Trying sighing

A reference to sighing in music often reflects the emotional state of the person involved rather than the sound of the sigh itself. Song texts might simply encourage people to refrain from sighing, or probe further the possible reasons behind someone’s weary expression. Other works have more eccentric representations and references. This blog presents a cross section of them, which we’ll visit in random order.

Edward Elgar
© HNH International

We start with Elgar’s Sospiri which he wrote immediately before the outbreak of the First World War. Elgar had moved to live in London in 1911; Sospiri followed in 1914 and was dedicated to W. H. Reed, his close friend and the most distinguished orchestral leader of his time. Reed led the London Symphony Orchestra from 1912 until 1935, the year after Elgar’s death, and was subsequently to write a biography of the composer – Elgar as I knew him.

Sospiri is a short work for strings, harp and harmonium. In most performances of the piece, however, conductors choose to replace the harmonium with an organ (but not on our selected recording). It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the emotional intensity of the work reflects the shadow of war that was gathering in Europe at the time of its composition, giving good reason to indulge in some sighing.

Sospiri (8.573250)

Samuel Sebastian Wesley
Source: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876) was a towering figure in the history of English cathedral music. No other composer between Henry Purcell (1659–1695) and Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) came close to his achievement. From the numerous anthems and hymn tunes he left us, I’ve chosen an extract from one of the longer anthems, The Wilderness, which he wrote in 1832; specifically, the last of its five sections. The simplicity and sense of emancipation following the drama of the previous four sections is both exquisitely captured by Wesley and beautifully interpreted on our recording: “And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

The Wilderness (8.570318)

Carlo Gesualdo
Source: From the 1926 book by C. Gray and P. Heseltine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another choral piece now, but one written in a different age and by a man of a completely different temperament and musical individuality. It’s a madrigal by the Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo (1566–1613) that he included in his Fifth Book of Madrigals, published in 1611. We remember him today more for his unconventional music, full of innovative forms of expression and dissonances, than for his pursuit of honour in murdering his adulterous wife and her lover.

By the time of his Fifth Book of Madrigals, Gesualdo was exploring a new relationship between text and music. Progressing from simply reflecting the superficial atmosphere of a text and the passing application of word-painting, he plumbs the deeper essence of single words, not least the word sospiri (sighs) at the opening of his madrigal Itene, o miei sospiri.

Itene, o miei sospiri,
precipitate’l volo,
a lei che m’è cagion d’aspri martiri,
ditele, per pietà, del mio gran duolo;
c’hormai ella mi sia
come bella ancor pia,
che l’amaro mio pianto
cangerò, lieto, in amoroso canto.

Begone, o my sighs,
hurry your flight
to she who is the cause of my bitter torment,
tell her, for pity’s sake, of my great suffering;
that henceforth she may show me
both beauty and compassion,
and that my bitter tears
may change, with joy, into a song of love.

Itene, o miei sospiri (8.573147-49)

Johann Strauss I

Time for a couple of instrumental pieces. First, I’ve selected the Seufzer-Galoppe (Sighs Galop) by Johann Strauss the Elder, which he published in 1828. The galop dance was very popular in several European capitals at the time, often representing a final fling of the evening as the dancers beetled their way around a venue’s various reception rooms. Cue for a brief respite in which the dancers could enjoy a restorative sigh before the dash to the finish. Here’s what I mean…
Seufzer-Galoppe (8.225213)

Johann Strauss II
© HNH International

Not to be outdone, Johann Strauss the Younger produced his Ligourianer Seufzer, Scherz-Polka (Liguorian Sighs, Joke Polka) twenty years later. It was one of a number of pro-revolutionary works he wrote, inspired by the outbreak of the 1848 Revolution in Vienna. The polka took its name from the Liguorians, a Jesuit religious order known also as the Redemptorists, much disliked in Vienna because they endorsed Chancellor Metternich’s hated police-state. Following their expulsion from the city, Strauss took the opportunity to ridicule its members with his ‘joke polka’, complete with a caterwauling Trio section (“Ligouri ci gouri gouriani ani ani”) which mocked the name of the Ligourians’ founder, Alfonso Maria dei Ligouri. The work quickly found favour with the dancing public but not the authorities, who promptly confiscated the polka’s first piano edition soon after its publication. All the more reason to heave a sigh!

Ligourianer Seufzer, Scherz-Polka (8.223216)

Gerald Finzi
Photo: Boosey and Hawkes

Finally to a song by English composer Gerald Finzi (1901–1956) who made an unrivalled contribution to British twentieth-century song-writing, especially in his settings of Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), his favourite poet. I’ve chosen the seventh of Finzi’s 10-song cycle A Young Man’s Exhortation (1926–9), titled The Sigh.

At the heart of The Sigh is a question: did the poet’s beloved harbour love for another man rather than himself? Finzi, in the piano’s introduction, creates an equivalent musical image for the woman’s ‘sigh’, which, in varied form, sets the closing lines of each stanza, as though resonating with the nagging question that haunts the man over the years. What do you think the answer is?

The Sigh (8.570414)

Little head against my shoulder,
Shy at first, then somewhat bolder,
And up-eyed;
Till she, with a timid quaver,
Yielded to the kiss I gave her;
But, she sighed.

That there mingled with her feeling
Some sad thought she was concealing
It implied.
– Not that she had ceased to love me,
None on earth she set above me;
But she sighed.

She could not disguise a passion,
Dread, or doubt, in weakest fashion
If she tried:
Nothing seemed to hold us sundered,
Hearts were victors; so I wondered
Why she sighed.

Afterwards I knew her throughly,
And she loved me staunchly, truly,
Till she died;
But she never made confession
Why, at that first sweet concession,
She had sighed.

It was in our May, remember;
And though now I near November
And abide
Till my appointed change, unfretting,
Sometimes I sit half regretting
That she sighed.

8 thoughts on “Trying sighing”

  1. Enjoyed this commentary. My favourite sigh in music is the opening bars of Brahma’s 4th Symphony. Vladimir Jurowski gets it perfectly with the London Philharmonic.

    1. I should, of course, have mentioned the Naxos recording of Brahms 4 with Marin Alsop conducting the LPO which is equally fine.

  2. Very interesting, and beautifully written in an engaging style – thank you for introducing me to some new music. The Elgar and the Samuel Wesley were particularly lovely and lifted my spirits this morning. The Wesley family were quite high achievers, weren’t they? Oh, and the first piece that came to mind when I read the title was Liszt’s “Sospiro” – another one to add to the list of “sighs”. Thank you.

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