Nothing Like The Sun
Gavin Bryars EnsembleGB Records
5052442008545 | BCGBCD 24 | 1CD
There is a long and honourable history of the sonnet being set to music, starting with composers in the Italian Renaissance and continuing through to the present day. For a composer to set a sonnet, or series of sonnets, almost inevitably and unnervingly, means writing within a historical perspective – as it does with writing operas, string quartets or symphonies. The form itself, though, is particularly satisfying to work with because of its sense of balance and its elegant and apparently simple formal structure. It lends itself to love poetry, but also to introspection and philosophical reflection and, in the hands of its greatest writers, the sheer beauty of the language can be a constant stimulus, and at the same time a daunting challenge. In writing sonnets the poet generally speaks in the first person, or at least from an individual viewpoint, which draws the reader deep into the poet's world. For a composer this has the huge advantage of giving a very direct emotional and spiritual link to the poet.
In 2007 I was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North to set a group of Shakespeare’s sonnets to music, having by then produced four books of madrigals, chiefly of Petrarch. Shakespeare’s sonnets, like Petrarch's, are full of wonderful technical subtlety and although the form of the Shakespeare sonnet, with its three quatrains and a couplet, is different from Petrarch's, this enabled me to arrive at a shape for the musical setting: his final couplet, for example, is almost always a reflection on the preceding 12 lines, suggesting a change of tempo, of instrumentation, of harmonic colour.
In selecting my sonnets I decided not to set those that I knew already, feeling that familiarity might lull me into a false sense of security. My decision not to set those that seem to be specifically love poems also ruled out the first 40 or so, and I preferred to focus on those that are more philosophical, choosing sonnets that contrast the relative permanence of art against the impermanence of human life, that focus on ideas of memory, on the passage of time, and which, when dealing with love, do so in a more abstract way. I narrowed this down to eight sonnets: and each sonnet is set twice - first spoken within a musical accompaniment and then sung.