Title: On Love and Death – 5 Rossetti Songs

Year: 2009 – 11

Instrumentation: Soprano and Piano

Program note:

  1. In an Halcyon Sea (2009)
  2. Leaf, Flower, Stone (2010)
  3. Through Light, Through Dark (2011)
  4. Remember/Forget (2009/10)
  5. Heaven’s Chimes Are Slow (2010/11)

On Love and Death is a cycle of five songs setting poems by Christina Rossetti (1830 – 94). It is my first venture into writing for voice, and is dedicated with gratitude to Harrison Birtwistle, whose vocal writing has often been an inspiration to me. Only the last two songs (Remember/Forget and Heaven’s Chimes Are Slow) set complete poems. All the others use selected verses, and sometimes the structure of the poems is altered in the songs to better convey their meaning in musical terms.

If read in succession a poetic narrative emerges, reflecting on thoughts and feelings connected to ‘love’ and ‘death’ – two inescapable aspects of our existence. The inevitable passage of time (song 5), contrasts with the persistence of memory (song 4); a sense of innocent joy (song 1) is tainted by an awareness of suffering and loss (songs 2, 3, 5). Yet the processes of nature (songs 1 and 2) are seen relative to the supernatural (especially in songs 3 and 5), giving a cosmic sense of scale to the often intimate reflections.

It is maybe the combination of this breadth of vision and depth of feeling, all expressed with clarity and concision, that attracted me to the unlikely task of setting words from the seemingly distant 19th-Century. And it is interesting to note that Ford Madox Ford, writing a hundred years ago, had a similar view: ‘with her intimate and searching self-revelations, with her exquisite and precise language, Christina Rossetti seems to us to be the most valuable poet that the Victorian age produced.’ (Ford Madox Ford, The Critical Attitude, 1911)

Christian Mason, 2012