Percy Bysshe Shelley. Musical moments of a Romantic radical.

Source: After Amelia Curran, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It caught my eye that the date of this post would coincide with the anniversary of the birth of Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of England’s finest Romantic poets. Born on 4 August 1792, he didn’t live to see his 30th birthday. He was a radical, and not only in his poetry. His stance on religious and societal affairs added to the drag on achieving fame during his lifetime. Sadly, his renown and influence grew only after his death; more happily, however, that influence touched numerous composers searching for a muse. This blog presents a selection of those works for which Shelley is due a share of the credit. Let’s start, however, with Shelley au naturel, in a recitation of his short poem Music, When Soft Voices Die.

Music, When Soft Voices Die (9.81210)

Roger Quilter
Source: Herbert Lambert, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There have been several musical settings of that text, from which I’ve chosen the one by English composer Roger Quilter (1877–1953). Having decided to become a musician, Quilter moved to Frankfurt as a teenager to embark on a course of studies that last lasted nearly five years. His piano teacher during that time was Ernst Engesser who, with his interest in French song, possibly influenced the future direction of Quilter’s talents as a composer. The many songs Quilter wrote during the course of some forty years form an important element in English song repertoire of the first half of the twentieth century, characteristic both of their period and of romantic English song. Dating from 1927, here’s Quilter’s setting of that opening poem by Shelley.

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heap’d for the beloved’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

Quilter: Music, When Soft Voices Die (8.557116)

Charles Ives
© HNH International

Shelley’s verse gets a much more emotionally turbulent response from American composer Charles Ives (1874–1954) in his song Rough Wind, almost belying the fact that he and Quilter were contemporaries and that Ives’ music predates that of Quilter by some 25 years. Ives set Shelley’s A dirge in 1902, basing his music on the main theme from the opening movement of his First Symphony, full of densely chorded piano writing that almost overwhelms the often fraught vocal line by the close.

A dirge
Rough wind, that moanest loud
Grief too sad for song;
Wild wind, when sullen cloud
Knells all the night long;
Sad storm, whose tears are vain,
Bare woods, whose branches strain,
Deep caves and dreary main, –
Wail, for the world’s wrong!

Ives: Rough Wind (8.559273)

Paul Hindemith
© HNH International

Mention the name of German composer Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) and I guess that most people wouldn’t immediately associate his name with art songs, yet they do form a surprisingly large part of his output. He set Shelley’s poem To the Moon in 1942 as one of his 9 English Songs; he wrote a number of songs in English and French during the 1940s. His Shelley setting is performed here by the distinguished German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died in 2012 aged 86.

And, like a dying lady lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp’d in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky east,
A white and shapeless mass.

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

Hindemith: The Moon (C156861A)

Staying with that piece of verse, we move to American composer Joseph Turrin (b. 1947), who wrote Equinox in 2010. Scored for mixed chamber ensemble, the composer introduces the work as follows:

Joseph Turrin

“The initial inspiration for Equinox came to me one spring evening. While out for a walk I came across an open field filled with the shimmering light of thousands of fireflies. There was a beautiful sporadic rhythm of flashing pinpoints of light that filled the dark, open field. This evening’s experience became the motivation for a composition about the beauty of spring, the idea of beginnings and the awakening of new life.

[In 2020] I decided to include some poetry that may be recited before each of the five movements, which I felt would add to the overall experience of the piece. These poems include To the Moon by Percy Bysshe Shelley.”

Here’s the third movement of Equinox, titled Luna.

Turrin: Luna (8.559896)

Benjamin Britten
© HNH International

The orchestral song-cycle was a medium that much attracted the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976). His concept of an anthology of sometimes diverse texts, unified by a common literary or poetic theme, was a favourite device to which he returned several times. His two later and arguably best-known works in the genre are Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) and Nocturne (1958). The texts for both works have the theme of night, sleep and dreams in common, but there are some important differences: in contrast to the single obbligato horn employed in the Serenade, Britten used seven different solo instruments in Nocturne, each lending its own distinctive colour to each setting. Britten dedicated the work to Alma Mahler, thereby acknowledging the debt he himself owed to Gustav Mahler. The strings alone accompany the lullaby-like first song, Shelley’s On a poet’s lips I slept.

On a poet’s lips I slept
Dreaming like a love-adept
In the sound his breathing kept;
Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,
But feeds on the areal kisses
Of shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses.
He will watch from dawn to gloom
The lake-reflected sun illume
The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,
Nor heed nor see, what things they be;
But from these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality!

Britten: On a poet’s lips I slept (8.557199)

Richard Rodney Bennett
Photo: Katie Vandyck

My final choice of a setting of Shelley’s verse is by another English composer, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (1936–2012). A musician of great versatility, he studied in London with Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson, and subsequently with Pierre Boulez. In addition to his very varied work as a composer (including the film scores for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Murder on the Orient Express), he was also noted as a pianist, not least in jazz performances. He was made a CBE in 1977 and knighted in 1999.

On a more parochial level he was also able to write music that connected readily with amateur singers and choirs, as exemplified by his two short collections of songs The Insect World and The Aviary. The latter was written in 1965 and the fourth of its five songs, The widow bird, sets text from Shelley’s Charles I, a historical drama left unfinished at his death.

A widow bird sate mourning for her love
Upon a wintry bough;
The frozen wind crept on above,
The freezing stream below.

There was no leaf upon the forest bare,
No flower upon the ground,
And little motion in the air
Except the mill-wheel’s sound.

Richard Rodney Bennett: The widow bird (8.557129)

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