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Songs of the Halflight
The selection of Nocturnes by English composers John Dowland, Benjamin Britten and Lennox Berkeley presented on this CD finds its start at the end of the Elisabethan age: With his “Bookes of Songes or Ayres”, among others, the composer and lutist John Dowland (1562/63–1626) produced a wealth of melancholy songs which, through their close relationship to the poetry, reflect a common emotional state of being at the end of the Tudor period. In an essay about melancholy dating from 1586, Timothy Bright describes the sufferings of persons plagued by melancholy: loneliness, mourning, crying; a fearful state in which the mind has deviated from reason; the cause of which is often an unhealthy balance of the humours.
Dowland’s works belong to this period in 16th and 17th century England, where artists used melancholy in particular as a source for creative invention. Altogether, eighty-seven of these Songs and Ayres have been preserved. To some extent they still remain true to the structure of the many-voiced polyphonic song; however, the “modern” arrangement of a solo song accompanied by an instrument is what gives the collection its unique character. True to the Renaissance idea this music is a music of the spheres, meant to express the harmony of the cosmos. Dowland is aware of music’s effects. Playing and listening is medicine for the restless soul; it gives voice to the melancholy state of mind and offers relaxation of the intellectual tensions arising from idleness and inactivity. Dowland’s “remedy” needs no extra frills to cut to the core. The music charms and relaxes at the same time, its genius arises from its simplicity.
The Ayre for solo voice accompanied by lute (here transcribed for the guitar) uses the poetic content as its means of expression. The guitar accompanies and underlines the text; the beautiful, often nearly folk-song-like melodies are always means of declamation. Dowland’s great contemporary William Shakespeare expressed his admiration for the composer by creating a memorial to him while still alive in his poem “The Passionate Pilgrim”: “Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch / Upon the lute doth ravish human sense.”
This quatrain builds the bridge so to speak between Dowland’s Renaissance songs and the English music of the 20th century: 400 years after the birth of John Dowland Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) picks up the melody of Dowland’s Come Heavy Sleep and uses it for his Nocturnal op. 70 for solo guitar (1963). This small master piece among Britten’s works is more than a homage to his ingenious predecessor: by citing the old musical language he illustrates the beauty and significance of this music for our time, while at the same time paving the way for his own language.
Britten analyses the various elements of the Dowlandian soul remedy, he selects single motives and moments, and interprets it for the listener by letting him feel the natural power of this remedy. The movement titles of the Nocturnal show on which of the facets of the Dowlandian cosmos Britten wants to focus the attention:
In the first movement, Musingly, the theme of Come Heavy Sleep is given an alienated feel through altered intervals, thus serving as a gloomy presentiment of what’s ahead. From Very agitated, an excited movement with triolic motives, there is a smooth transition to Restless—Britten creates the peculiarly unstable, troubled atmosphere by contrasting rhythmical values in the various voices: even-numbered figures are set in contrast to odd-numbered.
The fourth movement is headed Uneasy. The fast 32nd-note motives eliminate any sense of safety and comfort: nor does the fast and long melody-run bring any relief, but just urges on the course of the composition. March-like brings security and stability with its strict and repeated rhythm. But the listener is not left with a sense of military pomp or sternness; he rather notices a tongue-in-cheek playfulness.
In the sixth movement, Dreaming, soft harmonies alternate with hovering flagellate-passages. Gently rocking has a song-like feel, modest and calming, thus preparing for the climax: a vigorous Passacaglia whose constantly repeated figure in the bass has been taken from Dowland’s lute-tabulature, while the fourth-motif of the melody is made up of the structural notes of the sequence “That living dies” (“possess my tired thoughtworn soul, / That living dies”). The rhythm becomes more and more animated, the density of the voices increases until finally the motifs come to a rest and form the starting point of the Nocturnal: A solo arrangement of Dowland’s song Come Heavy Sleep appears in the final movement, Slow and quiet. The form of the composition, therefore, corresponds to the classical theme and variations but in reversed order: the variations lead to the starting theme. The first performance of the Nocturnal took place on June 12th, 1964 at the Aldeburgh-Festival initiated by Britten, with Julian Bream as guitarist.
In 1964 Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903–1989) composed the Songs of the Half-Light op. 65 to poems by Walter John de la Mare (1873–1956), written for Julian Bream and the tenor Peter Pears. The intention and effect of these songs are entirely different than in the works of Dowland: they possess a catalytic effect, as if leading to a different sphere. Voice and guitar are equally important: they each set their own accents and follow their own thoughts, the starting point of which is always the poetry. Berkeley is always conscious of the time period he’s working with, he contrasts the lyrics of the poet and writer Walter de la Mare with the present—how would a contemporary of de la Mare have set his poetry into music?
De la Mare was—because of the delicate colours in his poems—known as the “poet of the green and silver”. Influenced by E.A. Poe he carries on the tradition of the romantics. Stephen Spender calls him the “most dreamy and most worldly innocent of all poets”. His poems are lyrical expressions of equilibrium, of fleeting charm and enchantment, as unsettling as they are delighting. De la Mare’s Songs of the Half-Light have been taken from different collections of his poems: Rachel and All That’s Past are part of “The Listeners and Other Poems” (1912), Full Moon belongs to “Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes” (1919). The Fleeting has been taken from “The Fleeting and Other Poems” (1933), and The Moth is one of the poems which de la Mare wrote to drawings of the twelve-year-old Pamela Bianco edited under the title “Flora: A Book of Drawings” (1919).
© Johannes Hüttenmüller 1998
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