allusions to water and golden sands,poetic licence suggested that Venice may well have been the source of its inspiration.

In the opening song Fortunate Isles, the image of water is given a more turbulent treatment. The rippling piano accompaniment that sustains the mood is not the tranquil waters of Venice, but rather the drama of sea sprays dashing against a headland rock. Above this accompamental figure a sensual vocal line plays out a wistful narrative that tells of a remote and sequestered island where ‘the honey-scented silence broods above the halcyon’s nest’. The two outer stanzas flank a central one that is both slow moving and more contemplative in character. Here, I use much sparser chording and a more simple melodic vocal line in order to mirror the gentle pathos of the words ‘ I shall ne’er with friend or lover / Wander on from glade to glade’. A return of the opening musical idea brings the song’s ternary structure to a satisfactory conclusion.

By contrast The Passing Stranger heralds an altogether different sound world; one that seeks to express the poem’s sense of mystery and ‘other worldliness’. Symonds’ theme is one of disorientation as related by the narrator, who caught momentarily by a ‘fleeting glance’ is transported to an imaginary past world, where the tale that is ‘too deep for utterance’ can be acted out. To capture the poems elusive quality I have used an austere harmonic language built upon chords of the perfect and augmented fifth. Such intervals, as used in the opening of the song, usher in the eternal mystery – the past reaching into the present. The sonnet’s Petrarchian structure has to a large extent, determined the natural flow of the music. Symonds poses a question in the sonnet’s octave that demands to be answered in the sestet. Likewise, in musical terms, it is the quasi-recitative at the beginning of the song that performs this important narrative function. Following two such sections, the music works up to a declamatory vocal climax as the poet calls out to God, in the vain hope that he can assuage his profound feelings of despair and displacement. Symonds finds little consolation, and so the sestet ends in resignation and an overriding feeling of ‘Sehnsucht’. Musically, this is heightened by the use of an extended melisma on the word ‘run’ and by a bitonal accompaniment on the word ‘eternity’.

In The Invitation to the Gondola, Symonds, lost in reverie, evokes Venice as a ‘city seen in dreams’. His fervent invitation is proclaimed in the opening stanza:

Come forth; for night is falling
The moon hangs round and red
On the verge of the violet waters,
Fronting the daylight dead.

Symonds’ penumbrous imagery is used skilfully to evoke a highly charged atmosphere, in which expectancy and amatory desire coalesce. The poem’s rhyming scheme adds to the feeling of forward movement, reaching an almost ecstatic pitch on the final lines:

Come forth; for night is calling,
Sea, city and sky are aglow!

In setting this poem, the six stanzas provided me with an obvious ternary structure, where, in the outer sections, the rapid semi-quavers of the piano accompaniment conjure up the anticipatory nature of the poem. By contrast, the mood of the middle two stanzas changes to one of tranquillity as ‘Bells call to bells from the islands’. Here the harmonic language is enriched, and the introduction of a rocking figure provides just a hint of ‘a breeze from the sea’. The vocal line is much more intimate and reflective, as if in a dream-like state.

Love’s Voice was the first song in this cycle to be written. It was commissioned by my good friend Andrew Milner in 1993, which was by coincidence was also the centenary year of Symonds’ death. The poem is a paean to love in which Symonds re-works the Tennysonian message, ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all’.

Throughout the poem Symonds’ subtle use of alliteration, as revealed in the line ‘Here where with silvery silent sound/ The smooth oars fall’, evokes a strong intimation of the poem’s ‘hidden music’. This is mirrored musically in the piano’s delicately undulating accompanimental figure, capturing before it the shimmering light as it dances upon the water. This gives way to a more anguished section – a vocal out pouring that tries to express something of the despair felt by one who realises that their love is unrequited. In the intentionally understated climax of the fifth stanza the sheer intensity of the dénouement is starkly conveyed in the lines:

I dare not dream thereof; the sting
Of those dead eyes
Is too acute and close a thing
For one who dies.

After a restatement of the song’s opening musical idea, the return of the principal melodic idea leads us into the final verse, and to a declaration of Symonds’ own truth:

Twas better thus toward death to glide
Soul-full of bliss
Than with long life unsatisfied
Life’s crown to miss.

My own ‘chosen identification’ with Symonds has in a very profound way enriched and inspired my creative life. I hope that by setting his poetry to music, I have been able to add yet another layer of meaning to some of those unfathomable mysteries that Symonds was seeking to reveal.

The song cycle received its first performance on 18th March 1995 at Clifton Hill House, Bristol, by the tenor, Kevin McLean-Mair, and the pianist Graham Lloyd. Clifton Hill House was formerly the home of the Symonds’ family, but it is now Bristol University’s premier Halls of Residence. Its present warden Mrs Annie Burnside has been the inspiration behind a massive programme of restoration and refurbishment of its principal buildings, and the above performance was organised as part of the formal celebrations that marked the opening of a new Gothic Library. Before the concert, I was asked to say a few words about my new song cycle and about the poet who inspired it. I remember commenting, that although a little more than a century separated us from his world, it was his special qualities as a human being that stood out as an example of greatness.

His unfailing devotion to the truth, and his fight against hypocrisy and prejudice has, I believe, a particular resonance for our society as it searches for its own meaning.

I would like to end this short introduction by quoting Symonds’ own words. Such inspirational words seek to convey something of life’s mystery and illuminate those noble aspirations that have sustained and united all like-minded individuals through all ages.

“Experience of life, often extremely bitter, at times unexpectedly blissful, has taught me that there is nothing extraordinarily great in the greatest of achievements, nothing mean in the meanest of occupations – briefly that human life is not to be estimated by what men perform, but by what they are.”