Three Sonnets

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Jane Manning's guide to the performance of Three Sonnets to Orpheus
in her book New Vocal Repertory, Volume 2 (Clarendon Press,1998)

A welcome new cycle from this composer, who is now resident in Shetland [he has since moved to Banffshire], and continues to write steadily. Frequently influenced by High German Romanticism, he has produced several carefully crafted vocal chamber works, including some for music theatre. A small output of high quality pieces reveals a strong and individual voice, rigorous in finely honed detail, and uncompromisingly committed to his own high standards, irrespective of popularity. He does admit, however, to adapting his vocal style to suit the language, and his settings of English texts, which clearly reflect his heritage and present environment, are palpably different from these Rilke songs. Here he shows a close identification with the Austro-German tradition, and in particular, with the Second Viennese School, especially Berg, and there are also shades of Hindemith. The musical idiom features leaping lines, heavy chromaticism and, notably, a full-blown Expressionist piano part which demands considerable virtuosity - indeed the textures often seem to invite orchestral treatment. Though brief, this cycle packs quite a punch, and requires stamina and concentration from both performers. The singer (a dramatic mezzo is the ideal voice for this) will need to sustain an even tone through a very wide compass. A strong presence and sense of style, and some experience will be a distinct advantage: these are not beginners' pieces. The marriage between words and music is extremely successful, sometimes even invoking Wolf: this, despite the fact that the composer admits that he does not actually speak German. The analogy is that of a sailor who does not swim: he is imbued with the spirit, rather than the surface facility.

This challenging and memorable mini-cycle makes a strong impact, and is worth the effort of mastering its tougher moments. The score is neatly presented, and the words are printed in full, with an English translation, at the front. Clear references are provided, so that the chosen excerpts from the Rilke Sonnets can be identified in their original context. Since Rilke is notoriously difficult to translate, the colour and rarified atmosphere have to be gleaned, almost by osmosis from a succession of at times bewildering images, but the exultant celebration of the forces of Nature and Art is highly potent.

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1. A Tree Ascending

The voice starts very low, launching immediately into a wide-spanning line, supported by a demanding accompaniment with a decorative left-hand part. In between similar soaring, Expressionist bursts there are sudden moments of stillness, leaving the voice almost alone, intoning softly and simply, in a low register. Staccato and pianissimo can be achieved naturally and still remain audible. The sotto voce unaccompanied fragment of "Tiere aus Stille" involves an octave leap from low G sharp, but this should cause no problems if touched lightly at the start. Sibilant sounds can be emphasized to enhance the hushed effect. The dynamic subtlety recalls that of Webern, and continual rubato keeps the pulse fluid. Just over halfway through the song, there is a change to 6/8, but the beat remains the same. Voice and piano have light, flexible figures, quasi-scherzando in style, especially in the piano's staccato groups. All is delicate and precise, until a sudden slower tempo brings a darker interlude with the voice intoning in a low tessitura, over pedalled arpeggios. A final, burgeoning, Expressionist paragraph brings the movement to an exciting close, with the piano texture at its richest and most virtuosic in contrast to the singer's sustained line.


2. Dance the Orange

The composer's instruction "Suggesting a waltz" is significant. The parody of Viennese schmalz is clear, despite the lack of obvious repetitive waltz figures. A lilt has to be maintained, and rhythm must never sag. In keeping with the mercurial nature of the text, the music is fragmentary, and the many rests should not interrupt the sense. Breathing should be economical, and the singer's agility will certainly be fully tested. The phrase marked "breathily" could perhaps stray towards Sprechstimme. There is almost a feeling of a danse macabre in this substantial setting, especially when the singer is left alone in syllabic emphasis and marked staccato for "tanzt". A clean delivery is very important, as well as a quick adaptability to the rapid shifts of colour that follow. Familiarity in the language will help with the cabaret style, sometimes reminiscent of Weill or Eisler (even Hindemith) that seems appropriate here. A sudden quadruplet against running bass triplets must not seem contrived. This is marked "hollowly" and should be projected strongly against the piano's crescendo. Balance will need careful attention at such moments, and timing throughout need considerable skill and panache. To sing "sweetly" on "Süßsein" should give no trouble, and the sounds of the syllables should be savoured. A rapturous phrase: "sie hat sich köstlich zu euch bekehrt" is doubled by piano octaves, enriching the sound in stark contrast to the sparser layout of the opening section, and of the frequent parlando fragments. The penultimate section relaxes into a steady 4/4, with some very tricky triplet subdivisions in voice and piano. The vocal lines are, however, marked "almost sleazy" so a good deal of licence can be allowed to produce a suitably slurred effect. Keeping track of beats will be no easy task, but the decadent atmosphere can be indulged without inhibition.

For the final paragraph, the opening "waltz" is resumed at a heady, almost intoxicating fortissimo. This could possibly lead to forcing if the singer is not careful. The best solution is to keep the sound clear and cutting, shaping phrases boldly, and emphasizing strong down-beats and any percussive consonants. This should create an impression of forceful projection while saving energy for the tops of phrases. Triplets within the 3/4 (again the voice is doubled by piano octaves for these) must not be allowed to obscure the basic waltz feeling. This last section will need some work before it runs easily.


3. "...I Exist"

The last setting, the shortest, is by no means simple to bring off. Again it requires a deep identification with the Expressionist world, this time in a more reflective vein, the dynamics generally at a gentler level, the tempo a slow crotchet = 42. Tessitura is extremely wide-ranging, and phrases luxuriantly long at times. The voice begins with a rapt pianissimo on low A, unaccompanied. (The piano's one introductory note gives the pitch.) Undulating phrases build gradually, with rhythms moving flexibly in combinations of triplets and slow semiquaver groups, obeying the drawn-out speech patterns. The coda brings a sudden onset of power - rather unexpected in view of the text, which does not seem to invite a violent outburst! The piano's tolling chords crescendo to forte and the singer's last few phrases ring out in declamatory fashion, cadencing triumphantly in D major (but without the third in the triad) with a thrilling unaccompanied octave leap, from high A down, on "Ich bin".

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This is a work capable of making a very strong impression in concert, but a great deal of responsibility rests with the skill and unflappable musical command of the two performers. A substantial period of preparation should be allowed for the music to feel entirely secure. Ward's deeply felt response to the texts manifests itself in a thoroughly extrovert way, unflinchingly passionate and heedless of any possible accusations of excess. One is reminded of the work of Alan Bush in the unwavering conviction, and fearless expression of unbridled feeling and high tension, not sparing the decibels. I feel that the repertoire is enlivened by such music, and audiences will find it very exciting. Rhythmic control needs to be kept through the complex subdivisions, so that the effect does not become undisciplined.

This piece will make a strong antidote to French music in a programme. The singer can exhibit her versatility by putting it alongside Debussy, for instance, or even Poulenc, which could form a bridge to the cabaret element. A more obvious choice would be to place it in a classic Viennese evening with Strauss, Mahler, Shreker, or of course Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. The audience needs to be a fairly sophisticated one, well attuned to late romantic, early twentieth-century influences.

Jane Manning

David Ward
Monedie Farm Cottage, Aberchirder, by Huntly, Aberdeenshire, AB54 7PL
Email: or     Tel: 01466 780894

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