New book considers Benjamin Britten’s Blake cycle and others

Gordon Cameron Sly's book considers Britten's compositions for Donne, Hardy and Blake.

Britten’s Donne, Hardy and Blake Songs: Cyclic Design and Meaning by Gordon Cameron Sly has been published this month by Boydell & Brewer:

This book presents a first analytical study that looks at the overarching designs of Benjamin Britten's John Donne, Thomas Hardy and William Blake solo song cycles.

By questioning when a group of songs ought to be understood not merely as a collection, but as a cycle, Sly shows that Britten's personal selection and arrangement is indispensable to understanding these cycles' extra-musical communication.

The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Winter Words (poems by Hardy) and Songs and Proverbs of William Blake - composed in 1945, 1953 and 1965 respectively - each represent a philosophical exploration. The terrains set out by the three poets are distinct, but also engage one another in important and unexpected ways. Their cyclic architectures are expressed not only in their poetic arrangement, but in their musical settings. Key relationships and motive remain central for Britten. Keys convey a network of interconnections, create groupings of songs, and establish levels of tonal affinity or distance. Motive - often intervals that can fit into any melodic, harmonic or rhythmic context - is used to create aural affinities between or among individual songs.

This book also offers a broader narrative revealing Britten's evolving philosophical convictions in post-war Britain. While it may not be the case that Britten intended any broader philosophical comment, the works together outline the cold and brittle state that emerges from loss and aligns with their composer's increasingly stark outlook on humanity.

This title is available from Boydell & Brewer and other bookshops.