E. B. Browning: Sonnets from the Portuguese 1

for soprano and string trio

The first sonnet in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s masterful collection Sonnets from the Portuguese is breathtaking in its misdirection. The narrative begins with a pensive, literary reflection, shifting to sentimental melancholy which deepens to a terrifying nihilism – only to find that that the shock seizing the poet is not the end, but a new beginning, “Not Death, but Love.”

I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was ‘ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair,
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove, …
Guess now who holds thee?’—Death,’ I said. But there,
The silver answer rang … Not Death, but Love.’

Corbell’s setting of this sonnet for soprano and string trio follows the richness of the text and builds an aria’s architecture from it. Nostalgic and slightly saccharine counterpoint evokes the opening’s quiet, bookish sense of loneliness. The strings move in more troubled figures toward the dissonant place where “a mystic Shape did move\ Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair….” The question “Guess now who holds thee?” is ominously sung and played in descending octaves, and there emerges from the subsequent tacet the a burgeoning darkness, pierced by the terrified answer “Death”. The strings are silent as the singer proclaims “But there, the silver answer rang …”, and the final phrase, “Not Death, but Love,” ends with an echo of the opening counterpoint, now free from nostalgia and platitude, unexpected, searching, beginning to ascend.

Sample Page

Sample Page

Saddle-stitched letter-sized full score on acid-free 60-lb-text paper with cover. Piano reduction score also included, as well as single-page string parts. $25 plus shipping.

Audio (computer-rendered)

This audio rendering was generated from Sibelius music notation software.