In July 1945, some two months after the end of the Second World War in Europe, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the composer Benjamin Britten went on a concert tour in Germany to play for displaced people, many of whom were still living in the death camps and had nowhere to go. Menuhin had proposed to take the pianist Gerald Moore as his accompanist, but Britten, who (in Menuhin’s words) had been “casting about for some commitment to the human condition whose terrible depths had been so newly revealed,” asked if he might go instead, and Moore agreed to step aside.

They played to audiences two or three times a day for ten days in what Menuhin described as “the saddest ruins of the Third Reich.” In a letter to his partner, Peter Pears, Britten described how they traveled by car over bad roads and saw completely destroyed towns and “millions” of displaced persons, many of whom were in appalling condition. They visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and stayed a night there and visited the hospital. Conditions had improved since the British authorities had taken control. The prison huts had been burned down and the occupants were transferred to the former SS barracks where there was a theater. They were dressed in army blankets made into skirts and suits by the tailors among them, but they still looked haggard and many were still sick after their appalling experience.

For the rest of his life Britten barely spoke about what he had seen, even to those closest to him. During an interview in the early 1960s, he described his trip as being “in many ways a terrifying experience,” and near the end of his life he told Pears it “had coloured everything he had written subsequently.” On his return home, despite being feverishly ill, he set to music nine of the nineteen Holy Sonnets of John Donne for high voice and piano. He had been contemplating these poems for over a year, his attention having been drawn to them by W. H. Auden, and the German tour may have served as a catalyst for action. He began work on August 2, just days after his return, and completed the cycle on August 19. It was published as his Opus 35 and dedicated to Pears, and they gave the first performance together at the Wigmore Hall on November 22 that year.

John Donne was born to Catholic parents in 1572, in the aftermath of the Reformation, and was brought up and educated in the Catholic faith. Disease and death were commonplace. His father and three of his sisters all died before he was nine years old. His younger brother, Henry, was arrested for harboring a priest and avoided trial and probable execution by dying in the horrific conditions of Newgate Prison. His uncle Jasper Heywood, who was head of the Jesuit mission in England, was captured and sent to the Tower of London and avoided execution only by accepting banishment to France for the rest of his life.

At some point Donne abandoned his Catholic faith and embraced the new religion. He remained a deeply religious man and became the Preacher of the chapel in Lincoln’s Inn and eventually the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, in which office he died. His latest biographer, John Stubbs, questioned in his 2007 book, John Donne: The Reformed Soul, whether Donne ever really ceased to be a Catholic. Donne’s Holy Sonnets do not answer this question, but given all the circumstances it is hardly surprising that they are infused with such themes as sin and guilt, death and final judgment, hope of eternal life, repentance, and love and redemption.

Britten was not a practicing Christian, but he saw the musicality in the religious poems nonetheless. Whether he now felt some unease at his own conscientious objection to the war that had enabled him to avoid fighting against the most recent religious persecution can only be conjecture. What is clear is that he responded magnificently in his music to the themes expressed in the poems, but surprisingly, and regrettably, his settings have not been universally admired. Nor are they often performed as a complete cycle, and in the seventy-five years since they were composed, there have only been three complete recordings.

Words such as “abrasive” and “excoriating” have been used in respect to his settings, and it appears that the music creates a problem specifically for literary-minded listeners. I have even heard an almost visceral expression of contempt for the settings by an English teacher. The objection, it seems, is that the music interferes with Donne’s meter and accents, which are fundamental to any reading of the poems. It is, of course, possible to reply to such views by saying that no one has to listen to the songs and that the poems are still there to be read and enjoyed on their own, but it is more interesting to examine the reasons for such objections and to place them in the context of what Britten was seeking to achieve.

The starting point must be Britten himself. His composition of the Holy Sonnets followed hard on the heels of his first opera, Peter Grimes, whose premiere had been a conspicuous success. In the program notes for the production, he explained what he wanted to achieve in his vocal music:

One of my chief aims is to try and restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom, and vitality that have been curiously rare since the death of Purcell. In the past hundred years, English writing for the voice has been dominated by strict subservience to logical speech-rhythms, despite the fact that accentuation according to sense often contradicts accentuation demanded by emotional content. Good recitative should transform the natural intonations and rhythms of everyday speech into memorable musical phrases (as with Purcell), but in more stylised music, the composer should not deliberately avoid unnatural stresses if the prosody of the poem and the emotional situation demand them, nor be afraid of a high-handed treatment of words, which may need prolongation far beyond their common speech-length, or a speed of delivery that would be impossible in conversation.(Sadler’s Wells Opera Book, No. 3, 1945; ©️ the Britten-Pears Foundation.)

By pursuing this aim, so lucidly explained, Britten set English vocal music on a new path. He had already begun this process in two orchestral song cycles—Les Illuminations and Serenade for Tenor, Horns and Strings—and had consolidated it with Peter Grimes, but his settings of the Holy Sonnets are for piano accompaniment only and can be seen as a further step on the same path. Previously, English composers—among them George Butterworth, Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, Peter Warlock, Gerald Finzi, and Ralph Vaughan Williams—had set numerous poems to music, and their settings are in many instances sublime and are still frequently performed in concert and on recordings, but their approach was to compose music that more or less precisely matched the meter of the poetry. Their tunes were shaped by the rhythm and pace of the poem and left the structure of the poem more or less unruffled. A line or a word might be repeated here or there for emphasis, but that was about all.

Britten wanted to break free from this constraint and to compose music that was more expressive of the emotional content of the poetry. To achieve this, it was necessary to abandon the speech rhythms of the poem and to give free rein to the music. As a result, his settings proceed at their own pace and contain their own dynamic and rhythmic contrasts and other techniques of composition that are pertinent to music and have no counterpart in poetry. The effect has been to change the emphasis within the poems and even to influence their meaning. Britten’s sequence is a new work in its own right, and criticism based on the fact that it disregards Donne’s singular poetic techniques is, for this reason alone, misplaced.

Britten selected those Holy Sonnets that he felt able to arrange in a sequence. The link between them is death and the feelings aroused in a Christian conscience by the contemplation of death. This becomes apparent from the opening bars:

Oh my blacke soule! Now thou art summoned

By sicknesse, death’s herald and champion.

When recited in ordinary speaking voice, these lines set the scene for what follows but do little more than that. In Britten’s hands, they are infused with terror as the poet contemplates the imminent possibility of death and—as any Christian would understand—the prospect of eternal damnation. Both voice and accompaniment are marked fortissimo, and words such as “Oh” and “soul” are extended—a half-note instead of a quarter-note—for further emphasis; the couplet ends on a rising crescendo that makes clear the intensity of the poet’s fears.

The music then continues as the poet describes how his soul is trapped by his own sin:

Thou are like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done

Treason, and durst not turne to whence hee is fled,

Or like a thiefe, which till death’s doom be read,

Wisheth himselfe deliver’d from prison;

But damn’d and hal’d to execution,

Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.

The opening words of this passage are marked with a rapid diminuendo such that on the word “pilgrim” the music becomes pianissimo—dark and self-pitying. It continues in this vein throughout the first four lines and then, with a dramatic crescendo, it nails the poet’s terror as he compares his soul’s plight to that of a prisoner “damn’d and haled to execution.”

Then something remarkable happens: the mood changes in the sestet to hope and redemption, for which Britten has conjured up music of lyrical tenderness and beauty. In effect, the music releases the feelings that the strictly disciplined poetry contains:

Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lacke;

But who shall give thee that grace to beginne?

Oh make thyself with holy mourning blacke,

And red with blushing, as thou art with sinne;

Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might

That being red, it dyes red soules to white.

The effect is achieved here not so much by dynamic contrasts as by introducing extended notes and pauses to achieve a mood of quiet reflection, as, for example, in the seminal line “But who shall give thee that grace to beginne?” The listener is left with a feeling of anxiety, tempered with hope of redemption.

A few more examples will suffice to illustrate the range of emotions that the music evokes. The third setting, for example, “O might those sighes and teares,” is a deeply reflective poem in which the poet dwells upon his past idolatry and the pain it had caused him:

What griefs my heart did rent?

That sufferance was my sinne; now I repent

Cause I did suffer, I must suffer pain.

The tempo is slow, the accompaniment spare—save for one moment when the poet reminds himself of his past sinful indulgence:

Th’ hydroptique drunkard, and night scouting thief,

The itchy lecher and self-tickling proud

Have the remembrance of past joyes for relief of coming ills.

Here Britten’s crafty word painting shakes the poet for one moment out of his gloom; but it soon returns:

To poore me is allow’d

No ease; for long, yet vehement griefe hath been

Th’ effect and cause, the punishment and sinne.

The poetic idea is difficult, the music quiet, the tempo slow and deliberate, and the accompaniment minimal. The listener is left in no doubt that this is a moment of profound meditation and significance.

The fourth setting, “Oh, to vex me,” is perhaps the most extraordinary of all. The poet dwells on his inconstancy, which “unnaturally hath begot/ A constant habit; that when I would not/ I change in vows, and in devotione.” He ends with this:

So my devout fitts come and go away,

Like a fantastic Ague: save that here

Those are my best dayes, when I shake with feare.

The music proceeds at breakneck speed, and the song lasts only a few seconds longer than a minute in performance; the last phrase, “when I shake with fear,” is sung over nine bars as swirling arpeggios on the piano imitate the poet’s shaking with fear.

The sixth poem in the sequence is Donne’s tribute to his recently deceased wife, Ann More, a great-niece of the saintly Sir Thomas More:

Since she whom I lov’d hath pay’d her last debt

To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,

And her Soule early into Heaven ravished,

Wholly on heavenly things my mind is sett.

Britten’s inclusion of this poem here is a masterstroke in that it contrasts with all that has preceded and follows it, and he has conjured up music of great lyrical beauty to reflect Donne’s love—and indeed his respect—for his wife. It is an unforgettable moment, and it touches the heart more deeply than poetry could possibly do on its own.

The sequence ends fittingly with Donne’s mighty reflection on death itself, “Death be not proud.” It is sometimes said that the final couplet

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die

is an expression of defiance at the prospect of death, but as the first line makes clear, in reality it is an affirmation that death is not an end but the beginning of eternal life. The genius of Britten is that his music somehow manages to capture this delicate balance.

The poems themselves are complex and almost kaleidoscopic in their changes of mood. Undoubtedly, familiarity with the poems aids listening to the music. It is perhaps fair to describe certain passages of the music—but not the work as a whole—as “abrasive” or “excoriating.” Those passages are amply justified by the severity of the underlying poetry. The music generally reflects and amplifies the full range of the emotions suggested by the poetry, and the result is a work of depth, subtlety, and beauty. It may perhaps not be easy listening at first, but perseverance yields rich rewards.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 6, on page 35
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