Laura Sonnets

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BOLCOM, WILLIAM (b. 1938). LAURA SONNETS (Francesco Petrarca [1304-1374]) for Baritone Voice and Piano. Edward B. Marks Music Company, 2011 (Hal Leonard). Tonal, X; G^sup #^^sub 2^-F^sup #^^sub 4^; Tess: mL-mH; regular meters with changes; varied tempos; V/M-D, P/M-D; 21 pages.

These songs, commissioned by the American Liszt Society in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt, were first performed by Thomas Hampson and Craig Rutenberg at the University of Georgia on February 18,2011.

The sonnets of Petrarch have been a source of inspiration to art song composers over the years. The question of whether Laura ever really existed, or if she existed only as an idealized woman in the imagination of the poet, has been discussed ever since the poetry became known. Bolcom in his "Note for Laura Sonnets" dismisses the question, saying that it doesn't matter whether she actually existed, because she became real in the poetry. The five sonnets Bolcom chose to set are numbers 5, 90, 267, 286, and 292. The first two sonnets he set portray Laura as living. The third (267) relates his grief when he learned that she had died. The final two are reflections on her after her death. The settings are in the original Italian, and translations (by Robert M. Darling) are given in the back of the score. There is no English "singing version."

I. Sonetto 5 (X; B^sup [musical flat]^^sub 2^-F^sup #^^sub 4^,; Tess: mH; 3/4, 4/4; Andante tranquillo; stately ... = c. 80; V/D, P/D; 5 pages). This first song in the set focuses on her name, "the name that Love wrote on my heart." The poet says that he may be unworthy to honor her, a lady worthy of reverence, and suggests that "Apollo is incensed" that a mere mortal should speak "of his eternally green boughs (laurel)" The note below the translation explains that the poem is a wordplay on Laura's name Latinized (Laureta). The poet placed portions of the name in words in each stanza of the poem: LAUdando, REal, TAci, and again, LAUdare, REverire, morTAi (appropriate letters capitalized). These words also describe her: (roughly translated) laudable, regal, silent, to praise (praiseworthy), to revere (revered), mortal; morTAi is a reference to the poet, whose mortal tongue is perhaps not worthy to praise her in the opinion of Apollo, who reveres the evergreen laurel tree, another reference to her name.

The piano introduction that opens the song seems to bring the listener into another time and place with its somewhat dissonant four-part chords that remind the listener of clanging bells. In this passage both hands move in eighth note block chords, with the right hand in sixths combining with the left hand's many sevenths, ninths, diminished octaves, etc., creating the belllike sounds and necessitating many accidentals for the pianist. At three points, the left hand plays three soft tritones, very low on the keyboard, resembling low bells. Over one of these sustained chords, the voice enters with skips of sixths to illustrate "Quando io movo i sospiri" (When I move my sighs [to call you]). The vocal writing is mostly syllabic, and often the singer's intervals are small, although some word painting uses larger intervals. The phrase "redoubles for high endeavor my strength" is long-ranged, and reaches its high point (F^sup #^^sub 4^, the highest note in the set) on "valore." The use of dynamic contrasts, piano register changes, and texture changes, as well as the repetitions of the bell-like passages, give drama to the song. Although the vocal line is not doubled by the piano, finding pitches should not be a problem.

The song clearly follows the form of the poetry, with the piano marking the ends of each of the stanzas with sections of the four-voice chords that appear at the beginning of the song. To introduce the final stanza of the song, "Apollo disdains that a mere mortal tongue presumes to speak of his laurel," the pedaled broken chords in the piano's higher register create an ethereal effect for several measures before bass octaves are added. …