One of these days, with the wind in the right direction and enough time on my hands and buoyed by an appropriate commission, I shall write a large-scale orchestral work, a concerto or even a symphony, perhaps. I have enough sketches dotted around to get started on either, and even got a fair way into a concerto for viola a few year back before other projects got in the way and that particular avenue became overgrown and abandoned.
For the moment, though, all four of my current commissions will be settings of texts, some liturgical and some not. I have spent the morning working on one of them, and it struck me how easy it can be to set texts of high quality with the right imagery and the right internal rhythms.
The ruggedness or otherwise of the language can cause problems, making folks such as Shakespeare or Hardy particularly difficult to set properly, and one of Finzi’s unique qualities was that he was able to set Hardy’s texts in a way that made them sound natural and conversational, and that is no mean feat. I set three Hardy poems for the Occam Singers back in the day, and dealing with phrases such as chimney-nook quoin was tough work, I can tell you.
Other texts, wordy and perhaps lacking in the utmost refinement, can also be very tricky to set, especially if they lack some kind of internal musicality, something that can be very difficult to define, but whose absence is easily noticed, and even the top rank of composers were not always allowed the luxury of setting the best of words. Think of Purcell having to dig up inspiration for all those fawning odes, or Shostakovich having to do likewise in order to celebrate some anniversary or other.
Brahms used to say that if a composer read a text enough times eventually it would set itself, and there is some truth in that, but I would add that the better the text the more immediately it suggests musical ideas, in whatever style. Whether the composer can encapsulate its essence, its spirit – well, that is another matter.