John Donne, an English poet of the early 17th century, was a member of the Jacobean school of literature. This school emphasized metaphysical concepts, mysticism and eroticism, the use of unconventional figures as representative of other concepts, and Baroque lyrical and sweeping style. John Donne often embraced these concepts, fluent in metaphors and sensuality, especially as used in sonnets. His Holy Sonnets, for example, were written throughout his life at various times, often exemplifying these stylistic traits. Nine of these sonnets would later be collected by Benjamin Britten and set to music in his opus 23, a song cycle entitled, “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne.” One particular poem is entitled “O Might These Sighes and Teares,” a sonnet in iambic pentameter.
The poem is written in the first person. Though the gender is not specified, it is clear that it is from the viewpoint of a person who feels his mourning (over an unmentioned topic) has been in vain and is now lamenting the wasted time and fruitless effort he put forth to do so. Caught in a sort of cycle, he has realized that the time he wasted mourning is what he now mourns.
Britten’s understanding of Donne’s poetic concepts, from its themes to the very words themselves, is impeccable and truly evident in his setting of “O Might These Sighes and Teares.” Were the text not present at all, a listener could still undoubtedly grasp the lamenting nature of the song; its expression of such emotion is obvious without being cliché or unoriginal. This full musical grasp of the poetic intention-focused on the emotion above all else, rather than imagery-is perhaps the most engaging aspect of this song. A through-composed piece, a motive of a falling second is introduced initially-a figure that has historically represented sighing, in this case presented as the rhythmic figure of a quarter note followed by an eighth-making the mournful nature of the piece automatically apparent. (Interestingly, Britten would go on to prominently feature this half-step interval in the rest of the “Holy Sonnets” cycle.) Shortly after this figure’s introduction appears a quicker, more tear-oriented motive: the same interval, presented this time in the rhythm of three sixteenth notes or an eighth note triplet.
As stated, it is remarkable how clearly the emotions of the poetry are expressed through the music alone, and this is true for more than the described text painting. The first passage (mm1-12), restrained in nature and sparse in texture, it conveys the stunned silence that the words represent: “holy discontent,” “mourn’d in vaine.” Measures 13-21 thicken in texture as the atmosphere changes from dismayed to more openly weeping, with the accompaniment taking a more active role as the text describes his pain, using the term “suffer” repeatedly. There is an outburst at measure 22 when the narrator’s mood turns to anger, describing the “night scouting thief,” the “self-tickling proud,” and other such sinners who at least have the comfort of past joys (as opposed to he, in constant torment over his regret); at this point the resentment is evident in the music, with the texture at its thickest by way of an ongoing tremolo in the piano.
This importance of the poetic themes as expressed in musical language is not to say that Britten did not truly care for the importance of the text; it was clearly his guide in doing such. As always, his declamation is impeccable. The setting is almost exclusively syllabic, without range or accompaniment figures obscuring the text. The integrity of the original poetry is left intact, as no words are omitted nor added. Interestingly, though, was Britten’s choice to obscure the structure of the poem as it was originally printed, instead treating it more like prose (as he was prone to doing).
Another intriguing element of this song is Britten’s allusion to Purcell, with whose music he found himself especially entranced at the stage in his life during which the piece was written. This is evident in his usage of such devices as the “Scotch snap” (a Baroque rhythmic motive involving a short-long pattern, such as a sixteenth followed by a dotted eighth). Though much of the poetic meter and accents translate directly into the musical setting, Britten utilized these devices to alter certain points for dramatic reasons; for example, in measure 24 the latter syllable of “itchy” is given the emphasis, not for the accuracy of the language but for the discomfort that Britten intentionally chose to convey, parallel with the narrator’s discomfort with the truth of his words.
The text is set to a vocal line spread over a somewhat large range of G4 to A5. It is dramatic in nature with phrase lengths varying in length with the differing dramatic intention behind them, from fairly short in the beginning (expressing stunned disbelief) to generally long (in the heightened, dramatic section with anger driving the phrases). It is typically more declamatory than it is melodic, with leaps increasing as intensity heightens (around measure 22) and plentiful accidentals coinciding with frequent modulations.
Harmonic choices are thoughtful and calculated in the piece, changing frequently to provide tension and lack of resolution (as the narrator has no sense of such). For example, the piece begins in e minor and quickly (not five measures into it) modulates to b minor for a similar length before again modulating to g minor. The accompaniment exists almost exclusively to portray the “sighs” and “tears” motives in the first section, up until measure 13. At this point it is purely harmonic support until the motive begins again measure 29; at no point does it contain the vocal line, nor does it work as counterpoint with the vocal line. Occasionally the phrases are in sync, while at other times (ex. m.7) the piano essentially echoes the vocal line. There is a two-bar piano prelude to introduce the aforementioned motives.
Even dynamic markings reflect Britten’s relationship with Donne’s text. The first section begins pp, grows as far as f (by measure 8) but quickly falls back into p and soon pp again. The second section, a differing but similarly contained emotion, follows a similar dynamic pattern, featuring a crescendo from pp in the beginning before reverting right back to p and pp (and a further decrescendo from there). It isn’t until the third section, the outburst of anger and resentment towards the sinners who suffer no regret, that the dynamics settle at a louder volume (hovering around f, growing as loud as ff but diminishing to p to transition in the next section). The final section is all marked pp with slight decrescendos over phrases.
The final gripping element with which Britten leaves the listeners is a lack of resolution when the accompaniment and singer end together on a unison: the dominant (in e minor again at this point). This leaves no question that the text was Britten’s guide as this, the last element in the piece, is completely reflective of the narrator’s eternal suffering that he knows he will continue to endure.