Sonnets and Love Songs
baritone and piano
Instrumentation baritone (or mezzo-soprano), piano
First Performance October 2011, Oxford Lieder Festival, UK; Roderick Williams (baritone), Andrew West (piano)
Commissioned by the Oxford Lieder Festival, with funds from The Fidelio Charitable Trust and the PRS for Music Foundation ‘Women Make Music’
Pessoa embraced the idea that he was composed of multiple beings. He believed that his singular being did not exist. In his poetry he demonstrated this idea by splitting himself into multiple personas and writing from their perspectives. He dubbed them ‘heteronyms’ rather than pseudonyms, since they were not false names but “other names”, belonging to distinct literary personalities. Not only were their styles different; they thought differently, they had different religious and political views, different aesthetic sensibilities, different social temperaments, and each produced a large body of poetry.
In the 1910s Pessoa flourished as a Portuguese poet, whether writing in his own name or in those of his heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis. But he still nurtured the dream of gaining acclaim for his poems in English. Shakespeare, his literary idol, was the writer he strove to emulate and, if possible, surpass. What so impressed Pessoa, was not only the quality of Shakespeare’s work, but the specific capacity of the Elizabethan poet and playwright to forge personalities. Pessoa defined himself not as a poet but more essentially as a dramatist, in his English sonnets aspiring to reproduce Shakespeare’s “complexity” in a “modern adaptation”. In a certain way, he succeeded. Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are all about love, whereas Pessoa’s sonnets address a wide range of themes, particularly philosophical ones: appearance vs. reality, the impossibility of truly knowing others or ourselves, the tyranny of time and destiny, and the inscrutable mystery of existence. Though these themes are not especially modern, Pessoa’s treatment of them in the sonnet form was arguably innovative. His English poetry is full of striking moments and takes up the same themes that fascinate us in his Portuguese verses.
Sonnets and Love Songs consists of six songs, setting three of Pessoa’s 35 Sonnets, one poem from the collection ‘The Mad Fiddler’, and two English poems by the heteronym ‘Alexander Search’. The Sonnets in this collection are about life: innocence, turmoil and strength – someone trying to understand or make sense of the world perhaps. Two of the poems (Hidden & Silent Streams) are about love, although they aren’t huge proclamations of love but rather one trying to express how he feels. A Temple stands out as the darkest poem in the collection and reflects on one’s fears (perhaps around love), describing the ‘temple’ he builds around himself for protection. The piece uses this collection of poems to form a journey: from naivety, through turmoil where one might hide from the truth, an expression of love, to eventual strength, freedom perhaps (from the inner turmoil).