An archive and analysis of parlor and art song settings of Victorian poems

Sir Arthur Somervell's Maud : An Internal Portrait of the Speaker

Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) was an English composer as well as an educator best known for his song cycles, of which Maud and A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad are best known (Hurd). Somervell's Maud consists of thirteen songs (twelve when originally published and performed), but "Come into the Garden, Maud" is the most famous. Because of the difficulty of the piano accompaniment and the length of the cycle, the work is considered an art song as opposed to a parlor song, designed more for the professional than for the amateur performer. The cycle sets 234 of the 1324 lines of Tennyson's poem: Somervell simplified the narrative by eliminating the rival figure of Maud's approved suitor, and he included notes for each song explaining the plot to ensure that his audience could follow along (Hughes 117). The cycle attempts to convey the wide variety of the speaker's moods, from wild outbursts at the thought of his father's death to joy at the possibility that Maud loves him, to madness and misery after her death.1 Although all thirteen songs in Maud are worthy of extended discussion, this discussion will focus primarily on "Come into the Garden, Maud," the song that marks the turning point between the optimistic songs of the first part and the melancholy and frenetic songs of the second. Like the songs in the cycle that surround it, "Come into the Garden, Maud" is a musical dramatization of the speaker's mind rather than a critique of his actions.

Unlike Balfe, Somervell incorporates Tennyson's text verbatim with minimal repetition; he repeats only the final two lines.2 He uses the first three and last three verses of the lyric, thereby including more than just narrative information that applies to Maud's presence; he also compares the sounds of the dance from the Hall with the current silence, describes the flowers onto which he projects his reactions to Maud's arrival, and finally imagines his own blossoming corpse. This change suggests that Somervell is concerned more with showing the speaker's reaction to the situation than with just expressing his love. Acoustically, like the poem and Balfe's setting, this song seems deceptively sweet and innocent. In fact, Linda Hughes argues that "this central song and tour de force of the cycle is remarkable for absorbing and resolving any dissonant notes almost as quickly as they are sounded" (124). But Somervell's setting is more complicated than that. Although it lacks violent dissonance, and although the speed with which the few moments of dissonance do resolve ensures that the speaker sounds genuine and somewhat stable, the accompaniment's style and the harmonic progressions themselves subtly subvert the expected resolution.

The song's most notable feature is the fast-paced piano accompaniment that dances throughout the piece. [] Its lilting time signature brings to mind the waltz and the dancing that occurred in the Hall when the speaker entered the garden. In fact, the accompaniment initially appears to represent the actual music played in the Hall and to suggest that the speaker sings his words to the extant music. Such a performance would be impossible, however, since the third stanza explains that the dance has ended. The waltzing accompaniment instead represents the speaker's thoughts. He remembers, rather than hears, the music, and this mental recording of the music haunts him as much as his exclusion from the dance and his obsession with Maud. This musical detail casts the song not as an external portrayal of the speaker and his words as he waits for Maud, but rather as a representation of his thoughts from within the confines of his own mind.

Just as the speaker replays in his mind the memory of earlier music, so the listeners, on hearing this music recall in their minds a comparable passage from song four in the cycle, "O Let the Solid Ground."3 In the earlier song, the speaker triumphantly declares that as long as Maud loves him, he does not object to any fate he might face. This allusion would seem to suggest that the later song actualizes his earlier wish: Maud loves and waits for him, so he is unconcerned for his future. In this, of course, he is mistaken, since the rest of the song implies that it is his fate, rather than his beloved, that awaits him. In fact, his very voice part determines his fate: Maud was written for and first performed by Plunket Greene, a well-known baritone (Hughes 114); since baritones frequently played secondary characters, while tenors played the romantic leads, this decision immediately casts the speaker as insecure and unlikely to win Maud, the leading lady in his mental drama.

Although the first verse of "Come into the Garden, Maud" sounds happy and playful, a closer look at the harmonic progressions reveal the speaker's own insecurities. Nineteenth-century tonal music theory prescribes that, at the beginning of a piece, a cadence should confirm the main key. Since this song is in the key of G major, it should include a dominant chord (D major seventh chord, in this case) and then return to a G major chord to give the audience a sense of tonal stability. Somervell's setting rejects that rule. Between the words "for the" and "black," the phrase does incorporate the expected dominant chord, but instead of returning to G major and confirming the key, it moves to an E minor chord, which is built on the sixth note of the scale. [] This progression from a dominant seventh to a sixth chord is a deceptive cadence and, because it replaces a major chord with a minor chord, is frequently associated with melancholy. In delaying the full cadence, it also emphasizes the song's nearly perpetual motion. Because this subtle subversion occurs so early in the piece, before the key has even been fully confirmed, it immediately depicts the speaker's restlessness and instability. Somervell foregrounds deceptive cadences by using them throughout the song. They pass swiftly, however, as they last for one beat only and are practically buried in the phrases. This musical detail enhances the song portrait of the speaker's interiority. His instability and self-deception are like the deceptive cadence: mostly hidden from his own view, and nearly from ours.

Somervell's setting again performs the speaker's thoughts through a series of deferred resolutions. Immediately after the deceptive cadence, the accompaniment plays a series of chords in which a dissonant seventh chord resolves to a new chord, which in turn becomes a new dissonant seventh chord before finally resolving to the original key of the piece on the word "Come."4[] This pattern, an example of prolongation of the dominant, uses small, almost imperceptible resolutions to defer the primary resolution in order to increase the musical tension. This constantly shifting chordal chain echoes the speaker's quickly changing thoughts as he observes his surroundings, ponders the fate of the moon, and addresses the garden flowers. The delayed resolution to the tonic also enacts the speaker's long wait for the resolution to his anxiety: the appearance of Maud.

Somervell also uses larger-scale harmonic changes to convey the depression against which the speaker fights. For the second verse, as with Balfe's setting, when the words describe Venus' retreat as the sun rises, the music shifts to a new tonal center, namely E minor. [] The new tonality gives this section a more melancholy feel that initially appears to contradict the speaker's happiness at the thought of seeing Maud5: instead, it shows that he needs more than Maud's presence and love to incite happiness. This section also introduces a motive that occurs throughout the song cycle: the bass line descends chromatically from an A to D. [] The chromatic descent occurs again later in the piece, and, more dramatically, in the next songs, "The Fault was Mine" and "Dead, Long Dead," where it musically enacts his explicit desire to die and to be buried deeply. The presence of the descending chromatic line in "Come into the Garden, Maud," by extension, expresses the threat of despair and death that haunt him even before he goes mad. After this melancholy, haunting section, the music returns to the more uplifting music of the opening to accompany the next verse, but it seems unconvincing, as though the speaker were forcing himself to think on happier topics.

Unlike Balfe's setting, Somervell's uses harmonic changes to convey the speaker's liminal awareness of the gaps between his dream of Maud and the reality. When the singer describes Maud as the "Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls," the song changes key signature from G major to C major. [] This progression is "chiefly used in passing, and but seldom in a cadence. It generally confers on the music a more solemn effect" (Oxford and Cambridge V, 57). Although the key change is marginally prepared for by turning a tonic chord into a seventh chord which cadences to C major), the new tonality still sounds surprising, and its solemnity further suggests his awareness that his dream of Maud does not quite fit the reality. This passage includes a change in time signature as well as in key signature: the song switches from 6/4 to 9/4 in mid phrase after the word "queen." The addition of three extra beats in the measure throws the music slightly off-balance. After one measure of 9/4, the music returns to 6/4, a change that further augments the listener's confusion. These metrical irregularities allude to the poet's alternation between trimeter and tetrameter to show the speaker's tremulous grasp on reality. The harmonic progressions in this section also create a sense of instability, as they include three deceptive cadences (from "in" to "gloss," from "Queen" to "lily," and from "sunning" to "over"). The coupling of metric instability with harmonic instability implies that the speaker knows to some extent that his comparison of Maud to the bride from Song of Solomon is inaccurate and that he cannot keep it from wavering in his mind. The music changes key and time signature again on the word "sun," shifting from C major to A flat major, and from 6/4 to cut time. [] The harmonic shift occurs without any preparation and thus sounds extremely jarring, a musical commentary that discounts his claim that Maud, his "sun," will bring him new life. Simultaneously, the change in time signature diminishes the waltz-like feel and demonstrates that the speaker's attempts to preserve the dream of the dance are failing.

For the final stanza, the song returns to the key of the opening, but it provides only a moment of relief. Starting on the words "under her feet," the bass line moves semi-chromatically from a D flat to the D natural an octave below. [] This return of the descending motive makes its purpose more explicit: it enacts the burial he imagines while proleptically alluding to the similar motif in the next song, also focusing on his own burial. The song, then, which appears to gesture triumphantly beyond the grave, actually shows the speaker's already present fear of death and of the potential failure of his relationship with Maud. To be sure, the song ends with triumphant chords and harmonic regularity expressing the speaker's belief in the heroic quality of his blossoming corpse. It also gives us a glimmer of hope, as the accompaniment's melody features a semi-chromatic octave-length ascent on A that extends a chance for his relationship with Maud to be transcendent. [] However, the sheer violence of the image haunts the passage, and the speaker's confident singing about his own death shows even more fully the depth of his mental unrest. [] Somervell's setting for this final line ("blossom in purple and red") deviates from the other two settings that include them. Whereas Blockley's and Barnett's settings feature extensive ornamentation to convey the blossoming described in the text, a decision that takes the speaker's discussion of blooming flowers at face value, Somervell's deliberate plainness instead enhances the threats of violence and blossoming bruises that underlie these lines.

Somervell made his interest in creating musical portraits rather than critiques explicit in a series of pamphlets on music and education. He claimed that art's appeals should be "not to the intellect at all" (43), but rather "the outward and visible sign of and inward sensitiveness of rhythm in all things" (44). Although he believed that "The greatest genius that ever lived can do nothing more than express himself and tell us how the world, life, death and the universe looks to him," as artists can never truly see beyond their own subjective experience, he conceived of music as "the greatest of humanizing and harmonizing forces" by which the "silent strings" of the subconscious "may be set vibrating and made sensitive" (45). For Somervell, music was the best way both to express one's own feelings and to touch the emotions of others. This song, then, dramatizes that theory: the speaker uses his song to fully express himself and his emotions, while the song enables an audience to feel as he does.

Like the poem, Somervell's setting renders the speaker's mental instability and obsessive nature underneath a confident, romantic surface. While Balfe's parlor song setting enabled its singers to choose whether to emphasize the speaker's instability through harmonic subversion and dissonances, Somervell's setting hides these harmonic oddities. By having these irregularities lurk in the background rather than resound in the foreground, the song presents not a critique of the speaker's actions or of courtship traditions, but rather a musical portrait of the speaker's own thoughts from the prison of his own mind. Although this setting is more intimate than Balfe's, as it puts its auditors within rather than outside the troubled mind of the speaker, it is paradoxically more public, as it was most commonly performed on the concert stage rather in the parlor. As the speaker is haunted, not only by his obsession with Maud but also by the memory of the waltz, so its many readers and auditors were haunted by the ghostly music of the poem, as evidenced by the numerous musical settings of the text and Tennyson's own recording of the concluding stanza. Somervell, in publicly dramatizing the internal struggles of a private mind, aimed to set vibrating the "silent strings" of as many auditors as possible, and, in digitally presenting his song, this framework continues that project.

Works Cited

Balfe, Michael William. "Come into the Garden, Maud: A Cavatina." London: Boosey & Sons, 1857.

Barnett, John. "Come into the Garden, Maud: The Invitation." London: Leader & Cock, 1856.

Blahetka, Leopoldine. Fragment du poema, Maud por Tennyson. London: Julien & Co, nd.

Blockley, John. "Come into the Garden, Maud: Serenade." London: Framer, Beale & Co, 1860.

Hughes, Linda K. "From Parlor to Concert Hall: Arthur Somervell's Song-Cycle on Tennyson's Maud." Victorian Studies 30.1 (1986): 113-129.

Hurd, Michael. "Somervell, Sir Arthur." Oxford Music Online. Grove Music Online. Web. 23 November 2011.

Lindsay, M. Maud: A Serenade. London: Robert Cocks & Co, c1855.

The Oxford and Cambridge Theory of Music. V. II: The Essentials of Harmony, The Rudiments of Musical Form, and an Outline of Musical History. London: George Gill and Sons, 1887.

Somervell, Arthur. Cycle of Songs from Tennyson's Maud. London: Boosey & Co, 1898.

Tennyson, Alfred. Maud. The Poems of Tennyson. ed. Christopher Ricks. London: Longman Group, 1969: 1075-1078.