Jonathan Dove on his writing process and how he composed 'Man, Woman, Child', his latest song cycle
The British composer describes his process of setting words to music, how he writes an accompaniment and the process of working with young singers
During the recent residential Samling Artist Programme, Jonathan Dove talked to young singers about how his writing process and how he composed his new song cycle.
When I write songs, the hardest thing is finding the right words. There’s a lot of wonderful poetry that isn’t singable. Simple texts can be better because the words allow space for the music to add something, but they still have to speak to me. Once I’ve found the right words, they will tell me how they want to be sung.
I was introduced to the work of Australian poet Judith Wright in a London coffee bar, one very rainy morning just before the pandemic, by Karon Wright (no relation!), the artistic and executive director of Samling Institute for Young Artists.
Karon had asked me to write a cycle to mark 25 years of the extraordinary work that Samling Institute does to nurture the very best young singers and song pianists. Her idea was to have a set of songs for two singers, a man and a woman, singing in alternation. She had made a selection of five of Judith Wright’s poems that she thought might work well together.
Two voices. That already suggests that there has to be a relationship between the singers. I immediately wanted some of the songs to be duets: this would be a duet cycle, something I had tried only once before. I took Karon’s selection of poems away and mulled them over. I found them very lyrical and direct. I wanted to explore further, and read more of Judith Wright’s work. She writes with wonderful vitality, about life and love and nature.
I was hoping to find some kind of narrative that would link our two singers. For a while, I pondered a larger selection of ten poems, mostly from one particular collection, Woman to Man: I made preliminary sketches to see how they might work together as songs. Eventually, I settled on just six, including four of Karon’s original choices. Gradually, a story emerged of a man, coming home from war, who meets a woman in a wine bar: it ends with the voice of the child that emerges from this union. As I started to set Wright’s words to music in earnest, I discovered that the clarity and appeal of her writing is deceptive: it has hidden depths, and takes the reader or listener further than they were expecting. When I started trying to sing them, I found I was being drawn to imagine new sounds – new for me, at least.
I often work on the accompaniment first: the vocal melodies arise from the encounter between the accompanying textures and the words. Some of the images of nature initially tempted me to paint too much, which was going to get in the way of the vocal lines. Complex birdsong had to be stripped back to fewer notes, and as I explored tree imagery (‘Standing here in the night / we are turned to a great tree’), rich arpeggiation had to be simplified to rooted, strummed chords, like the accompaniment to a folk song, to allow the voices to flow freely. It was exciting – these were sounds I hadn’t made before.
The final poem, 'Stars', was the most challenging: it took me a long time to find the right texture. I started off with very busy piano twinkling, with the vocal line in the middle of it all, but eventually I found that the stars need to emerge more slowly, in a vast sky.
I can’t sing. So I sing through the voices of other people. I can only offer something that performers may connect with and take out into the world. I hardly ever mark dynamics or expression for the singer: I want the musical performance to be shaped by the singer’s individual response to the words, and to the stories they tell. Not everything is in the notes: the song must be completed by the singer. I’m just part of a relay race, passing the baton on to other musicians.
I was delighted to spend a few days in July with the Samling Institute at their residential Artist Programme, along with course leaders Sir Mark Elder and Yvonne Kenny, and to see for myself the fantastically intensive work that goes on, and the love and care that the team invest in young artists. It was their first programme since the pandemic: it was very special to see these young singers, who have lost out on so much, starting to find their wings again. It’s hardly surprising that so many Samling Artists go on to such impressive careers, including the three who will premiere my cycle – soprano Alexandra Lowe, tenor Filipe Manu and pianist James Baillieu. I’ll be working with them in the run-up to the concert and I’m excited to see what they bring to these beautiful poems.
Man, Woman, Child will receive its premiere at the Samling Artist Showcase at London's Wigmore Hall on Sunday 7 November.
Read all our reviews of Jonathan Dove's music here.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.