Four Sacred Sonnets, by William Wordsworth (1908-1988)

There's a potential confusion of names here that I want to clear up quickly. There were two William Wordsworths: a noted 19th century English poet, and a less well known 20th century English composer who was his descendent and namesake. It is the latter gentleman who, in 1946, composed these remarkable songs on four of the Holy Sonnets (Divine Meditations) of the great English metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631).

Wordsworth has provided some outstanding recital material for advanced singers here. He was primarily a symphonist, and his keen sense of musical architecture greatly enriches these songs. He selected and ordered the poems for maximum effect (the order in which Donne wrote the poems, or intended them to be read, is unknown), with the powerful Batter my Heart  perfectly placed as the set's dramatic climax:

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an ursurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue,
Yet dearely 'I love you,'and would be lov'd faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie,
Divorce mee,'untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The amazing physicality of these lines, and the remarkable relationship with God they reveal, are unique to Donne. Rather than going into the intricacies of sonnet form, I will simply share this observation of C.A. Patrides: '...the most impressive aspect of Donne's use of the sonnet is that he appears not to use the form at all. So swift is the flow of the given moment, and so overpowering are the punctuation and the imagery, that the rhymed lines are submerged until we are, abruptly, stopped...[Donne] thoroughly obliterated the sonnet form even as he was demonstrating its immense powers.' (John Donne, The Complete English Poems, New York, 1991).

Wordsworth's musical style is tonal, spare and muscular--ideal for the task. In this song he uses a through-composed form based on a dotted note figure that sketches agitation, a heavily syncopated pattern of 'battering' chords, and a series of half-note chords that descend in fluid thirds and fourths and may be associated with reason and renewal. The song's vocal gamut runs from G below the treble clef up to top space E, and its tessitura is in the lower half of the staff. The other songs add only low F to this profile.

With such subterranean low notes, the set appears to be written exclusively for very low voices, but alternate notes have been provided that (though less dramatically effective) cut the bottoms and tops off the most challenging phrases, eliminating the lowest third or fourth of the gamut, as well as the high E. This allows mezzos and baritones to undertake the set, though the low tessitura will not favor them.

The opening song, At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow your trumpets, Angels, is a spirited opener, with a closing section asking for repentance and grace. Thou has made me, and shall thy work decay is a reasoned plea to be drawn ever closer to God and a perfect lead-in to the fervent and vigorous Batter my Heart. The set closes profoundly with the, literally, death-defying Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful. What an abundance of remarkable language and powerful musical expression there is here!

Though their basic message is never in doubt, note that Donne's lines--like Shakespeare's (his contemporary)--are sprinkled with archaic words and turns-of-phrase that hinder facile comprehension. So do not be dismayed if these songs are difficult for your audience to fully assimilate and appreciate at first hearing. Program them for yourself (you'll have the luxury of penetrating them deeply as you work them up), and present them as an ongoing part of your audience's education.

Four Sacred Sonnets, by William Wordsworth, were published by Alfred Lengnick & Co. Ltd., London, in 1946.


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Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633