Tag Archives: Music

What are notes but tears with wings? Duncan, Schubert, and the Sublime

‘If I had to grade the necessities of life, I should put them in this order: the sun, for without it we are dead; horses, for without them to look at we are blind; music, for otherwise we are deaf.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 101)

It is not entirely surprising that Ronald Duncan, close friend of and and sometimes librettist for Benjamin Britten, had a deep and intricate relationship with music, a fact touched upon occasionally in the first volume of his autobiography, All men are islands. Duncan makes mention of often visceral responses to musical works, of the bust of Beethoven that he kept with him, of his encounters with musicians (including Stravinsky), and of how he would invent poems to the rhythms or melodies of pieces that he knew; however, his connection with music was at a distance, and, a little below the comment quoted above, he goes on to write

‘Sadly I realised I had been deprived of the one language I needed. For I could not write or read music.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 101)

Above all other music, Duncan loved that of Franz Schubert, whose birthday it is as I write this post. As described by Duncan, it was a love, like many of his loves seem to have been, immediate in its conception:

‘I was about twelve years old when I met the influence in my life that has affected me more than anything. I went to the theatre and heard Schubert … The play was a sentimental musical comedy, supposedly based on Schubert’s life, called ‘Lilac Time’. It contained a number of his songs. I was quite unable to keep away from the theatre. I went to it twenty-seven times … I cannot possibly explain why I found Schubert an irresistible influence at the age of twelve, or why he has always remained my favourite composer.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 44)

Part of Schubert’s appeal, in Duncan’s later life at least, may have been the directness of melody and affect in his music, a quality that has made his lieder (songs) amongst the most enduringly admired of the Western tradition, and which permeates his instrumental work also. This directness of communication would have been attractive to Duncan, who considered poetry and, by extension, art more generally, to be a mode of communication:

‘If you can’t hear me, it is probably because I don’t speak loud enough; and, if you don’t understand me, it is because the poetry isn’t any good, because I really feel, very strongly, that poetry should be lucid. I mean it as a communication, and if I fail to make that communication, I ask you to blame me. I do not believe that poetry should be obscure. What I have to say, if I fail to say it, then it’s my fault.’
(Duncan, transcribed from an audio recording of a poetry reading)

The nature and emotional affect of Schubert’s writing is a large subject, but its effect on Duncan is perhaps best illustrated in his own words. The following is extracted from an anecdote about enduring a potential lover playing the piano badly at her home:

… suddenly I heard a melody I had never heard before. It was so beautiful I had to rush from the room, from the house, before the girl or the mother could see my tears. Years later I heard the melody again. Of course it was Schubert – “The Shepherd on the Rock.”
(Duncan, 1964, p. 124)

Duncan’s fascination with Schubert reached its apotheosis with his play, Schubert, completed late in his life (1980), and performed in the same year. The play takes the form of what might be described as an occasionally interrupted monologue by the composer, who works at an ‘untuned rotten piano’. It is, perhaps, a distillation of Duncan’s view of the artist at work: the genius who is at once confident of the brilliance of his own abilities and wrestling with a vortex of social anxiety and emotional (not to mention physical) pain and frailty. Whether or not these romantic ideas appealed to Duncan’s sensibilities of his own artistic and emotional challenges, it is clear from his other writings that he developed an affinity for and, in his own mind, with Schubert that extended beyond simple admiration for the composer’s music. In a poem from 1970, Duncan describes time as a ‘saboteur’ for separating him from his idol, and laments

‘…
What songs we could have written
If your genius with mine
     had been combined
Harnessed by our single mind.
Now only silence sings them
The wind mourning for their loss.’
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, p. 185)

As evidenced in other poems, particularly Franz Schubert, the affinity felt by Duncan for Schubert seems to have had the effect of turning the latter into a distant beloved, to borrow a phrase from Beethoven’s song cycle, with Duncan describing a love

‘…
Far deeper than
                     I ever knew
For any woman[.]’
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, pp. 311-3)

Page one of the manuscript copy of 'Franz Schubert.

Page one of the manuscript copy of ‘Franz Schubert’.

Page two of the Franz Schubert manuscript, decorated by an idiosyncratic sketch of the composer.

Page two of the ‘Franz Schubert’ manuscript.

With his earthlier and sometimes frustrated relationship with Britten in mind, it was, one might suppose, the very separation and lack of artistic consummation that helped Duncan’s nostalgic and idealised affair with Schubert to flourish. This idealisation of Schubert and his music can be felt most strongly, perhaps, in the lines:

‘Only the deaf
                    dare listen to Schubert,
Music is noise, or too meaningful to bear.
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, pp. 313)’

Taken with Duncan’s comment, ‘great art affects me like great pain’ (Duncan, 1964, p. 88), this allows us to posit that Schubert specifically, and great music more generally, becomes, for Duncan, a symbol of aching perfection, a reification of and metaphor for the sublime. It is from this position, perhaps, that one of Duncan’s more poignant questions arose:

‘What are notes but tears with wings?’

Manuscript bearing the words 'What are notes but tears with wings?' decorated by Ronald Duncan with a drawing of music manuscript with the notes decorated with read paint, as if bloody.

Manuscript, What are notes but tears with wings? as decorated by Ronald Duncan.

Amongst the Schubert-related items held in the Ronald Duncan Collection are those connected to his plays ‘Girl Friday’ and ‘Schubert’ (including the script, an audio recording of a performance replete with the occasional wrong note at the piano, the music to be played at the ‘untuned rotten piano’, and programmes from performances), his correspondence (particularly with the prominent music lover and patron George Harewood), a film script (Obsession), the scores of some Schubert songs, and materials relevant to his work as the literary editor of ‘The Penguin Book of Accompanied Songs’ (also known as ‘Classical Songs for Children’).

For an enjoyable and easily accessible source of further information on Franz Schubert’s artistic and musical struggles, I would recommend the episode of BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Listening Service’ entitled ‘Schubert’s Dark Side’, which is available from the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0801l4l

Andrew Cusworth, 31.1.2018

Quoted sources
Duncan, R., All men are islands, Rupert Hart Davies, 1964.
Duncan, R., Weston-Smith, M., Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, 2003.

Britten, Kennedy, Duncan

The 22nd of November 1963 was the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The first broadcast assassination of a world leader, the murder of the President of the USA at the height of the Cold War, this was the epicentre of a political and media cataclysm the resultant ripples of which are still present in our thinking.

The 22nd of November 1963 was also Benjamin Britten’s 50th birthday – occurring on the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music. Despite some public fanfare, Britten’s birthday must have been all but forgotten in the furore emerging from the USA.

In her diary entry for the day, Rose Marie Duncan, Ronald Duncan’s wife, noted both events:

‘Bunny rang up in evening to say Kennedy had been shot. State of shock and amazement and real sorrow – watched T.V – news etc – and also tribute for B[enjamin] B[ritten]’s 50th birthday – rather boring and sententious – shot of R[onald] in very long floppy shorts, going off to play tennis, flanked by Ben and Peter like warders.’

The next entry continues the connection in the most unexpected of ways:

‘Still upset about Kennedy’s death. Watched 1-0 news on TV – pictures of Mrs K and general mix up – also the assassin – looking like a young Benjamin B[ritten]!’ (Rose Marie Duncan, 1963 Diary, EUL MS 397/18/1/9)

At 50, and a year on from his completion of his seminal War Requiem, Britten was no longer the ‘promising young composer’ to whom Ronald Duncan had been introduced, probably in 1936, by his college friend Nigel Spottiswoode. (Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands, Rupert Hart-Davis 1964, p. 130) Facilitated by the interest of all three men in the Peace Pledge Union and by Spottiswoode’s involvement in the production of the GPO Film Unit’s enduringly popular Night Mail (for which Britten wrote the score), the introduction led to a fast friendship between the two writers and instigated a creative exchange that would interest them for the remainder of their careers.

The first buds of this exchange appeared in the form of the Pacifist’s March, a ‘youthful’ work which Britten apparently showed little interest in revisiting later in life; (Duncan, 1964, p. 131) their creative engagement blossomed more fully in the late forties, following Duncan’s intervention in the libretto for Peter Grimes. This period saw the creation of The Rape of Lucretia, which was swiftly followed by works including a wedding anthem (Amo ergo sum) for their mutual friends George Lascelles (Lord Harewood) and Marion Stein, and music for the plays This way to the tomb, Stratton, and The eagle has two heads. Not all of their ideas were to come to fruition, and it is tantalising to know of works that were never realised, including at least one opera (based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), a large work referred to in correspondence as St Peter, and a response to the bombing of Hiroshima (referred to as Mea Culpa), which Duncan lamented as the potential War Requiem that never was. (Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography, Faber and Faber, 1992, pp. 242, 405; correspondence, Benjamin Britten to Ronald Duncan, EUL MS 397/644)

The traces of their friendship and collaboration kept in the Ronald Duncan Collection include photographs, libretti, news-cuttings, programmes, letters, copies of musical scores, and audio recordings including elements of the rehearsals for This way to the tomb. Amongst the more touching items is Lament for Ben (EUL MS 397/1046), a song contrafacted by Duncan from the trio of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A minor (No. 16, D. 845). Duncan underlaid the score in minute and heavily revised scrawl with a new poem lamenting the passing of his great friend, and signed it at the foot of the page ‘RD. 4.XI.76’ (Britten died on the 4th of December 1976, rather than the indicated November). The choice of Schubert is a poignant one: not only was Schubert Ronald Duncan’s favourite composer, but Britten himself performed and recorded a not inconsiderable number of Schubert’s works, and would play some of them for Duncan in the early days of their friendship. In his autobiography, All men are islands, Duncan wrote: ‘Britten and I were now constant companions. He used to play Schubert to me. I had been looking for Britten for ten years. Sometimes he would play Chopin, but it was Schubert that I would make him play over and over again.’ (Duncan, 1964, p. 132) And so, almost exactly forty years later, Duncan memorialised Britten through a piece that Britten may well have played for him in their youth.

The text of this appropriated song is barely legible in situ, but the poem Lament for Ben appears in the collected poems – albeit in a form that does not quite match the lyric so tortuously worked out under the musical score. Working from both the manuscript and the published poem, I have attempted to reconstruct this very personal tribute. In order to do so, I have blended the printed poem with that of the manuscript, adjusted one or two rhythms and word placements, and transposed the piece into a key more amenable to the average voice. Finally, I have made a recording of myself singing and accompanying the song to give a sense of what Ronald Duncan may have had in mind – possibly its first singing in any public sense.

And so, with apologies for the recording quality and my mid-November cold-filled voice, a musical offering from the Ronald Duncan collection in time for Britten’s birthday on the feast of St Cecilia: a song which, by coincidence, is not wholly inappropriate to the more lamentable events for which the date is sometimes remembered.

This post was written by our Digital Support Officer Andrew Cusworth.


Recorded in the Mary Harries Memorial Chapel, University of Exeter, with thanks to the chaplaincy and director of chapel music for permission for the use of the piano and chapel.

 

Lament for Ben
(to Schubert’s Trio Opus 42)

Is life, this life, his life
now lost, was that a dream,
And death, a dream too?
Whose sleep, whose dream
Are we who live?
This death, his death
makes all of us die too.
His life was ours;
His death is ours;
We grieve, for whom?
We grieve for ourselves.

May Bach and Purcell
Bend down to this bier
But let music sing
to sing their song
Their song, their song
Though poetry’s dumb.

In this waste, this grief
these notes alone lend us
yields us
give us
some relief
though brief
though brief

(Ronald Duncan, ed. Miranda Weston-Smith, Collected poems, Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, 2003, pp. 226-7)

An adapted score for Ronald Duncan’s ‘Lament for Benjamin Britten’ set to the Trio from Schubert’s Piano Sonata D845

Why not try playing it for yourself?