A nine-movement song cycle for baritone with piano. Dedicated to Daniel Belcher and Pamela Haynes. Texts: letter excerpts from English Romantic poet John Keats to Fanny Brawne (his fiancee) throughout their two year relationship, during which Keats became ill with tuberculosis and was sent to Rome (for the warmer climate) where he died.
I wrote this cycle with Danny’s specific voice in mind: not only the timbre of his voice, but also the inflection I knew he would bring to certain words and phrases. This is why I love to write for musicians I know well. I relish anticipating what they will enjoy in the music (and words in this case), and how they will interpret the work. The same is true of Pamela Haynes on piano.
I’ve included a few program notes about each movement, for those who might find them interesting.
I. “Brighter than Bright” conveys the apprehensive passion of new love. I found the prolific wordsmith’s search for adjectives to describe Fanny quite beguiling.
II. “Ah Herté Mine” explores the mysterious fragility of “deep” love. Triplets against duplets and frequent modal shifts depict the poet’s attempt to find his footing in this new territory. Keats had relationships with other women previously, but his affection for Fanny impacted him quite differently.
III. “Credo” is a Passacaglia (a slow tune written over a repeating bass figure). Bell tones reminiscent of the Westminster Chimes in London are incorporated throughout the piano part. The vocal line is intended to resemble the piety of Gregorian chant.
IV. This ABA-form movement entitled “Pleasures,” begins and ends with a lilting expression of utter joy and delight. The B-section is a love duet between the piano and voice, built on a 16th-note ostinato (heard in the inner voices of the piano) representing Keats’ passionate heartbeat. A variation on this same ostinato returns in the final movement as Keats’ vital organs strive to continue functioning.
V. This turbulent movement entitled “Impossibilities” describes the symptoms Keats experienced when first falling ill. The piano part represents the blood-flow to his lungs, functioning as an undertow against the melody (derived from the third movement: Keats’ Credo of love). The end of this movement is the true turning point in the larger song cycle, as Keats understands and calmly accepts his fate.
VI. “A Frog in a Frost” includes leapfrog gestures in the piano, which are echoed in the voice. It has a charming presentation, but the undercurrent reflects Keats’ physically weakened state after becoming ill.
VII. Much of the melodic material in “My Expected Heaven” is borrowed from the mating call of a male Robin. The vertical piano chords on each beat represent bars on a birdcage (the illness holding Keats captive, and separating him from Fanny).
VIII. “Immortality” expresses Keats’ fury and frustration with the inability to will himself toward better health, and the possibility of a long happy life with Fanny. This dramatic setting in minor mode clearly foreshadows Keats’ demise.
IX. “from Italy” — The artist Joseph Severn cared for Keats during the poet’s final days, and described scenes in which Keats would fall asleep and then, upon awakening, weep bitterly with the realization that he was still alive. That idea was very present in my mind as I composed this final movement. It opens and closes with a low descending piano figure, a ritornello of sorts representing Keats’ body shutting down. The 16th-note “pulsing” ostinato from the fourth movement returns, indicating the insistent continuation of Keats’ vital organs despite his desire to die. After Danny sang through this movement for the first time, he wrote to me saying, “I love the fight in this one.” His interpretation is heart-wrenching and absolutely perfect.
Daniel Belcher, baritone
Pamela Haynes, piano
Haley Neilson, recording engineer (October 2017)
Recorded at Wine Recital Hall, Manchester University
North Manchester, Indiana