Five Songs on Poems of Robert Herrick

for Soprano and String Orchestra with Percussion

Lauren Bernofsky

Text: Robert Herrick
Duration: 12:40
Publisher: Merion Music, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

Five Songs on Poems of Robert Herrick (1999) was commissioned by Sinfonia Calcania of Boston, Gary Peterson, Director. When the group invited me to write this piece, they suggested the instrumentation of soprano and string orchestra with percussion, and they asked that my composition fit in with the Renaissance theme of their concert. For my text, I used poems by the English lyric poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674), because much of his poetry is filled with imagery that lends itself well to musical setting. I wanted to write five songs that contrasted in mood, texture, and vocal technique, and I chose my five poems accordingly.

The first song, ?Amarillis,? is a setting of a poem whose full title is ?Upon Mrs. Eliz. Wheeler, under the name of Amarillis.? This poem is a pastoral tale about a woman sleeping alongside a stream. A robin spots her and takes her for dead. He begins to cover her with moss and leaves, but while he is poking around, her eyes open, and he realizes she is not dead after all. I try to evoke the murmuring of the stream through the moving sixteenth-notes (often in thirds) in the violins and violas, and you will hear the robin?s call in the solo violin.

The second song is entitled ?The Frozen Heart.? Herrick?s poem uses imagery of ice and snow, and I tried to get strident and emotionless sounds out of the orchestra. The main motive in the strings is four sixteenth-notes followed by an eighth-note (all on the same pitch), which I intended to represent a shiver. These are set off by sustained notes, often played as harmonics (and therefore without the warmth of vibrato, or as harsh sforzandos or forte-pianos (that is, notes with a loud attack and a quiet sustain.)) For the percussion part I chose shimmery, metallic sounds, such as the scraping of a triangle beater across a suspended cymbal.

Herrick?s poem, ?The Spell,? reads like a recipe. Therefore I chose to set it like a list, with a slowly ascending line in even notes for the soprano. The expressive marking at the beginning of the movement is ?Mysterioso,? and I gave the cellos and bass relentlessly repeating quarter-notes with the occasional (longer) dotted quarter-note thrown in for an unsettling effect. To achieve a different texture from the other songs, the strings play pizzicato (or plucked) throughout the entire song. The unusual percussion instrument you will hear is called a vibra slap. (It is an instrument I never thought I?d write for, but it somehow seemed just the right effect for this piece!)

?An Epitaph Upon a Child? is the most introspective song of the set. The poem deals with what was sadly an all-too-often occurrence during Herrick?s time, the death of a child. Herrick has in fact written several poems on this subject. There is no percussion in this movement, and the strings are instructed to play ?sotto voce,? or with a delicate, subdued sound. I attempt to create a thin, dream-like quality, almost of suspended lifelessness, in this song.

Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by Sinfonia Calcania of BostonGary Peterson and Danica Mills, Directors
Composition Date 1999
Orchestration Solo Sop.; Perc. Str.
Premiere June 20, 1999 - Grace Episcopal Church, Newton, Massachusetts.Sinfonia Calcania of BostonGary Peterson, conductorElisa Doughty, soprano


I. Amarillis
II. The Frozen Heart
III. The Spell
IV. An Epitaph Upon a Child
V. The Succession of the Foure Sweet Months

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