Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Hard Donne By: Ego Trip 2013 #4

Breakup poetry is a beautiful thing.

Medieval breakup poetry has a certain flair to it that makes it that much more special.

Constancy is a song cycle on the words of John Donne, the British MP, the priest, the poet who penned the words: "No man is an island," "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee," and of course: "Twice or thrice had I loved thee, Before I knew thy face or name." Yep, in my wanderings and searchings for texts, I stumbled across the more... earthly poetry of the man who wrote "Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise." I concocted from some of these poems a small song-cycle of four poems built around the dramatic arc of a romantic relationship.

The four poems are these:
  1. The Good-Morrow
  2. Woman's Constancy (shortened in the title of the poem - and the whole cycle -  to just "Constancy"; there's nothing in the text that requires it relate to a woman, and I didn't feel a need to perpetuate that when I didn't have to)
  3. Break of Day
  4. The Message
About the music.

The first movement consists of a melodic ostinato, repeating itself over and over in different rhythms. The vocalist only sings that melody, over and over, five and a half times (the accompanist kindly finishes the last half of the melody for the singer). Here is a meeting, and it's implied a rather physical one, of two lovers. This poem reads to me like the start of a relationship, after declarations of love but before any sort of tedium, boredom or cynicism can creep in to the conversation.


The second movement is in the form of a Rondo, with a recurring refrain (to the words "Now thou hast loved me one whole day / tomorrow when thou leavest, what wilt thou say?"). This is a slightly more cynical statement, asking what excuses the singer's partner might give for leaving them. There's a recurring motif in the accompaniment - well, and in the vocal part - of four sixteenth notes followed by two quarters. This motif keeps getting shifted off the beat to give a sense of unrest and unease in the music.


Break of Day was the first piece of the cycle to be written, before it was even a cycle. The poetry reflects "the morning after," when one partner has to leave for, oh, say an early meeting (the more things change, the more things stay the same, eh?). The message is summed up in the final two lines: "He which hath business, and makes love, doth do / Such wrong, as when a married man doth woo." As for the music, it has a gentle five-beat rhythm and two distinct ideas in the accompaniment, the first of which is a rolling rise and fall in two-voice counterpoint over a pedal tone, and the second is a slow written trill, ascending across several bars. The vocal line is through-composed, with rhythm and melody following the text.


The finale is the final breakdown of the relationship, presumably by letter - after all, the writer is asking the recipient to "send home" things. The music is what my theory courses call "modified strophic," using little (well, significant) variations between verses. The piano part is a driving and unstable moto perpetuo, constantly pushing the music forward. 

At the moment, Constancy exists in scores for alto voice and tenor voice, in different keys. The above examples are all from the tenor 

As noted in the title of the post, this work was premiered at Ego Trip 2013, on July 4th, sung by Andrew Rampton, accompanied by Charmaine Bacon. The recording is sadly not of great quality; I will try to clean it up and post it at some point, or simply re-record it at another time and place.

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