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The background to the writing of the Rapture song cycle

Following on from my song cycle of poems selected from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 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 irresistible.

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 Berg’s 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. Berg’s 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 for example.

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 Berg’s Lyric Suite were secret references to his lover’s name. So what should be in the tone row for Rapture’s 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 One.

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.


In poem 49 of the Rapture collection, entitled The Love Poem, the author breaks off her chronicling of the course of a love affair, pausing to reflect on how love has been described in love poems through the ages, and quoting from no less than ten poets' works, some of which, for example that of the metaphysical poet John Donne, are distinctly erotic.  Others on the other hand are more contemplative.

These ten quotations are interspersed throughout the poem, sometimes with just a single line of the author's separating them.  On the page this is often indicated with a dash sign.  In performance, though, something more is required to help identify the passages being quoted, and the solution here has been to distinguish them by means of sprechgesang technique, an approach first used by Humperdinck, but more famously perhaps by Schoenberg in his settings of the 21 poems that comprise Pierrot Lunaire.  Berg too used the technique in for example Lulu.

There have been a number of ways of performing sprechgesang, which essentially indicates some form of sung speech.  For the purposes of this poem what matters is that the ear can readily distinguish the two elements.

The poets and works quoted are, in order:

Shakespeare           Sonnet 130
Barrett Browning   Sonnets from the Portuguese
Marlowe                 Passionate shepherd to his love
Scott                     An hour with thee!
Wyatt                    They flee from me
Sidney                   Loving in Truth
Campion                There is a garden in her face
Donne                    To his mistress Going to Bed
Old Testament      The Song of Songs, The Bride and the Bridegroom
                            (King Solomon)
Shelley                   One word is too oft profaned

Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture collection, as published by Picador, comprises 52 poems.
The Rapture Song Cycle for Female Voice and Pianoforte comprises settings of 20 of these poems.

Here are the names of the twenty poems set by Kerry Milan.   The number in brackets indicates the poem's position within the poetry collection.

1     You 
2     Forest
3     River
4     Hour
5     If I was dead
6     Rapture
7     Elegy
8     Row
9     Fall
10   Give
11     Spring
12     Answer
13     Treasure
14     Presents
15     Grief
16     Land
17     Night Marriage
18     The Love Poem
19     Art
20     Over