Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Holy Sonnets of John Donne by Benjamin Britten

I have been hard at work learning the music for my master's recital next spring, and because it is on my mind I thought I would introduce you to the "main course" of my recital. I will be singing "The Holy Sonnets of John Donne" by Benjamin Britten. These songs are very challenging and quite beautiful, and I thought I would give you some background info so you can already be thinking about it for next spring (early planning!).

These songs are less accessible than Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, but still very emotional and thought-provoking. John Donne lived from 1572-1631, and as a Roman Catholic at that time was persecuted until he finally joined the Anglican Church. After joining the Church of England he actually became a priest, and is now famous for his poems and sermons.

His Holy Sonnets which Benjamin Britten set deal with his struggle with death and his relationship with God. He sees life as an endless struggle with suffering and sin, in which we can only find peace and redemption if we accept God. John Donne was considered a master of metaphysical poetry in which extended metaphor and imagery are used.

Britten's setting was written for his partner, tenor Peter Pears; one of their many collaborations. He set these shortly after taking a trip through war-torn Germany. During that trip he saw concentration camps, met many survivors, and was moved by the horrors of the post-Nazi regime. Those memories played heavily in his mind as he wrote, as did a fever he was suffering while he composed the last six songs.

Here are the texts for the sonnets which he set (the other sonnets not set to music are also available at the sites linked):

1. Oh my black Soule!
2. Batter my Heart
3. O might those Sighes and Teares
4. Oh, to vex me
5. What if this present
6. Since she whom I loved
7. At the round Earth's imagined corners
8. Thou hast made me
9. Death, be not proud

These are listed in the order of the song cycle, not the order of the sonnets (which you probably figured out by now).

For an example of the song "Thou hast made me" CLICK HERE to hear Ian Bostridge perform with Graham Johnson. This will give you a sample of one of the more biting pieces, and also of the virtuosity of the piece for both the pianist and the singer. There are a few songs like this in the cycle, but also some that are beautifully introspective.

More info:
In depth study by Bryan N.S. Gooch on the cycle
Wikipedia article on John Donne

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