About this Recording
8.573080 - DOVE, J.: Song Cycles - All You Who Sleep Tonight / Out of Winter / Ariel (English Song, Vol. 23) (Booth, Bardon, Spence, Matthews-Owen)
English 

Jonathan Dove (b. 1959)
All You Who Sleep Tonight: Song Cycles

 

For a composer so closely associated with the human voice, it is surprising how rarely we see Jonathan Dove’s song cycles in recital programmes, especially when we consider the unique, and enviable position he occupies as a composer with an immediately appealing sound-world. His scores are always fresh, unique and challenging, yet can be appreciated on a first hearing. Not often the case with contemporary music.

Dove is one of the most resourceful, and successful, opera composers currently at work and, like Benjamin Britten before him, it is clear that his mind is never far from the theatre, when setting words for voice and piano. His knowledge of the expressive potential of song is rooted in his own experiences, early in his professional career, as an opera repetiteur and concert accompanist.

It was during rehearsals for Dove’s community opera The Palace in the Sky (2000) that the composer met, and worked closely with, the late English tenor Sir Robert Tear (1939–2011). The singer was a kindred spirit and polymath; extremely well read, a keen artist, as well as a published author of poetry and two volumes of memoirs. Tear was one of the great song recitalists of his generation, and excelled in the scores of Benjamin Britten, a composer with whom he enjoyed a close association, having created rôles in The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son. Tear was long associated with Britten’s song cycle Winter Words. It was a score the tenor would turn to throughout his career, finding Britten’s leaner than usual treatment of Thomas Hardy’s words, and its subject matter, compelling. It is apt then, that Tear chose to write his own poetic response to this cycle, in collaboration with Jonathan Dove. Out of Winter was given its première by Tear and Dove at the Spitalfields Festival, December 2003.

The most striking similarities between the Dove and Britten cycles include a bleak opening song, where light fades, and a recurring motif in the piano, continuing almost hopelessly, until the strident flutter of the linnet bird reminds us that some fragment of life remains in this stark landscape. As in Britten’s Winter Words, Tear and Dove set the second song of Out of Winter on a train, but our protagonist here ponders his own existence, rather than the innocence of a fellow passenger, as we hear in Hardy’s poem. Tear’s train journey is rather monotonous. Our man, alone on the train, ponders his life and meets a woman, whom he marries. In no great time, she is gone, and we know very little about her. However, there is no sense of tragic loss. Life continues, and one feels that a ticket for another train was purchased not long after this journey’s end, with another companion sought, resulting in, we hope, a more fruitful partnership. The fourth song in the cycle is the most connected to Britten’s Winter Words, featuring the vicar from Hardy’s The Choirmaster’s Burial. The remaining songs in this cycle have a more optimistic, even mystical, theme than Britten’s and Hardy’s, with Dove’s score culminating in a moment of dramatic epiphany, set, to our ears, in a vast and resonant cathedral. Sentiments are boldly expressed and clarified, before all rises upwards, with certainty, to the heavens.

Any sense of mysticism is dashed immediately in the opening of Dove’s three-song cycle Cut My Shadow. For this cycle, given its première in 2011, Dove turns to the gritty realism of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1898–1936). The English translations are by Gwynne Edwards.

The first song of this work, Surprise, is heart-breaking in its realization of Lorca’s own fate. The poet, a member of the Generation of 27, was executed in 1936 by nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. Lorca’s remains were never found, which makes hearing his own words in this poem, terrifying, and tragically prophetic:

He lay dead in the street
With a Knife in his heart
And no one knew him

The second song, The Guitar, is very misleading. A gently lilting opening theme in the piano develops to become a monotonous and inescapable torment. For one moment only are we allowed a sense of comfort: the distant recollection of warm sands in the south and white camellias. The final Song of the Dry Orange Tree offers no respite. The same mood of real fear, and a need for justice and liberation, dominates. The song pleads for freedom from anguish, and there is a hopeless sense of defeat and tiredness throughout. The accompaniment prods and interjects—‘liberation’, when it comes, is swift. Dove maintains a constant unease, and longing for a homeland in these songs. They are unique in his catalogue of song cycles, so far, for their unyielding tragedy

In contrast to the fevered reality of Cut My Shadow, Dove’s cycle for unaccompanied soprano, Ariel, returns to a magical character from a mystical world, who has been an inspiration to numerous composers through the centuries. Shakespeare’s Tempest is a work infused with music: the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. In any production of the play, the spirit Ariel has three songs to sing: Come unto these yellow sands, Full Fathom Five and Where the bee sucks. Dove sets these words in Ariel, but also passages which Shakespeare did not expect to be sung, creating a fuller character portrait of an elusive and magical creature.

The first movement Come unto these yellow sands establishes a calm, which is soon pulled away as Ariel accounts for actions during the storm in the second movement, leading to ‘Full fathom five’. The third movement, a mournful vocalise, precedes an exchange with Prospero, who has promised freedom, before the concluding movement and the final liberation of Ariel, whose immense relief is marked with a sharp intake of breath, in ‘Where the bee sucks’. The cycle of five songs was first performed in 1998 by the soprano Katie Tearle, for whom it was written, at the De La Warr Pavilion in Dove’s fascination with the human spirit, its strengths and frailties, is beautifully captured in his cycle of thirteen miniatures All You Who Sleep Tonight setting the words of Vikram Seth. The Philadelphia Daily News stated: ‘Certainly not since Byron has anyone been more elegantly and literally amusing in verse.’ Dove responds with his own very real sense of drama, and dark comedy, in his musical illumination of these touching texts.

Seth’s All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990) is in five sections: Romantic Residues (feelings of love, their effects and aftereffects); In Other Voices (viewpoints of people in other times and places); In Other Places (places and people encountered whilst travelling); Quatrains (four-line poems on themes as diverse as insomnia and religious hypocrisy) and Meditations of the Heart (featuring the title poem All You Who Sleep Tonight).

The work also gave the composer the opportunity to write a work to perform himself with one of his favourite collaborators, British mezzo-soprano Nuala Willis, for whom Dove nearly always writes a rôle in his stage productions. He wanted to create a work that captured the unique nature of this singer, a versatile performer of serious opera and cabaret songs, that could be sung somewhere between a nightclub and the Wigmore Hall. Willis and Dove gave the first performance of the cycle at the Almeida Theatre, London, in 1996. The score is dedicated with love and gratitude to Jonathan Kent.

Dove chose to set eight of the Quatrains (Telephone, God’s Love, Dark Road, Door, Night Watch, Condition, Prandial Plaint, Interpretation), two from Romantic Residues (Across, Mistaken), one from In Other Voices (Soon) and two poems from Meditations of the Heart (Voices and All You Who Sleep Tonight). The subject of each setting is painfully real. It celebrates all facets of the human condition, good and bad.

The cycle opens with Condition. A breathily excited, almost desperate urge, to declare undying love, should the world’s end be close. If Armageddon is escaped, however, then this declaration can wait… One cannot but help be reminded of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, as we overhear a dreamy musing, in Telephone, before its ringing tone snaps us back into an edgy reality. In Mistaken, a breezy encounter between two young lovers, meeting for the first time in a library, bears witness to a mutual realization that it was what it was, nothing deep or meaningful, and both go their separate ways, a little wiser.

In God’s Love we hear another kind of wisdom, indeed surety, begin to crumble in the voice of an over zealous member of the congregation, accompanied by an equally robust organist. A brilliantly realized vignette, with poet, and composer, in joyful, mutual, scepticism. The penultimate song Soon is by far the most substantial in this set. A patient lies in a hospital bed, with little hope of healing. With every last fibre of strength, they beg not to be left alone. There is a deep despair in the present, yet a brilliant hope that things will improve, if not in this life, then the next.

I like to think this final wish is honoured, as the final title song of this aphoristic set sits upon a star-like accompaniment, reinforcing the underlying theme of Seth’s writing throughout this collection: we are never alone on life’s journey, as both visible and invisible forces, and characters, help and guide us:

Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.


Andrew Matthews-Owen


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