Following on from my song cycle of poems selected from
Elizabeth Barrett Brownings Sonnets from the Portuguese the idea was
mooted that I might set some of the poems of Carol Ann Duffy, and that they might be sung
by the splendid Yvonne Howard, accompanied on the pianoforte by
Dr A. R.Wightman, the four of us, all in our differing ways, having close links
with Stafford. The fact that Ms Duffy actually quotes from the Sonnets from the
Portuguese made the idea of using her set of Rapture poems
But how to set such a captivating range of emotions, changing not just
from one poem to the next, but within just a few lines, often short sentences each with
its own surprising turn of phrase and feeling?
It was this need to be able to switch suddenly and unexpectedly from
one thought or reflection to the next that eventually lead me to choose the medium of
twelve-tone music, a decision that was to prove hugely time consuming, but also rewarding.
It is not that serial technique must a priori destroy all sense of tonality; it is
more that one never quite knows where the music is leading. A tone row, or one of its
derivations can, out of the blue, throw up the notes of a delightful dominant thirteenth,
say. We are so trained, however, to expect certain resolutions, that when they regularly
fail to arrive we may initially feel somewhat disorientated. The over-riding concern in
setting these lovely poems has been to be faithful to the spirit and lilt of the words.
And just as the poems themselves quote other work, so the music too has its own selection
of references back, some perhaps less obvious than others.
Alban Bergs Violin Concerto has been a favourite of mine since
student days in Glasgow. I have studied it closely over the years and indeed performed the
piece, both for diploma work and in concert. Bergs interpretation of the spirit of
12-tone technique is very different from that of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg. Berg
manages to infuse his music with heart and expressiveness, and indeed uses the differing
moods of tone row derivations to help capture the nature of his characters in Lulu
It is undoubtedly true, though, that the head plays a key role in the
creation of any tone row music, and we now know, thanks to Gavin Plumley, that woven into
the rows of Bergs Lyric Suite were secret references to his
lovers name. So what should be in the tone row for Raptures very
personal depiction of a contemporary love affair? There are no secret names of mine hidden
within! But here is the original tone row:
C A A flat D
F F sharp B B flat
G C sharp E E flat.
The first of the additional rows derived from this is very similar,
with just the two B notes reversed and then the two Es reversed. Dr Wightman, to whom I am
so grateful for his advice and encouragement, perceptively noted that the original might
lead to too many unwanted diminished chords occuring. In the event three settings, numbers
1, 2 and 7 use the original and five settings, numbers 6, 9, 12, 18 and 20 use Derivation
Derivation Two uses the sequence 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 and
2 and this row is used four times, for settings 3, 4, 13 and 19.
Derivation Ten is where the numbers are ten apart, starting 1 then 11,
and this sequence is used on five occasions, numbers 5, 8, 10, 14 and 16. The remaining
three settings, numbers 11, 15 and 17 employ Derivation Eleven.
On paper this may all appear very mechanical; but surely no more
restricting than writing a double fugue!
The original tone row, as the musical detectives among you will perhaps
have already noticed, spells out CArol Ann DuFFy!
and that short musical phrase, which is woven into a number of the poems, says as much as
a hundred words.
Kerry Milan, Stafford, 10 May 2016.