The Dream - Miquel Àngel
This post has been, like last week’s, noted down in my diary for long time; this is Benjamin Britten's week, tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of his birth. These are days of memories and deserved homage so we join in talking, of course, about one of his song cycles.
Britten is one of the most important 20th Century song composers; some of his cycles are The Holy Sonnets of John Donne
, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake
, A Charm of Lullabies
and Winter Words
to name just a few. He carefully chose the poets, from John Donne to his friend W.H. Auden, but he also made many traditional song
arrangements. He respected the poems original language, so there are cycles in English but also in French, German, Italian and Russian, and he wrote for great artists such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Galina Vishnevskaya.
So far we have only listened to one song by Britten, one of the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake
, the cycle he composed for Fischer-Dieskau, and I wasn’t sure about which song choosing to listen today. I had been changing my mind several times until I got back to an article published in The Guardian few months ago, The Road to Perfection: Ian Bostridge's best of Benjamin Britten
; when I read over this excerpt, It became all clear to me:
Britten wrote these songs during his three-year stay in America with Peter Pears, the tenor who was his partner and muse. But they were premiered in London, at the Wigmore Hall, in 1942. A set of complicated poems in Renaissance Italian by Michelangelo, they are intensely erotic and homosexual in their imagery. The idea that these two men, who were already pretty unpopular for being pacifists, came back to Britain and got up on stage and performed these songs is extraordinary. I don't think people quite realised what was happening because the songs were in Italian.
Ian Bostridge refers to Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, written between March and October 1940, as the first work composed exclusively for Pears; there were many more later, both songs and opera roles. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears met (or met again, I don't know for sure) because of a mutual friend’s death in 1937. In May 1939, they both went to America, first to Canada and then to the US, to give some concerts and also to assess Britten possibilities of being commissioned to write some works. They were there at the outbreak of World War II and didn't return to Europe until 1942 where they registered as conscientious objectors (with respect to Britten's pacifism, may I recommend you the last post on An die Musik
, about War Requiem
?). As Ian Bostridge says in his article, their situation couldn't have been easy at all, seventy years ago and in a society that was involved in a war (and, even so, trying to keep its cultural life alive).
Michelangelo wrote his sonnets to Tommaso Cavalieri. They first met when the artist was about 60 and the young man about 20, and Michelangelo was absolutely fascinated by him; they were close friends until his death at the age of 89, being Tommaso by his side at that moment. Among the seven songs composed by Britten I have chosen the third, the Sonnet XXX, in which the poet declares that he depends on his beloved, feeling young with him; beautiful verses and a beautiful song. Of course, we are listening to Peter Pears accompanied by Benjamin Britten; it's a 1952 recording.
To be honest, I don't know why it has taken so long since I put the last Britten's song on the blog, it shouldn't be necessary a celebration to listen to him. I'll have to mend my ways.
Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi un dolce lume,
Che co’ miei ciechi già veder non posso;
Porto co’ vostri piedi un pondo addosso,
Che de’ mie zoppi non è già costume.
Volo con le vostr’ale senza piume;
Col vostr’ingegno al ciel sempre son mosso;
Dal vostr’arbitrio son pallido e rosso,
Freddo al sol, caldo alle più fredde brume.
Nel voler vostro è sol la voglia mia,
I mie’ pensier nel vostro cor si fanno,
Nel vostro fiato son le mie parole.
Come luna da sè sol par ch’io sia;
Che gli occhi nostri in ciel veder non sanno
Se non quel tanto che n’accende il sole.
With your lovely eyes I see a sweet light
that yet with my blind ones I cannot see;
with your feet I carry a weight on my back
which with my lame ones I cannot;
with your wings I, wingless, fly;
with your spirit I move forever heavenward;
at your wish I blush or turn pale,
cold in the sunshine, or hot in the coldest winter.
My will is in your will alone,
my thoughts are born in your heart.
my words are on your breath.
Alone, I am like the moon in the sky
which our eyes cannot see
save that part which the sun illumines.
(translation by Hyperion)