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Work

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten Composer

7 Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22 (song cycle)   

Performances: 8
Tracks: 56
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Musicology:
  • 7 Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22 (song cycle)
    Year: 1940
    Genre: Solo Song / Lied / Chanson
    Pr. Instruments: Voice & Piano
    • 1.Sonetto 16: Sì come nella penna e nell' inchiostro
    • 2.Sonetto 31: A che più debb io mai l'intensa voglia
    • 3.Sonetto 30: Veggio co' bei vostri occhi un dolce lume
    • 4.Sonetto 55: Tu sa' ch'io so, signior mie, che tu sai
    • 5.Sonetto 38: Rendete a gli occhi miei, o fonte o fiume
    • 6.Sonetto 32: S'un casto amor, s una pietà superna
    • 7.Sonetto 24: Spirto ben nato, in cui si specchia e vede
Benjamin Britten's three-year sojourn in the United States is considered by many scholars to be a turning point in his career, marking the beginning of his creative maturity. Among the finest works composed during this period are the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940), for tenor and piano, based on the romantic sonnets of the famed Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. This song cycle was the first of many compositions Britten conceived for his life-long partner and collaborator Peter Pears, who accompanied Britten to America in 1939. As with other works written for Pears, these songs succeed on the combined merits of two things: the deeply personal expressiveness that arose from his relationship with Pears—to whom the Sonnets are dedicated—and the well-developed craftsmanship that infused them with universal human and artistic themes.

Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo was completed by November 30, 1940, but the cycle was not premiered until two years later, after the composer and singer had returned to London. This delay occurred because Pears did not feel ready to present the extremely taxing work; he took lessons in the U.S. in order to add strength to his voice and increase his range. Upon returning to England in the midst of World War II, the two artists gained exemptions from duty in the armed forces due to their artistic contributions. Pears and Britten agreed to tour the country performing recitals for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo was given its premiere on September 23, 1942, in London in Wigmore Hall. Critics cited the seven songs as the best English examples in the genre since the time of Purcell, and also recognized the growth of the composer's language during his time in America. The premiere, in fact, was so successful that just as the composer was leaving the stage, executives from the Decca record company approached him in order to produce a recording of the piece. According to Britten, the resulting recording "sold enormously."

By leaving the texts of the Sonnets in their original Italian, Britten retained their particular formal and phonetic character; it also allowed for a fusion of his own, very British, sensibilities with the more expansive lyricism that is characteristic of the Italian tradition. In this way, the Sonnets are similar to Britten's earlier composition, Les Illuminations (1939), which allowed for a similar English/French symbiosis. The last of the Sonnets (XXIV: "Spirto ben nato") is often singled out as the finest piece in the cycle.

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