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In this interview Mark-Anthony Turnage describes his relationship with poetry and his approach to song setting. His recent focus on the genre continues with premieres of Songs of Sleep and Regret by Sarah Connolly at the Aldeburgh Festival (25 June) and Of Nature’s Light by Hannah Sandison at Opera Holland Park (1 July).

What poetry especially appeals to you?
That’s quite hard to define because I respond to poetry instinctively. When I read something I get a feeling whether I can set it – if it is too dense like T. S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas the musicality seems in-built already and I can’t easily add to it. The modern poets are harder in this respect so I’ve more often gone back to classic poetry, including 19th century and early 20th century writers. Over the years I’ve become fascinated by how succinct poems can be and I’m always looking for potential texts, though I don’t write any poetry myself like some composers do. I particularly like hearing poets read their own texts aloud, as the inner musicality of the words is revealed.

How do you decide whether to compose a work with a single poet or multiple poets?
The all-Hardy cycle Without Ceremony grew out of a request from baritone Gerald Finley. I’d included a single Hardy song in an earlier collection he’d sung, and he’d pointed out it had been the most popular with audiences. I’d also been reading a lot of Hardy’s novels and had discovered his Poems of 1912–1913 about his complex relationship with his wife at the end of her life. It seemed a very natural thing to collect these together into a cycle. Of Nature’s Light was different, assembling poetry by different writers on a central theme of green spaces rediscovered as a positive result of lockdown. This collection was prompted by mezzo Hannah Sandison, who’d planned the project and already done a lot of work collecting possible texts, so I just had to select the ones that appealed to me and would work well together. I already loved Keats and Blake and was interested to find the Flecker text. I homed in on other poems by Lawrence, Arnold and Kipling so they all featured North London locations I know well, such as Primrose Hill, Parliament Hill and Camden Town, as well as Kensington Gardens and along the River Thames.

How do you settle on the final order?
This is tricky but is largely controlled by contrasts of speed and scale. If we look at the Songs of Sleep and Regret for Sarah Connolly, the Emily Dickinson poem Remorse is Memory awake clearly had to be a fanfare-like opening movement and I knew the Stevie Smith poem Farewell had to provide the ending. George Eliot’s Roses needed to be a shorter, fast song, so would contrast well before the final slow Farewell. That left two Shakespeare sonnets, and poems by Joyce and Hardy to be assembled in the centre, with the Shakespeares separated and the longer Hardy poem providing the weight at the Golden Section of the work as a whole. It is a jigsaw puzzle I have to work through.

Why have you recently turned to song cycles with piano rather than ensemble?
You’re right that most of my earlier songs are with chamber ensemble or small orchestra, but I’d recently had a lot of requests from singers who wanted to include my music in song recitals. So, before and during lockdown, as I had a gap between opera projects, I consciously tried to create these, working through the voice types, with Silenced for tenor Allan Clayton, Without Ceremony for baritone Gerald Finley and the two cycles for mezzo being premiered at Aldeburgh and Holland Park. I also wanted to push myself to write piano accompaniments, as I’m not a natural pianist, so it was a technical challenge for me as a composer to create the variety required and enough hurdles for the accompanist.

How is composing songs different to opera?
One of the main distinctions is that I can really focus on the clarity of the words so they are understood. This is a mantra for me and explains why a lot of my song setting is syllabic rather than melismatic. It also directs me to the middle register voices like mezzo and baritone, as these are closer to the pitch of natural speech, and it means I’ve tended to avoid high soprano and low bass. I’ve been careful to fit the songs to the ranges of the singers so the music sits comfortably for them and is largely in their central register. With singers like Gerry Finley and Sarah Connolly, every word can come across – if you can’t understand a song I can’t see the point of writing it!

How do you approach word-setting?
I avoid painting the words literally – that is much too obvious. If there are references to high and low in the poem, or if there is a mention of a fanfare I don’t highlight that in the vocal line or accompaniment – that seems very wrong to me. It is more a general capturing of the mood of the words from getting inside the poetry to an almost obsessive degree. I also discuss things with the singer if they have personal ideas about the texts. For instance Sarah Connolly felt the James Joyce poem Sleep Now was slightly slower and more bluesy than I’d first thought and, as she is a good pianist and likes singing jazz, she could demonstrate this to me which was a wonderful insight.

Interviewed by David Allenby (2022)

25 June 2022, 7.30 pm
Songs of Sleep and Regret (world premiere)
Sarah Connolly, mezzo
Joseph Middleton, piano

Further performances at:
Paxton House, Scotland (26 Jul)
Wigmore Hall, London (28 Sep)

1 July 2022, 1.00 pm
Of Nature’s Light (world premiere)
Hannah Sandison, mezzo
Lana Bode, piano
Opera Holland Park

> View Mark-Anthony Turnage's songs with piano

Photo: Philip Gatward

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