Four Ben Jonson Songs 2002
For high voice and piano
Two songs of seduction a hymn and a dirge
- Hymn to Diana
- Come, my Celia
- Echo’s Song
- Kiss me, sweet
Duration 14 minutes.
Four Ben Jonson Songs began as a mid-term in an Elizabethan drama class I was taking at Barnard in the spring of 2001. Ann Prescott, a Jonsonian specialist, offered the setting of any poems from the Jonson plays we had been reading as an alternative to a take home written exam. I lunged at the opportunity and set Volpone’s famous seduction of Celia during the mid-term break. I then bought a volume of Jonson’s poetry at Prescott’s urging and a group began to emerge.
No small help from tenor, Rufus Müller, who helped me explore the first two songs and inspired me to keep writing. He premiered Songs 2 through 4 at a Vector Five Concert sponsored by Meet the Composer at Miller Theatre in New York City in October of 2001. There were all of 25 people in the audience such was the state of theater attendance in the months after 9/11.
This cycle was eventually awarded Grand Prize at the San Francisco Song Festival and given its West Coast premiere on April 18, 2005 with soprano Marnie Breckenridge and pianist, Steven Bailey at Temple Emanu-El Meyer Music Hall, San Francisco, CA. Shortly thereafter it was given its critically acclaimed Boston premiere with tenor, Joe Dan Harper and pianist, Anne Kissel Harper as part of the Florestan Recital Project.
Hymn to Diana is an ardent appeal by the god of evening, exhorting the moon to shed her light. I imagined a youthful demi-god, musing in a wooded landscape, as dusk descends. The full moon just begins to pour its silver light over the horizon.
Come, my Celia is the first part of the famous seduction of Celia by the fox in Jonson’s play Volpone (1606). The lines are adapted from the Roman lyricist, Catullus. The transformations of the setting are attuned to Volpone’s character. Just as the fox affects a gentleman’s decorum to mask its bestial urges, so the singer must juggle the shifts between madrigalian sections and then bawdier outbreaks of cabaret.
The process of setting Echo’s Song gained ever in meaning as the poem was chosen and musicalized during the week after the World Trade Center attack, eventually, resulting in its dedication: for those who mourn.
Later in 1616 Jonson fashioned his Catullan borrowings into two separate poems in The Forest. In Kiss me, sweet the fox’s seduction takes up where it left off in Come, my Celia. This time the erotic carpe diem is proposed in an urgent arithmetic of love.
Although, admittedly, these songs were written with the sound of an English tenor in mind, Hymn to Diana and Echo’s Song work very well on their own for soprano. Furthermore, considering the trans-gendered nature of Elizabethan theater (Celia was most likely played by a young boy) and the liberation of gender type in current culture: what is to stop the adventurous soprano from inhabiting Jonson’s foxy seducer in Come, my Celia and Kiss me, sweet? — Martin Hennessy
''Echo's Song," famous in a setting by Dowland, was his particularly personal and poignant response to Sept. 11.” — Boston Globe
Hymn to Diana
Come, My Celia
Kiss me, sweet