Five of the best musical settings of British poems
British poets have long inspired composers with their words. We pick out some of the best classical songs to have taken inspiration from poetry
Many of the world’s great poets have, of course, had their work set by leading composers. From Schubert’s settings of Goethe and Schumann’s of Heine and Mörike to the collaborations between Britten and WH Auden, the list is nothing if not extensive.
For our purposes today, however, we are going to celebrate settings of British poets. Below, each of the BBC Music Magazine editorial team names their favourite. We’d also be delighted to hear yours…
William Denis Browne's setting of Lovelace's 'To Gratiana, Singing and Dancing’
The 17th-century Richard Lovelace was a staunch Cavalier, fighting on behalf of the king during the English Civil War. But he was also a fine poet, renowned for the grace and beauty of his verses. ‘To Gratiana, Singing and Dancing’ describes a young woman as she ‘steeres that Noble Frame, Soft as her breast, sweet as her voyce’ as ‘The floore lay pav’d with broken hearts.’ The softly lilting lines proved perfect for the tragically short-lived composer William Denis Browne (he was killed at Gallipoli at just 26) who incorporates into the piano accompaniment a melody from an anonymous Allmayne taken from Elizabeth Rogers’s 1656 Virginal Book. The resulting song is joyful, yes, but as with so much music of the time, tinged with melancholy and regret.
Chosen by Oliver Condy
Butterworth's setting of AE Houseman's A Shropshire Lad
The poet AE Housman was an intriguing figure. A starchy, no-nonsense classical scholar, he revealed a very different character in his poetry, not least in his collection A Shropshire Lad, which combines wistful reminiscences of rural England with reflections on young men being sent to their deaths in the Boer War. George Butterworth’s sublime settings of six of the poems are haunting enough in their own right, but are given an added pathos by the fact that the composer himself lost his life at the Somme in 1916. His orchestral A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody, based on his setting of ‘Loveliest of Trees’ is equally moving.
Chosen by Jeremy Pound
Walton's setting of Phineas Fletcher's A Litany
Phineas Fletcher’s A Litany begins in exquisite, melancholic simplicity, each word falling like a single tear. Published in the English writer’s 1633 Poetical Miscellanies, this devotional poem meditates on Mary Magdalene’s grief as, at the feet of Jesus, she weeps. Its lines are for me inextricably linked with two beautiful choral settings by Orlando Gibbons (Fletcher’s words were later added to one of Gibbons's hymn tunes), William Walton and Kenneth Leighton. I first heard the haunting Walton, written when he was just 15, sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; apt, it turns out, as Fletcher (1582-1650) was a scholar and fellow there before becoming a chaplain in Norfolk.
Chosen by Rebecca Franks
Walton's setting of Thomas Jordan's The Lord Mayor's Table
Thomas Jordan was employed as a poet by the Corporation of London in the mid-17th century, where he was immersed annually in the pageantry and spectacle of the Lord Mayor’s Shows. His poem The Lord Mayor’s Table conjures up images of feasting and high living, painting the capital as ‘The Promised Land’. Walton’s setting, written in 1962 after he’d moved to the Italian island of Ischia with his wife Susana, is the first of a cycle, A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table, written for soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for the 1962 City of London Festival. With its tripping rhythms, virtuosic piano accompaniment and hint of pomp, it’s full of jollity and fizzes with festive pleasure.
Chosen by Neil McKim
Finzi's setting of Seven Poems by Robert Bridges
Though a doctor by training, Robert Bridges was Britain’s poet laureate from 1913. A slightly marginal writer in the history of British poetry, his poems nevertheless inspired many British composers of his time, including Hubert Parry, Gustav Holst and Gerald Finzi. Finzi’s setting of Seven Poems by Robert Bridges includes one of the composer’s best known works, ‘My Spirit Sang All Day’, though the other less-often performed songs in the set are just as wonderful. Finzi sets each with absolute care and attention to the words, from his beautifully and serene ‘Nightingales’ to the quick and carefree ‘Haste on, my joys!’.
Chosen by Elinor Cooper
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.