Britten and Donne: Holy Sonnets Set to Music
Bryan N. S. Gooch
University of Victoria

Gooch, Bryan N.S. "Britten and Donne: Holy Sonnets Set to Music." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May, 2001): 13.1-16 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-07/gooch.htm>.

  1. Attempts to approach Benjamin Britten's The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Opus 35, whether as performer, listener, or analyst, may well be marked by some unease, for this cycle contains nine of Donne's challenging texts in which the poet, in part, wrestles not only with God but with himself and this world, and which are set to music by a brilliant composer-pianist (I do not use the phrase loosely) for a vigorous and superbly talented tenor (Peter Pears), who had been a major musical collaborator and friend since March of 1934, just over eleven years before the Donne settings were completed. Thought by some to be less accessible than Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Opus 22 (1940) -- the first work to be written especially by Britten for Pears -- the Holy Sonnets display a maturity, a textural unity and complexity, and a sure-footedness and confidence in his singer that one suspects could only have come after the writing of Peter Grimes, Opus 33 (completed in February of 1945 and first performed at Sadler's Wells, London, on 7 June of that year). W. H. Auden, whom Britten had met in 1935, had encouraged Britten and Pears to explore the work of Donne,[1] and after returning from a recital tour as accompanist to Yehudi Menuhin to Germany in the summer of 1945, which included trips to concentration camps at Belsen and elsewhere, playing for survivors of the Nazi wretchedness, Britten plunged into work on texts which had been on his mind for a while,[2] completing all nine settings between 2 and 19 August, as the score records.[3] Clearly, the German experience -- which Britten never forgot, and which affected him profoundly though he chose not to discuss it much, apparently, for the memories of Belsen were doubtless all too painful (Carpenter 228) -- was something of a precipitant, and he worked, as usual, at a rapid pace, the last six songs being written while he suffered from a fever allegedly caused by an inoculation given to him before he left for the Continent (Carpenter 227). The cycle was also to mark the 250th anniversary of Henry Purcell's death (Britten and Pears performed it for the first time in Wigmore Hall on 22 November 1945 [St. Cecilia's Day] ), like String Quartet No. 2, Opus 36, clearly a tribute to Purcell, which was given its premiere by the Zorian Quartet at Wigmore on 21 November, the earlier composer's birthday.[4]

  2. Certainly, Britten's regard for Purcell is undoubted -- there are moments in many of the vocal works that offer points of comparison apart from acuity of treatment of text, for example, his use of dissonance in broken chord / arpeggiated melodic lines, his work with material in Harmonia Sacra,[5] and so on, and the passacaglia (chacony) -- the five-bar ground bass -- in "Death, be not proud" (IX in The Holy Sonnets), like the chacony in the finale of the second quartet, is more than a mere reminiscence. Yet in the end Britten is always himself -- more mannerist (in his diffusion of energy across lines, intervals, rhythms) than his baroque predecessor, especially in The Holy Sonnets, with the poems' own mannerist tendencies embedded in the texts that direct the reader's vision inward and outward, reciprocating, as it were, between thematic (tonal) centres and connotative invitations (and even discordances). While sensing a prompting from Purcell's Divine Hymns, Michael Kennedy rightly points to an affinity with Wolf,[6] though the linkage there, I suggest, goes well beyond a simple unity of voice and piano; further, it embraces earlier nineteenth-century German composers, including Schubert -- especially because of repeated figures in the piano part -- and Schumann -- because of the intense emotional unity of voice and piano and the employment of the piano to introduce and to conclude a song, to suggest /or to finish a mood while the singer, as it were, gives voice to coherent thought (in the middle) arising out of the emotional state.[7]

  3. Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Opus 22, are about love, certainly, but The Holy Sonnets are about far more than just death:[8] they are also about love and faith (human and divine), about sin and guilt, and, towards the end of the cycle, about redemption and transfiguration. What emerges from Britten's contemplations is faith in the love of God, in everlasting life -- the certainty for which Donne, in the midst of Loyolan exercises, was striving. Out of Belsen comes -- ironically, magically, and beautifully -- serene and divine love and life. In the end, one must believe that humanity, despite its own evil and corruption, will survive. Commenting on the somewhat hostile reaction to the introduction of Christianity in The Rape of Lucretia, Opus 37 (first performed on 12 July 1946 -- marking the beginning of Glyndebourne's post-war resurrection), Imogen Holst remarks somewhat trenchantly: "in Britten's mind there was no question of 'dragging in' Christianity: it had been there all the time. He would never have set a cruel subject to music without linking the cruelty to the hope of redemption" (Holst 40). Further, texts suggesting love and reconciliation are found throughout the canon. Britten's ordering of his choice of sonnets provides a clear indication of his thinking:

    Britten's title No. and date in John Shawcross, ed., 
    The Complete Poetry of John Donne
    1. Oh my blacke soule! 163       Feb.-Aug. 1609
    2. Batter my heart 171       1609?
    3. O might those sighes and teares 176       1609-1611?
    4. Oh, to vex me 180       after Jan. 1615
    5. What if this present 170       1609?
    6. Since she whom I loved 178       after Aug. 1617
    7. At the round earth's imagined corners 165       Feb.-Aug. 1609
    8. Thou hast made me 174       1609-1611?
    9. Death, be not proud 167       Feb.-Aug. 1609


  4. The selection and placement of each poem is obviously unique.[10] Note, in particular, the turn from pieces which deal strongly with conscience, unworthiness, and death (1-5) to the personal melancholy of 6 ("Since she whom I loved") -- written by Donne after the death of his wife -- and to the idea of resurrection, which is continued to the end of the cycle. Out of the hideous memory of Belsen and the collective guilt of mankind for such massive cruelty emerges conviction and faith -- an intensely personal testament, it would seem, reflecting the contemplative nature of the texts, and, perhaps for Britten, a kind of personal atonement for a sense of collective guilt. But, of course, this was not the end of his reflections -- the War Requiem, Opus 65, would follow in 1961, with its first performance (conducted by Meredith Davies and Britten) at reconstructed Coventry Cathedral on 30 May 1962.

  5. Voice and piano in this cycle form an organic unit -- rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically they are part of the whole. Indeed, it is difficult to think in terms of an accompaniment in Britten's vocal writing; whether he works with piano, with strings, or with a large orchestra, the linkages and interdependence of parts is undeniable. Further, even when dealing with a set of single songs with different intellectual, emotional, and rhythmic demands, the conception is broad, and thematic and harmonic connections -- some obvious and some subtle -- turn up through the cycle. Britten's sense of form is acute, like his ear for verbal accent and quality of vowels, but he is not a mechanical worker, a slave to formal construct devised for an occasion, nor so hopelessly in the grip of textual representation that the melodic thrust becomes compromised. Certainly, Britten often employs repeated figures and intervals -- the piano here not only can reflect text as well as the voice but, as noted earlier, establishes the emotional base (or bases) for a song so that the words grow out of and reflect the overall mood.[11]

  6. The nature of Britten's approach is established in the first bars of "Oh my blacke Soule!" The piano opens ff with pulsing octaves ( etc.), a rhythm which reflects "summoned" in the first line of the text; the voice begins in bar 3, descending from F# through D and B to E# (i.e., the range of a minor ninth (or augmented octave)), the E# forming a stunning dissonance on "Soule" (bar 4) with the F#s in the piano (which are sustained until bar 11 -- see Ex. 1). The vocal part rises in stages, preserving the anguish of the poet through continued dissonance, until it reaches F# again in bar 8, forming a unison with the piano's continuing F#s; note, too, that the line passes across (with an interruption on G in bar 8) a rising minor ninth, from the E-flat of "death's" to the first syllable of "champion." Here, then, are the harmonic and melodic foundations of the song -- minor ninths, and major and minor seconds. The rising ninth appears again with "Thou art like a pilgrim" in bars 10-11, with "Or like a thief" in bar 15, and in the bass of the piano part in bars 18-19 (with a major ninth sequence occurring in bars 22-23); a descending pattern comes with "execution" (bar 21), an ascending form occurs with "he might be imprisoned" (bars 23-24), and the descending ninth comes back again in "O make thy self" in bars 32-33 (identical here in pitch to the voice part of bars 3-4) and "That being red, it" (bars 40-41). What one has here is a song in which there is not painting of specific words but of the emotional impact of word groups, with particular words highlighted, as it were, as in the case of "Soule" (bar 4), "champion" (bars 8-9), "Thiefe" (bar 15), "damn'd" and "hal'd" (bar 20 -- see Ex. 2), "imprisond" (bars 23-24), "grace" (bar 25), and "white" (bars 42-43). The vocal line takes on, in a way, the nature of declamatory recitative which veers towards lyricism periodically, depending on the words; see, for instance, "Wisheth himselfe . . . prison" (bars 17-19) and "Yet grace . . . beginne?" (bars 25-30). Also notable is the way in which the piano lines support the voice -- the seconds are pervasive, even in the melodic echoes in the bass of bars 18-22; also, mark the way in which the rhythmic pattern moves from octaves to clumped chords (to accompany the reprises of the vocal descent in bar 32) which gradually open upwards (suggesting further tension) to bring back the octaves, though with medial notes (though with no third to offer solace), in bar 40. The affirmation at the end -- "it dyes red soules to white" ("red" reflecting "blushing," "sinne," and the "blood" of Christ) -- is stark, as if to say that in the midst of despair one must accept the promise. The insistence of the pervasive rhythm and the 2/2 pulse is dictated by the first four words; beyond those, which set the mood, the text is moved dexterously so as to preserve the normal verbal accent and to make use of vowel sounds, e.g., "champion" (bars 8-9). Britten's markings are precise and must be followed: consider, for instance, the p offering of "Or like a thiefe, which till death's doome" (bars 15-16, with an emphasis on "doome" -- see Ex. 3) and the contrasting ninth for "execution" (bar 21 -- see Ex. 4).

  7. Let me pause, however, before looking at the settings of the other sonnets in some detail, to note that the ninths and seconds which figure so markedly in "Oh my blacke Soule!" and which give it so much of its tension are also essential features of -- or figure in -- the harmonic fabric of virtually all the songs in the cycle, except that, significantly, the minor ninth does not appear in No. 6, "Since she whom I loved," though the more than casual observer might catch it embedded in bar 15 of the piano part. In No. 2, "Batter my heart," it also crops up in the piano part (see bars 9-10, 14-15, and 25-26) but most obviously in the vocal line with "me new" (bars 10-11). In No. 3, "O might those sighes and teares," in which the seconds (by step) figure so prominently, the ninth is caught between voice and piano, for example, in bars 5, 7, and 27, but, more obviously, echoes the vocal line of bars 3-4 of No. 1 with bass octaves in the piano part in bar 13 (see Ex. 5) and again in bars 15-16 and 21-22. In No. 4, "Oh to vex me" in which seconds play a prominent role in the sixteenth note figuration in the piano part as well as in the vocal line (largely contrasting eighth notes), the minor ninth appears in ascending form with "and today" (bars 36-37) and, with interruption, with "Tomorrow I quake" (bars 42-44, and again, between G# descending to G natural, with decorative interruptions, with "shake with" (bars 64-70). No. 5, "What if this present," displays the ninth ornamented with a trill in the piano part (see bars 1, 2, and 3) and in the voice, with an upper F to E flat line echoing the trill in the piano. Other ornamented variants of the ninth can also be found in the treble of the piano part, for instance in bars 5-6, 7, 11, 13, and 19, while versions of the form in bar 1 appear in bars 12, 23-24, and 27, with the voice part displaying the progression again with "adjudge . . . forgivenes" (bars 18-20). In No. 7, "At the round earth's imagined corners," the ninth (major and minor) appears in the trumpet-call figure from bar 1 on, with the minor version marking bar 12 and bars 20 ff.; significantly, this plea for repentance is built partly on the voice's initial statement; note, too, the movement from "tyrannies" (F) (bar 10) to "God" (F#) in bars 12-13, and again from "But let" (D) (bar 19) -- gradually -- to "of grace" (E) (bar 24). No. 8, "Thou hast made me," displays repeated sequential seconds throughout, and the minor ninth shows in the melodic sweep of the piano part (bars 5-6, 6-8, 8-9, and 12-13, for example) and in vigorously ascending form, with "before . . . "feeble" (bars 38-40). In the last sonnet, No. 9, the seconds are present both in chords and by step, and the minor ninth progression appears ascending and descending -- much more gradually and without angularity -- in the piano part as part of the stately ground bass over which this song is built; even so, it is harmonically heard as a seventh (on the dominant) which resolves easily. It also appears in the beginning of the voice part (bars 5-10) as it reproduces the notes of the ground. In the voice part, again, the ninth is reflected (D#-E) briefly in bars 30-31 and, more obviously, in bars 47-49, with "stroake; why swell'st thou then?" (see Ex. 6) as if to put at rest the anguish which opens the cycle. The voice part (bar 51) once again picks up the melody of the ground with "One short sleep," but, with the confidence of the final two lines of text, the ninth is in evidence only in the piano and not in the voice. Thus, Britten not only uses melodic and harmonic patterns as unifying structural blocks but, always in control of his material, employs them in strategic ways for dramatic purposes. As it stands, this cycle has particular coherence and a direction that absolutely sustains Britten's particular ordering of the poems -- what shows here is also revealed in his handling, for instance, of the quartet, the symphony, and the opera.

  8. Those points on linking elements now established, let me return to look at No. 2, "Batter my heart," and the other sonnets in the cycle. The marked sixteenth-note triplets in the piano (see Ex. 7) set the rhythmic drive for the entire song and appear throughout except for "Yet dearly . . . enemie" (bars 24-25, 27-28). The voice picks up the triplet (in bar 1) with "Batter" but is not restricted to the rhythm, the composer being guided entirely by placement of verbal accents, importance of words, vowel qualities, and so on; the result is the presence, frequently, of hemiolas (cross-rhythms) which, with Britten's characteristic dissonance contribute to the tension as well. Important along the way is the pitch accorded to words (or groups of words) -- note, for instance, "heart" and "God" in Example 7, the note values and reflective melodic shape of line given to "bend Your force, to breake, blow, burn and make me new" (see Ex. 8, and mark the minor ninth), and the quite literal descending sigh with "Oh" (bars 16-17). With "Divorce mee . . ." Donne offers his challenging paradoxes, and Britten continues his triplet sixteenth note chords, in the piano part, but now against repeated rolling arpeggios in the bass as the upper part of the accompaniment rises partly chromatically to conclude the setting in C minor after the dramatic word painting of "ravish" (bars 36-37 -- see Ex. 9).

  9. No. 3, "O might those sighes and teares," is in various ways a beautifully constructed little piece, rather suggestive of a latter day Purcellian miniature. From the first syncopated suspensions in the piano part which anticipate the "sighes" and "teares" of the text (bar 4), the somewhat tortured mood, epitomised in "holy discontent" (bar 9), is perfectly captured; even the slowing drift, (from to ) of the alternating seconds (bar 2) makes this a little gem of word painting and presages a rather more free-flowing pulse which escapes from the insistence of No. 2, for here one moves from 4/4 to 5/4 to 4/4 to 3/4 to 2/4 and so on -- all of the changes governed by the words but with Britten keeping a tight line on the vocal tessitura which only, and therefore obviously, expands its range above F with "hydroptique" (bar 21), "itchy" (bar 24), and "remembrance" (bar 26). The tremolos in the piano part at bars 22, 24, and 26-27 -- all of which involve seconds -- suggest just how close Britten is to the recitative of his notable English predecessor, were it not for some of the harmonies.

  10. The fourth sonnet, "Oh, to vex me," is sprightly, and both voice line and piano part reflect not just specific words but the general state of the poet's mind. Key words here, obviously, are "contraryes" and "Inconstancy," marked by dissonance and by a melodic line which reverses direction (and the leap of a seventh in bar 5 has parallels later) and by the sixteenth-note figures in the piano which nearly always involve a similar change (see Ex. 10). Verbal accent is preserved, and Britten's careful reading of the text is obvious, for example, in his longer note values for "profane [2d syllable] Love" (bars 21-22), "and today in prayers" (bars 36-38), and "court God" (bars 40-41); even more striking is the hemiola beginning on the second syllable of "tomorrow" (bars 40-42) leading to "fear" (bars 45-55) and the subsequent hemiola ending with "rod" (bars 55-56). These cross rhythms not only create a sense of tension -- the pulls are latent in the text -- but also allow the voice to give a sense of moving freely and working into and out of the piano part. Lock-step is never an issue in Britten -- except when it is natural and demanded by the words. Further, the triplet quarter notes in the voice of bars 43, 44, and 46 anticipate the triplet eighths of "like a fantastique Ague" (bars 58-59), which in turn lead to the one real example of pure word painting in the piece (which reminds one, again, of Purcell and Handel) -- triplet melismatic eighths, descending through melodic shakes, given to "shake" (bars 64-70) which also produce cross rhythms of 3 against 4 and 3 against 2, given the piano part, and which come in marked contrast to the earlier part of the setting, which is wholly syllabic (see Ex. 11). Even the piano part ends with chromatic scales in contrary motion (bars 69-70) -- a nice touch.

  11. Note how easily the idea of shaking with fear (at the end of "Oh, to vex me" leads to the question raised in the following sonnet, "What if this present were the world's last night?" Further, the opening two bars in the piano catch the shake, as it were, in the trills, pick up the triplet eighths, and, in the sixteenth-note groups in bars 4 ff., preserve not only triplet rhythms in many cases but display the reversal of direction noted regarding the piano part figures in "Oh, to vex me." The vocal line begins with the anguishing question, moving from D ("What") to G flat "(night?") (bars 3-4 -- see Ex. 12). Again, longer note values and/or marked changes in pitch throw light on major words, e.g. "Christ" (bar 8), "Teares" (bar 12), "Blood" (bar 15), "forgiveness" (bars 19-20, "spight" (bar 21), and "no" (bar 27). Word painting -- again, some would argue, the influence of Purcell, though he was by no means the first or last to use it -- appears with the tortuous triplet melisma of "crucified" (bars 9-10) and in the compelling descending line given to "Teares in his eyes quench the amazing light" (bars 12-14). So striking, too, in this setting is Britten's sudden diminuendo after the second "no" (bar 24): here is the beginning of a change, as the poet works through "idolatrie" (see also "idolatry " in "O might those sighs . . . ," bar 13) and contemplates his "profane mistresses" to reaffirm, as the setting works to a conclusion in a major tonality for the first time in the cycle, that "This beauteous forme assures a piteous mind" (bars 35-38). Through longer note values the pace seems to slow from bar 31 to the end, and after bar 34 the shakes in the piano part are localised in the bass, without the trill, and provide a constant, reassuring, quasi-pedal for the extended tierce de Picardie. Here, too, is the preparation for "Since she whom I loved," No. 6, which follows.

  12. The sixth sonnet Pears sees as "the centre of the cycle. . . . [I]t is the one purely lyrical Sonnet . . . . Britten had not previously made such a highly impassioned utterance, which is yet so surely balanced and logical in structure. No one today [i.e., in the early 1950s] but Britten could have covered such ground in those first twelve bars . . . ."[12] Perhaps it is fair to regard this setting not so much as "the centre of the cycle" but rather as the confirmation -- in extended terms -- of the peace which emerges at the end of No. 5. Further, while the text -- written, as John Shawcross suggests, after August 1617, that is, following the death of the poet's wife -- provides along with the music so much emotional impact, one might feel that even the youthful Ben could tug vigorously at the heart, as bleary eyes during and after the "Sentimental Saraband," movement III of Simple Symphony , Opus 4 (1934) -- based on suite No. 3 (1925) for piano[13] marked Poco piu tranquillo, will do it every time. In this sonnet -- and in the setting -- the personal nature of death and loss is brought home with strength and tranquillity: she "hath payd her last debt / To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead / And her Soule early into Heaven ravished . . . " (bars 1-11; cf. "Ravish mee" in No. 2, "Batter my heart," bars 36-38). In this setting the piano, with undulating triplet eighths, provides a subtle harmonic base to a melody in which the hemiolas with the vocal line suggest more freedom than tension (see Ex. 13); even the triplets release their grasp three bars from the end, again to rest significantly in the major with the third on top. Britten moves out of the E flat-D flat-A flat circle, tellingly, with "A holy thirsty drop melts mee yett" (bars 24 ff.) to give voice to Donne's query regarding "tender jealously" (bars 37-38) and to return, finally, to a sense of understanding which Britten conveys in his slow resolution in the final bars of the piano part. This is grief focused and personal; it is -- given the wellspring of human horror in the memory of Belsen -- surpassingly universal, perhaps reminiscent, in a way, of the effect of Section 5 of Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, Opus 45 -- "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit," which was written in memory of Brahms' mother. And as Brahms offers comfort, so too, I suggest, do Donne and Britten. The setting is unmarked by contrivance -- Britten had a gift for simplicity and felicity; he also had a superb grasp of melodic lines -- and long ones -- when they were needed.

  13. What emerges from these moments of understanding is a renewed conviction, and Britten moves quite logically to the rhythmically contrasting "At the round earth's imagined corners," No. 7 of the cycle. From death comes transfiguration. The piano offers the trumpet call (the diminished ninth passage now a celebratory phrase), and the vocal line provides a much more decorative utterance, seizing, with turning figures, (cf. those in "Oh, to vex me" and "What if this present," noted above, in "imagin'd" (bars 1-2), "Angels" (bar 3), "death," "infinities" (both bar 4), and "scatter'd" (bar 5 -- see Ex. 14). The imitative pattern continues with similar melisma on "flood" (bar 7) and "o'erthrow" (bar 8), accents on "war, death, agues, tyrannies, Despaire, law, [and] chance" (bars 9-11), and further echoing melisma on "behold" and "never" (bars 12 and 14) with four beats () given to "God" (bars 12-13) -- all heard with successive trumpet-like figures set against dissonant tremolos in the piano. ""Woe" (given a whole note, bar 15) brings one to thirty-second note swoops, echoes of a first one in bar 6, and, in bar 19, the placement of octave tremolos in the bass and trumpet figures in lower range (two octaves down from the beginning), pp, for "But let them sleep . . . " (bars 19 ff.), all subsiding until the final vocal statement -- tellingly solo: "for that's as good / As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood" (from D to G and back, bars 30-31, cf. "Blood" and the terrifyingly assertive conclusion to "Oh, my blacke Soule," bars 38-43). While no cadential figure ends the song, none is needed for the voice, with the high point on "seal'd my pardon" offering a clear D major statement.

  14. In No. 8, "Thou hast made me," the movement across seconds (as well as in chords), which is frequent as a kind of motif (along with the minor ninth) in this cycle, provides the running bass -- taking a cue from "runne" (bar 24). Once again there is the pull between body and soul, between death and decay on the one hand and transfiguration and eternal life on the other. Awareness of another's mortality makes one sensitive to one's own (hence, a link to Meditation XVII and a possible though rejected epilogue): "mine end doth haste, I runne to death, and death meets me as fast" (bars 22-27 -- see Ex. 15). Word painting, in the strict sense, is minimal here, but the falling line on "yesterday" is obvious (bars 30-31), as are the melodic changes in direction and accents, despite the pp marking, on "Despaire behind, and death before . . . " (bars 36-38) which lead to greater emphasis as the text moves towards "Hell doth weigh" (bars 43-44 -- see Ex. 16). Yet clearly imitative harmony -- more stunning because it is used with restraint and not as a matter of convention or careless habit -- shines through in "Only thou art above" (bars 45-47 -- see Ex. 17) and in its melodic reprise with "I rise again" (bars 50-51). The volume and vocal pitch subside again with the approach to "But our old subtle foe . . ." (bars 56 ff.), and the repeated E flat in the vocal line through "They Grace . . . draw" (bars 64-71), reminiscent of "Thou hast . . . and shall" (bars 16-18), sets off the largamente statement of "mine iron heart" (bars 72-73 -- see Ex. 18), the first two words set over a diminished chord which leads to the repeated seconds (in octaves) and the final, confident if thunderous, E flat minor chords.

  15. It is the assertion at the end of No. 8, reflecting the textual argument which Britten develops in his ordering of the poems, which leads, with superb logic, to No. 9, "Death, be not proud," built over a magnificent five-bar ground (containing, as noted, the motivic minor ninth, now comfortably resolving as a dominant seventh (on F#) to the third of B major (see Ex. 19). Reflections are used sparingly -- "poore death," following an octave's drop, is a case in point (bars 16-17). A more lyrical vocal statement begins quietly with "From rest and sleepe . . ." (bars 21 ff.). "Rest of their bones" (bars 32-33) is markedly suggestive in its lower range and movement only through a minor second (see Ex. 20), and Britten provides pointed emphasis, reflected in the piano part, for "Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men" (bars 36-40), as well as a marcato dotted figuration for "And dost with war" (bars 41 ff.), picking up the broad but highly connotative words Donne uses with such impact. "Fate" and "kings," tellingly, are given the same pitch and harmony, while "Chance" and "men" both share the dissonance of a seventh chord (see Ex. 21), and the first syllable of "poison" (bar 42) is clearly dissonant. After "stroake" (bar 47) the vocal line moves, as noted above, down through the minor ninth (see Ex. 6) to pause and then to pick up the stately ground, without the ninth (seventh) as noted earlier, with "One short sleepe . . ." (bars 51 ff.), resolving, at the last, on the tonic of B Major with "die."

  16. Carpenter states that "Some of the sonnets give hope, yet Britten's settings do not indicate that the terror of damnation has been overcome" (Carpenter, 227). With respect, I would suggest that Britten's arrangement of the sonnets and his melodic/harmonic arguments support the opposite conclusion. Out of misery and chaos, personal and public, come serenity, strength, and repose -- existence, for a sensitive soul, is otherwise unbearable, and one would want to believe that Donne found his own solace in the end as well. Of course, as I have pointed out, these are difficult pieces -- for performer and for listener -- in technical, intellectual, and emotional ways, and if they are to be performed, they can only be done well, else all is lost. For some listeners, perhaps, they will not yield easily on first hearing. But what sonnet of Donne, read for the first time, ever did that? Working with highly individual, mannerist text (with multiple perspectives and paradoxes), Britten rises to his challenge -- literary, musical, and, ultimately, spiritual; his wrestle, like Donne's, is with the problem of faith in a tortured world with its death and misery, and in The Holy Sonnets both musician and poet find their resolution.



Musical examples from Britten's Holy Sonnets.  

© Copyright 1946 Boosey and Co. Ltd.  Copyright Renewed.  Reprinted by permission of Boosey and Hawkes, Inc.


1. See Carpenter (227).

2.  See Pears (70).

3.  See Britten (Holy Sonnets 6.40). The musical examples in the Appendix are reprinted by the kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes.

4.  See Holst (40); cf. White (52), who suggests that both works were written as tributes to Purcell.

5.  See, for example, Evans (349-50) and Gooch (181-82).

6.  See Kennedy (177); Kennedy also notes a link to Schubert; and Evans (351), shares Kennedy's opinion regarding the relationship to Wolf.

7.  Consider, for example, various songs in Frauen-Liebe und Leben (Chamisso), Opus 42, and Dichterliebe (Heine), Opus 48, and nos. I, II, III, V, VI, VIII and IX of The Holy Sonnets.

8.  Pears makes the comparison, suggesting: "The theme of the Holy Sonnets is death." See "The Vocal Music" (69).

9.  See Donne (ed., Shawcross).

10.  Britten apparently gave up a plan to add a further setting based on Meditation XVII of Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. See Carpenter (228).

11.  Carpenter's remark (227) about "the almost robot-like piano part" seems, with respect, rather to miss the point.

12.  See Pears (70).

13. See Britten (Simple Symphony).


Works Cited

    © 2001-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
    (RGS, LJ, WSH, 10 May, 2001 )