Historical Seasons > Past Symposiums

Symposium 81 - English Song

11 February 2007



  • Songs for Voice and Continuo

    If Music Be The Food Of Love
    Music For A While

    I Attempt From Love's Sickness To Fly
    Sweeter Than Roses
    Not All My Torments
    There's Not A Swain
    An Epithalamium: Thrice Happy Lovers

    Olinda In The Shades Unseen
    An Evening Hymn


    Henry Purcell

  • Canticle I for Tenor and Piano, Op. 40 (1947)

    My Beloved is Mine


    Benjamin Britten

  • Blake Songs for Tenor and Oboe (1957)

    Infant Joy
    A Poison Tree
    The Piper
    The Lamb
    The Shepherd
    Ah! Sunflower
    Cruelty has a Human Heart
    The Divine Image


    Ralph Vaghn Williams

  • Three Folk Song Settings for Tenor and Piano

    Come You Not From Newcastle?
    Little Sir William
    The Plough Boy





    Word painting in “The Art of English Song”

    Song is the ubiquitous form for expressing emotion through words and music. Helicon’s 81st Symposium presents art songs by three of England’s greatest composers, Henry Purcell, Benjamin Britten, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. These composers were masters of a compositional technique called “word painting,” which is the use of musical tools to enhance the meaning of the text. Since the songs on this program are in English, we have direct access to the interplay between words and music.

    Among the first musical choices a composer makes when approaching a text is that of key or mode. There are two main musical modes, major and minor. Major modes are generally happy, minor the opposite. One expects a sad sentiment to be sung in a minor mode, however composers can play with these expectations to highlight an underlying ambivalence in a text. One of the Purcell songs we’ll hear opens with the line: “I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly in vain, since I am myself my own fever and pain.” Purcell sets this unhappy realization in the sunny key of A Major. This surprising choice emphasizes not the pain of love’s sickness but our hapless complicity in it. The song becomes a self-amused realization of our own susceptibility to love’s traps. A successful song reveals such layers of meaning not evident in the music or the text alone.

    Another musical choice is that of tempo. The famous Purcell song, “Sweeter than Roses,” opens with expansive, improvisatory music that evokes the nostalgic images of the opening line: “Sweeter than roses, or cool evening breeze, was the dear kiss.” This kiss seems to have gone exceedingly well, “first trembling made me freeze, then shot like fire all over.” On this phrase, Purcell launches into a fast tempo, painting the kiss’s fiery passion with shooting musical notes. The next line reads “What magic has victorious love!” Here, Purcell sets up a brisk, regular tempo emphasizing the power of love’s magic over us.

    A composer’s most direct tool for word painting is melodic shape. Words are set to melody in two ways, syllabic and melismatic. Syllabic is the most common. With one note per syllable of text, it emphasizes clarity and flow. A melisma is more than one note sung on a single syllable. This expressive device highlights certain words and enhances their emotional impact. A fine example of syllabic word painting from this Symposium comes in the second of Vaughan Williams’ Blake Songs, “A Poison Tree.” Blake’s poem, from his “Songs of Experience,” is a chilling depiction of the progression of anger to fatal revenge. In the last line, the speaker sees his foe dead on the ground, poisoned by the fruit of enmity. “In the morning glad I see, my foe outstretched beneath the tree.” Vaughan Williams sets this line syllabically, each word descending step-by-step to the song’s final note, a long unaccompanied “D.” This unadorned, outstretched note represents the final resting place of the speaker’s victim. (Could the note “D” also denote the word “death”?) Melismatic text setting is a special expressive choice. When a composer writes a melisma on a word, the clarity of that word can be partly or even greatly obscured as the shape of the melody takes prominence over the natural flow of the text. A fine composer will use melismas in important moments where the expressive meaning of a word overwhelms its grammatical or rhythmic place in the poem. There is an irresistible example from Handel’s “Messiah” in the chorus “All We Like Sheep.” The opening line, “All we like sheep, have gone astray,” is set syllabically until the word, “astray.” On its second syllable, Handel writes a long undulating melisma. The melody practically goes haywire, jumping and leaping all about. Quite literally, it goes astray. Melismas offer performers great opportunity for personal expression. In his song “Not All My Torments,” Purcell writes exquisitely complex melismas to color key words such as “torments,” “pity,” and “sorrows.” The two final bars of the song are given over to a weeping melisma on the words, “I despair.” Listen for the way our musicians respond to passages such as these.

    I cannot leave the topic of word painting without mentioning one of my favorite examples in all of music, which happens to be on this program. It comes in Purcell’s sublime song, “Music for a While.” Referencing the story of Orpheus, the text tells of music’s power to calm a troubled mind, if only temporarily. The song's second section describes music’s affect on one of the mythological Furies, Alecto. This Alecto is a singularly unpleasant girl. Armed with a whip, she has snakes for hair, bat wings, a dog’s head and blood dripping from her eyes. Yet music has the power to calm even this beastly creature, causing “the snakes to drop from her head and the whip from out her hands.” In his setting, Purcell repeats the word “drop” nine times, each one iterated with a single short note sung on the weak half of the beat. The effect is onomatopoetic word painting, and is immensely charming.

    The songs featured in this Symposium are rich in these devices and many others. Keep your ears open. Let your imagination be stimulated by the words, the music, and the performers’ interpretations to heighten your experience of these masterpieces of art song written in our shared language.


    We wish to express our gratitude to Helicon’s Members whose support makes possible the events of our twenty-second season:

    Directors Circle

    Joan K. Easton, Susan Zolla-Pazner, Ph.D. & Sherman Pazner, M.D.

    Sponsoring Members
    V. Edward Dent, Karen McLaughlin & Mark Schubin, Ryo Toyonaga & Alvin Friedman-Kien, Lisa & Paul Welch

    Sustaining Members
    Yukiko & Jim Gatheral, Franklin Heller & Christian Steiner, David S. Moyer, The Irwin Scherzer Foundation,
    Ann & Joe Scozzafava, Lavinia & William Simon, Jan & Marica Vilcek, Joanne Witty & Eugene Keilin

    Contributing Members
    Patty Otis Abel & Dennis R. Reiff, Leslie Armstrong, Andrew Burt & Doreen Lindsay, Barbara & Paul Krieger,
    Peter C. Lombardo, M.D., Arthur Richenthal, Laura Schoen & Robert Kaufman, Arlene & Bruce Simon

    Anonymous (1), Cheryl Milone Bab, Cindy Bolt & Edmond V. Karam, Nancy Cardozo, Pamela Drexel, Patricia & Michael Fast,
    Nancy Hall & Robert Schwartzman, Rosanna & Corwith Hansen, Timothy B. Harwood, Hideko Kamino, M.D. & Howard Ratech,
    M.D., Sarah O.H. Johnson, Gregory Keilin, Catherine Keller & Jason Starr, David Longmire, Keith E. Lubell,
    Lena Persson & Hervé Pierre, Gil Quito, Carol & Gerard Silverman, Jane Taylor & Guy Renvoize

    Rowan Dordick & Jennifer Hirschowitz in Honor of William A. Simon, Don Lebowitz, Esq.


    Artistic Director
    James Roe

    Board of Directors
    William A. Simon, President • Lisa Welch, Vice-President
    Franklin Heller, Treasurer • Pamela Drexel, Secretary • Albert Fuller, President Emeritus
    Joan K. Easton, Timothy B. Harwood, Karen McLaughlin, David S. Moyer, Sherman Pazner, M.D., Susan Zolla-Pazner, Ph.D.

    Advisory Committee
    Leslie Armstrong, Abbe Aronson, Marianne Carroll, Bart Feller, Jennifer Frautschi, Randolph Harrison, Matthew Herren,
    Joe Hsu, Bejun Mehta, Pedja Muz˘ ijevic´ , Jody Ripplinger, Jason Starr, Mark Steinberg, Barry Wacksman


    For its generous support of our 81st Symposium,
    The Helicon Foundation is deeply grateful to The Alice Tully Foundation.
    We thank The Kosciuszko Foundation for their hospitality.
    Tonight’s harpsichord was provided by Edward Brewer.