Three Songs of Blake and Donne

(1958)
Although they have frequently been performed together, these songs do not constitute a cycle. They do reveal, however, similarities in their treatment of text, in the relationship between vocal melody and accompaniment, and in numerous details of harmony, rhythm, and form.

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The audio recordings provided in the audio playlist to the right are used with the permission of the composer and feature soprano Mara Bonde with composer Allen Brings at the piano. To listen, please click on the track name itself.
Program Notes by Allen Brings:

For the first and third songs, only those lines of the original poems were selected which would establish a basic Affekt for each song, an Affekt which could then be musically elaborated. As a result, little of the poetry's original thought remains, its words becoming less verbal symbols than suggestive devices, each of which contributes its individual timbre and rhythm to the polyphonic fabric of the composition. Contemplative and lyric to begin with, these poems lend themselves to long, sustained lines moving predominantly in steps rather than skips. Although both songs are diatonic for the most part, only the Donne setting projects an unmistaken sense of key. Harmonically, both are based on traditional triads, which are contrapuntally elaborated. Marked by clearly defined cadences and unified by key, the phrases of the Donne setting fall into three contrasting sections, the last restating the thematic material of the first. "A Cradle Song," on the contrary, is through-composed and, perhaps for this reason, relies heavily on a single pervading motive to achieve unity. This motive, which consists of a descending whole or half step, not only opens every phrase, but is also found in many cadences and occasionally even provides the basic framework for some phrases.

By contrast, the character of "Never Seek To Tell Thy Love" is more dramatic. Because Blake's poem actually describes a series of events, only a single line of the text could be omitted in the musical setting. Since an understanding of the words is essential to an understanding of the progress of the music in this song, a more declamatory, less lyric, vocal line was decided upon. Indeed, this song might almost be compared to a miniature operatic scene in which the vocal line has been extended to extremes in pitch and dynamic ranges and in which the accompaniment supports but rarely assumes an active role. The music by its greater emphasis on chromaticism and dissonance is more strident, more taut. Because the music here follows the meanings of individual words more closely, word painting was occasionally used to heighten poetic meaning. Note, for example, how the vocal melody sways to and fro with the phrase "the gentle wind does move" and how the accompaniment becomes silent when the phrase "silently, invisibly" is sung the second time. More subtly, the contrasting middle section of the song concludes with the word "departs." More importantly, however, the last four lines of the poem are sung to a modified restatement of the music of the first section, thus establishing a significant relationship with the first four lines that Blake himself seems merely to suggest.


In style these songs continue the tradition of the Romantic art song. They employ a musical idiom that is both old and familiar but which, in my view, can still prove useful now and again even to a composer who, like myself, customarily prefers to work with a musical language more recent in origin, especially in instrumental compositions. Far from rejecting the older language out of hand simply because it is older, I am more in agreement with those composers who during the seventeenth century recognized a "first practice" as well as a "second practice" and who felt equally comfortable in both.

Originally composed only for voice and piano, these songs were orchestrated in 1958 while I was stationed with the U.S. Forces in Germany as conductor of a regimental band. They were first performed in this version in Norwalk, Connecticut, on March 2, 1964, by Patricia Hetkin with the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra under my direction.

Audio PLaylist