To be sung without bombast

Exploring how the stories we hear all around us can give a fresh insight on song repertoire.  Or, how a day trip to Brighton helped uncover the character of the narrator in Finzi's, It was a lover and his lass.

Stories are everywhere, helping us to make sense of our world.  Each day, when travelling on the train, the bus, or seeking quiet refuge in a coffee shop, the threads of people's lives weave around me.  As people share their stories with family, friends and strangers, I hear the drone of despair, the fanfare of hope and the nervous staccato of trials and tribulations.    This is why I love Shakespeare: He is able to capture the melody and rhythm of people's lives in a way that gets to the heart of their humanity. 

Because stories are living, breathing things, it's one of the reasons why I do a lot of my interpretative thinking about song and opera in places where I am surrounded by people. The everyday and not so everyday situations that animate our lives offers fresh inspiration and with it, a contemporary insight on a score.

Sandcastles and song
Right now, I'm working on Finzi's, setting of Shakespeare's It was a lover and his lass.  Because of this I've taken myself off to Brighton for the day: To understand a song based in pastoral comedy, it seems I need to leave the city and head for somewhere more laid back.  Admittedly, Brighton is more seaside than cornfield, but the freedom of its ocean along with its care free attitude guarantees a salacious atmosphere in the summer months.

But before I explore how the environment of Brighton can give a fresh perspective on the score, I first need to look at Shakespeare's lyrics to understand how Finzi re-interpreted them, and consider how that re-interpretation might resonate with us today.

Passion and puns
More often than not, when Shakespeare used music in his comedies and tragedies, it had a dramatic function; to move the drama on, reveal a point of character or set a scene. In Act V, Sc. III of As You Like It, Shakespeare uses the song It was a lover and a lass to celebrate the impending marriage of Touchstone and Audrey. The lyrics of this country song are full of sexual puns that salute the re-birth and regeneration of the spring.  In doing so he reveals something about the bawdy nature of the rural folk and the truth behind Touchstone and Audrey's attraction; that it is based in lust not love.

Finzi's setting stays faithful to Shakespeare's original intention.  The syncopated piano chords capture the throb of expectation, the arching melodies and strident intervals of spring-time and ring-time are winks of desire, and the driving heat of lust is very evident in the clambering climax of the final verse.  Finzi's It was a lover and his lass is by no means a polite version of Shakespeare's pastoral romp to appease middle class sensibilities.  It is a bold interpretation about one of the elements that makes up the cycle of life.

Sex, truth and lies
Because of this, the truth and emotional drive of the song needs bold choices and a high energy grounded in the narrator's intention and character.  Without this grounding, the song can quickly become untruthful, disconnecting the singer from song and audience.  Poulenc, in his notes to singers, called this type of approach 'bombast'.  Indeed he requested that his songs were to be sung "without bombast" and implored singers "not to sing if you do not believe in it." If the joyful, energetic truth of Finzi's song is to be conveyed, we can take inspiration from Poulenc's words and find out what the values of the song are and why we believe in them.  One way we can discover this is to understand why the narrator tells the story of the lover and his lass. For a good set of questions that will help build character and explore character objectives, go here.

Another way is to look at the song's subtext to see what isn't being sung or said.  And this is where Brighton comes in very useful because it is littered with voluptuous tales of hen and stag misadventures. 

As I snuggled into my deckchair, all around me hens and stags retold their 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink' tales.  I noticed that when the really salacious bits were being shared, energy fizzed like an alka-seltzer spurting to life in a glass of water.  This in itself started to help me uncover something about the mindset and purpose of the song's narrator because a couple of things consistently happened:

  the narrator and the group re-lived the memory to the point that the story was like a time machine, taking them back to that place, that time, that drink, that encounter
  the story validated their stag or hen identity
  it reconnected them to the purpose of their weekend
• it brought the group together by sharing a collective knowledge and experience
• the narrator became the tour guide of the story.

The more I heard these tales, the more I wondered which misadventures wouldn't be re-told when they arrived home, or which details would be conveniently left out.  This filtering of stories is done for a reason: Find the motivation, you'll find the values and the truth. So I started to ask myself, what isn't the narrator sharing about this couple in It was a lover and his lass...?  And with this question, we dive into the subtext of the song.

Truth, like time, is elastic. When searching for the truth in a song we can scrabble between the bar lines - looking for contradictions between melody, harmony and text - to find the gap where the character's attitude exists.  Or we can look beyond melody and harmonic shifts to consider the role of the rest by asking what isn't being said in that moment? We can also look for double meanings to find the humour and values, be that sardonic, sarcastic or salacious.

When I headed out of Brighton to return to the gridlocked city, I came across the Oceana, a nightclub that boldly promised its clubbers the world in one night.  This double meaning got me thinking, could today's nightclub be yesterday's cornfield?  With taglines like that, quite possibly... 

Francis Poulenc; Journal de mes Mélodies; Kahn & Averill, 2006
Gerald Finzi; Let us garlands bring; five Shakespeare songs for voice and piano; Boosey and Hawkes


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