Listening to Britten – Seven Sonnets Of Michelangelo, Op.22


The Creation of Adam (c1511) by Michelangelo. Use of photo is from Wikipedia

Seven Sonnets Of Michelangelo, Op.22 – for tenor and piano (March – 30 October 1940, Britten aged 26)

1 Sonetto XVI: Sì come nella penna e nell’inchiostro
2 Sonetto XXXI: A che più debb’io mai l’intensa voglia
3 Sonetto XXX: Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi un dolce lume
4 Sonetto LV: Tu sa’ ch’io so, signior mie, che tu sai
5 Sonetto XXXVIII: Rendete a gli occhi miei, o fonte o fiume
6 Sonetto XXXII: S’un casto amor, s’una pietà superna
7 Sonetto XXIV: Spirto ben nato, in cui si specchia e vede

Dedication Peter Pears
Text Michelangelo Buonarroti (set in Italian)
Language Italian
Duration 15′

Audio clips (using the Decca recording made by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten in 1954. With thanks to Decca)

1 Sonetto XVI: Sì come nella penna e nell’inchiostro

2 Sonetto XXXI: A che più debb’io mai l’intensa voglia

3 Sonetto XXX: Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi un dolce lume

4 Sonetto LV: Tu sa’ ch’io so, signior mie, che tu sai

5 Sonetto XXXVIII: Rendete a gli occhi miei, o fonte o fiume

6 Sonetto XXXII: S’un casto amor, s’una pietà superna

7 Sonetto XXIV: Spirto ben nato, in cui si specchia e vede

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s first settings in Italian, the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo are his first compositions written explicitly for the voice of Peter Pears. Their personal significance to both men was greater still, love letters sent from a composer’s pen and sung back to him in performance by the tenor as he played the piano. That scenario alone goes some way to explaining why the Sonnets became the most performed work of Britten’s in the hundreds of recitals they gave together.

From here onwards, the names of Britten and Pears were almost always mentioned in the same breath, but they had to be careful in their expression of love for each other, as their relationship was after all illegal in the early 1940s. Interestingly the collection was begun before Britten relocated to North America, so while Pears was the ultimate inspiration it is possible that Wulff Scherchen was the first focus of Britten’s ardour.

The duo therefore used subtle translations of Michelangelo’s relatively explicit original text, so that only Italian speaking critics in the audience would get an idea of their intent. It was their special ‘secret’, one that was revealed to English audiences at the Wigmore Hall in 1942, and got Britten the sort of acclaim of which he could only have dreamed.

In his booklet note for Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano’s recent recording of the Sonnets, Richard Wigmore offers the view that all is not quite as it seems in Britten’s settings. ‘Only two of his chosen sonnets, the third (Sonetto XXIV) and the last (Sonetto XXIV) seem to hold the promise of love fulfilled. The others all dwell on the lover’s uncertainty, rejection and despair’.

Britten scholars talk of his revival of the ‘bel canto’ tradition in these songs, and Graham Johnson, in The Britten Companion, offers the opinion that ‘This cycle ranks with Schumann’s Myrthen as a garland of songs to celebrate a marriage of minds and hearts’.

Thoughts

These are intensely lyrical songs, passionate and – even for Britten – unusual in their direct expression. This is some of the most soulful music we have yet heard from the composer, and nowhere is this truer than in the last of the seven sonnets, where the tenor sings, unaccompanied, ‘Spirto ben nato, in cui si specchia e vede…’ (‘Noble soul, in whose chaste and dear limbs are reflected all that nature and heaven can achieve with us, the paragon of their works’).

The first sonnet throws open the doors with a piano flourish that recalls Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, and indeed the whole mood has some of that composer’s intense expression. The singer is encouraged to ‘sing out’, which he duly does – and in the second Sonnet, too, though the words here are less rapturous.

In fact, as Richard Wigmore notes, the mood can be more furtive and self conscious at times. Sonetto XXX is beautiful but introspective, while the nagging piano figure that oscillates softly behind the voice in Sonetto LV suggests something darker, reflecting the almost painful shyness in the text. The final song is a wonderful, gradual ascension, from an outpouring that moves ultimately to music of true serenity.

This is Britten laid bare, a thought reinforced by a comment he made to a close friend after the performance at the Wigmore Hall. ‘I was rather nervous about presenting them…It was rather like parading naked in public!’

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (NMC, recorded 1941)
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (EMI, recorded 1942)
Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca, recorded 1954)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Antonio Pappano (EMI Classics)
Philip Langridge (tenor), Steuart Bedford (piano) (Naxos)

This being one of Britten’s best loved song cycles, there are plenty of recordings to choose from – too many to do full justice to in a single article like this!

While acknowledging the essential qualities and significance of the Pears recordings – all three of them – and Britten’s vivid accompaniment, my personal preference is for the version by Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson on Hyperion, though that itself is run close in the digital field by the new recording from Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano.

The reason for choosing Rolfe Johnson is his affinity with the Italian text, and the clarity with which he sings. It is arguable that Pears sings more directly and from the heart, especially in the NMC recording, the first of the three made by the partnership. The second, for EMI, was commissioned by His Master’s Voice and has the distinction of being the first music they recorded together – while the third, for Decca, was recorded after their association with that label was confirmed. Pears has a particularly winning way with the first and last songs, his ringing tone clear and strong.

Very intriguingly David Owen Norris has transcribed the sonnets for bass and piano, a version newly recorded by none other than Sir John Tomlinson. I will return to this page to give a verdict soon!

Spotify

A number of versions are on Spotify, and those by Pears and Britten, Bostridge and Pappano, Langridge and Bedford and Allan Clayton and Malcolm Martineau are included on this playlist.

Also written in 1940: Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Next up: Introduction and Rondo alla burlesca, Op.23/1

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This entry was posted in Italian, Listening to Britten, Song cycle / collection, Songs, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Seven Sonnets Of Michelangelo, Op.22

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – the American dream | Good Morning Britten

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