Author: Kimball, Carol
Date published: September 1, 2012
Charm me asleep, and melt me so
With thy delicious numbers,
That, being ravish'd, hence I go
Away in easy slumbers . . .
- Robert Herrick
POEMS EXTOLLING THE SOOTHING BALM brought by sleep to those in need are legion, and art song composers have set these texts with great frequency. Who can resist words like "Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night / Brother to Death, in silent darkness born," or "Come, sleep, and with thy sweet deceiving / Lock me in delight awhile," or "Charm me asleep, and melt me so / With thy delicious numbers . . ."?1
To "charm" something involves chanting a verse that supposedly has magic powers. Another meaning of charm is to "put to sleep": its derivation is from the word carmen-song, or a prayer that is chanted.2
A rather thorough description of charm is found in poet Edward Hirsch's excellent book How to Read a Poem-and Fall in Love with Poetry.
Charm: A spell or incantation (a word, a phrase, a verse, a song) spoken or sung to invoke and control supernatural powers. Charms, which are universally known, are among the earliest forms of recorded written literature. They carry the resonance of magic rites in archaic cultures . . . The Old English charms . . . stand as some of the first written works in our language . . . Charms can be used for positive or negative ends, to ward off the spirit of evil or invoke it, to destroy an enemy or attract a beloved, to enchant objects, to ensure good luck with a supranormal power.3
If you begin to freely associate words that come to mind when considering the word sleep, you come up with words like lullaby, night, stars, moon, moonlight, dark, relaxation, dreams, nightmares, trance, balm, comfort, and the list could go on. All of these words can be tied to poems that have been set to music by composers as art songs. It would be interesting to craft a recital based on these word "subjects" and the art songs that have evolved from them, and see what sort of song groups would develop from that. This exercise is a good one to apply to any word. Using this method, one could design a recital that has a "theme" without actually naming the theme. It is a project that can have unexpected and surprising results, and it stretches the artistic imagination.
This column will discuss some of the art song repertoire that comes to mind when the word sleep, or words associated with it, is used. Song repertoire is so vast, this will only be the tip of the iceberg, but it may spark some exploration on the part of readers.
In Greek mythology, Morpheus, the son of Hypnos (Sleep), was a dream-god who made human shapes appear to dreamers. His name is derived from morphe (form) and therefore means "transformer."4
John Fletcher's evocative poem "Sleep" inspired musical settings of great beauty by Peter Warlock and Ivor Gurney. Warlock's masterpiece is full of rich textures of harmonic and rhythmic variations for both voice and piano. Gurney's setting is no less impressive, featuring a sumptuous piano part, both elegant and evocative.
Warlock's song "Rest sweet nymphs" is a lullaby-really a serenade-sung to a group of young ladies, whom the poet refers to as "nymphs." Wishing them pleasant dreams and joy, the poet plays his lute as he sings. This poem, by an anonymous poet, was first published in 1605. In 1922, Peter Warlock set it. There is a later setting by Madeleine Dring, and the two songs should be compared.
Probably the most well known charms in art songs are those songs set as a cycle by British composer Benjamin Britten: A Charm of Lullabies. There are five songs for mezzo soprano: "A Cradle Song" (Wm. Blake); "The Highland Balou" (Robert Burns); "Sephestia's Lullaby" (Robert Greene); "A Charm" (Thomas Randolph); and "The Nurse's Song" (John Philip). Britten's eclectic choice of poems makes the cycle delightfully varied in musical style and dramatic situation.
Charms can be used for positive or negative ends. For instance, take the frustrated nurse in Thomas Randolph's poem "A Charm," the fourth song in Britten's cycle. Unable to entice the child to sleep any other way, the exasperated nurse threatens all manner of dire consequences if the little one does not go to sleep-and quickly. The charm is positive for the nurse, but negative for the "charmee," who probably had nightmares instead of dreams.
Sleep! or I will make
Erinnys whip thee with a snake,
And cruel Rhadamanthus take
Thy body to the boiling lake,
Where fire and brimstones never slake;
Thy heart shall burn, thy head shall ache,
And ev'ry joint about thee quake;
And therefor dare not yet to wake!
Sleep! or thou shalt see
The horrid hags of Tartary,
Whose tresses ugly serpents be,
And Cerberus shall bark at thee,
And all the Furies that are three
The worst is called Tisiphone,
Shall lash thee to eternity;
And therefor sleep thou peacefully
-Thomas Randolph (1605-1635)
If we turn to Britten's single songs we find a "nighttime" poem by Thomas Moore from his Irish Melodies: "At the mid hour of night (Molly, my dear)." At midnight, the poet hungers for a visit or a sign from his departed love to "tell me if our love is remembered e'en in the sky." This is a lovely evocation of the final sleep-a folk-like setting with a bardic feeling in its repeated phrases.
Children are not the only beings charmed by sleep. Flowers are quite often in a dreamlike state as their petals close night and blossom in the morning. Robert Schumann's "Die Lotosblume" is sleep in reverse. The lotus flower sleeps during the day, but at night, infatuated with love, she reveals her face to her lover, the Moon.
The first lines of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "Now sleeps the crimson petal" set the time and mood for his love tryst. Composer Roger Quilter's musical setting is one of his much admired art songs. Ned Rorem has also set the text, using Tennyson's entire poem, and crafting a much more sophisticated setting.
Tennyson penned his sonnet (a fourteen-line verse form) in blank verse-unrhymed iambic pentameter, which has ten syllables per line. There are two prominent types of sonnet: the Italian, or Petrarchan; and the English, or Shakespearean. Each of these has a different rhyme scheme, but each contains fourteen lines. The word sonnet derives from the Occitan5 word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning "little song" or "little sound."6
"Now sleeps the crimson petal" is taken from Tennyson's long narrative poem "The Princess." It consists of a quatrain followed by three sets of duplets, and concludes with another quatrain. Quilter chose only the first quatrain and the final quatrain (lines 1-4 and 11-14) for his song setting. Rorem sets the entire sonnet, and we hear the three sets of duplets as well as the opening and ending quatrains.
The Princess: Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal
Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font.
The firefly wakens; waken thou with me.
Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.
Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.
Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.
Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake.
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Ralph Vaughan Williams's much performed cycle, Songs of Travel, contains two songs that deal peripherally with dreams and love. In Song 2, "Let Beauty Awake" ("Let beauty awake in the morn from beautiful dreams / Beauty awake from rest") the wanderer extols the beauties of nature that appear every morning and return to rest every evening, repeating the cycle again and again. Song 5, "In dreams," recounts an unhappy dream in which the vagabond recalls the love he left behind him.
Dominick Argento chose Elizabethan poems for his collection titled Six Elizabethan Songs. Argento imbues Samuel Daniel's poem "Sleep" ("Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night") with long lyric lines and rich harmonies in a fluid texture that perfectly captures the magical atmosphere of the poet's words.
Most of Emily Dickinson's poems about sleep connect sleep to death. See Aaron Copland's "Sleep is supposed to be" ("Sleep is supposed to be / By souls of sanity / The shutting of the eye"), the seventh song in his cycle Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. The Belle of Amherst was not alone in her poetic approach; many poems and their art song settings can be found that link sleep and death. Some examples include "There will be stars" (Sara Teasdale poem set by John Duke), and "The Astronomers" (epitaph set by Richard Hundley).
But by far the largest body of songs about the dreamlike state is lullabies. Every country has its lullaby folk melodies, and countless composers have created art songs using poems about singing children to sleep. Those quiet gentle songs also eased stress and worries, and had powers to transport little sleepers to the Land of Nod. Here are just a few that come to mind:
Aaron Copland: "The Litde Horses" (Old American Songs, Set 2)
Alberto Ginastera: "Arroró" (Cinco canciones populares argentinas)
Xavier Montsalvatge: "Cancion cuna para dormir a un negrito" (Cinco canciones negras)
Manuel de Falla: "Nana" (Siete canciones populares españolas)
Joaquín Rodrigo: "Canción de cuna" (Doce canciones españolas)
Edvard Grieg: "Solveig's Cradle Song"
John Alden Carpenter: "The Sleep That Flits on Baby's Eyes" (Gitanjali)
Johannes Brahms: "Wiegenlied"
Franz Schubert: "Schlafe, schlafe, holder süsser Knabe," D. 498, op. 98, no. 2
Franz Schubert: "Wie sich der Äuglein," D. 867, op. 105, No, 2
Richard Strauss: "Wiegenliedchen," op. 49, no. 2
Joseph Canteloube: "Brezairola" (Berceuse) from Chants d'Auvergne Vol. I
Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov: "Noch," op. 8, no 2
The lovely lullaby poem below has been set (often with different titles) by Rebecca Clarke, Benjamin Britten, Arthur Farwell, Oscar Morawetz, John Alden Carpenter, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, and Richard Hageman. Rebecca Clarke's setting is very interesting. She uses parallel chords to great effect, creating an impressionistic atmosphere. Sliding harmonies and a recurring piano figure perhaps image the child's thoughts as he dreams.
A Cradle Song
Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
Dreaming o'er the joys of night;
Sleep, sleep, in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep.
Sweet babe, in thy face
Soft desires I can trace,
Secret joys and secret smiles,
Little pretty infant wiles.
As thy softest limbs I feel,
Smiles as of the morning steal
O'er thy cheek, and o'er thy breast
Where thy little heart does rest.
O! the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep.
When thy little heart does wake
Then the dreadful lightnings break,
From thy cheek and from thy eye,
O'er the youthful harvests nigh.
Infant wiles and infant smiles
Heaven and Earth of peace beguiles.
-William Blake (1757-1827)
As night falls, not everyone or everything is asleep; the dark night becomes the confidante of lovers. Paul Verlaine's poem "La lune blanche luit dans les bois" inspired the teenaged Reynaldo Hahn to set it to music, with the title "L'heure exquise." Gabriel Fauré also responded enthusiastically to Verlaine's poetry, creating numerous mélodies, including La bonne chanson, a cycle of nine Verlaine poems. "La lune blanche luit dans les bois" is the third song in the cycle. There is also a setting by Poldowski (Lady Dean Paul).
La lune blanche
Luit dans les bois;
De chacque branche
Part une voix
Sous la ramée . . .
Du saule noir
Où le vent pleure . . .
Rêvons, c'est l'heure.
Un vaste et tendre,
Que l'astre irise . . .
C'est l'heure exquise.
The white moon
shines through the trees
From each branch
comes a voice
under the boughs . . .
O my beloved.
The pond reflects
As a deep mirror
of the black willow
where the wind weeps . . .
Let us dream, it is the hour.
A vast and tender
Seems to descend
from the heavens
with the iridescent star . . .
It is the exquisite hour.
-Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)
Pierre Bernac calls our attention to the three lines of the poem where the poet interrupts himself. "These three interruptions are, by themselves, a short poem: 'O bien aimée / Rêvons, c'est l'heure / C'est l'heure exquise.'"7
Night can also be personified as a spoiler, stealing light from everything it touches, as in Hermann von Gilm's poem "Die Nacht," set by Richard Strauss: ("Aus dem Walde tritt die Nacht / Aus dem Bäumen schleicht sie leise / Schaut sich um in weitem Kreise / Nun gib acht!") [Night steps from the forest/steals softly from the trees / gazes all round about / now beware!].
Paul Verlaine's "Clair de lune" is another moonlight moment that has inspired more than a few settings, including those by Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy (two settings), and Jósef Szulc.
There are countless songs about slumber or sleep, or peripherally, someone who is sleeping. Here are a few:
Samuel Barber: "A Slumber Song of the Madonna"
Samuel Barber: "Sleep Now" (part of op. 10)
Samuel Barber: "Sure on this shining night"
Robert Schumann: "Mondnacht"
Richard Strauss: "Ständchen"
Franz Schubert: "Ständchen"
Franz Schubert: "Nacht und Träume"
Franz Schubert: "An dem Mond"
Franz Liszt: "O quand je dors"
Stephen Foster: "Beautiful Dreamer"
Thomas Pasatieri: "How Many Little Children Sleep"
(Three Poems of James Agee)
Ture Rangström: "Serenad"
Juan de Anchieta, arr. Dørumsgaard: "Con amores la mi madre"
Jake Heggie: "To say before going to sleep"
Vincent Persichetti: "Unquiet Heart"
Edward MacDowell: "Geistliches Wiegenlied"
Joaquín Rodrigo: "Canción de cuna" (Doce canciones españolas)
Going farther afield of sleep and night, there are those creatures, real and magical, that are found in the dark. Woodland sprites, goblins, elves and fairies, the sandman, owls, bats and witches-all are words that can lead one on art song searches.
We are both charmed and grateful for the myriad art songs about sleep that are available to us. Good night.
1. The first two lines of "Sleep," by Samuel Daniel (1562-1619); "Sleep" by John Fletcher (1579-1625); and "To Music, to becalm his fever" by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), respectively.
2. Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (New York: A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., 1999), 272. The Latin word Carmen, meaning "sing" or "lyric" (Catullus's Carmina), attracted English poets because of its closeness to the word "charm." The two oldest prayers of the ancient Romans that are still known-the Carmen Arvale and the Carmen Saliare-were both chanted. Cf. Wikipedia, "Carmen (Verse)" (accessed April 15, 2012).
3. Ibid., 273.
4. Michael Grant and John Hazel, Who's Who in Classical Mythology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 225.
5. Occitan was the medieval language of the Languedoc region of southern France during the 12th to 14th centuries.
6. Hirsch, 309.
7. Pierre Bernac, The Interpretation of French Song (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 134.
Carol Kimball, Emerita Professor of Voice and Barrick Distinguished Scholar at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Song: A Guide to Art Song Style and Literature, a widely used text and reference that has become the principal one-volume American source on the topic. She is editor of The French Song Anthology; Women Composers: A Heritage of Song; and Art Song in English: 50 Songs by 21 American and British Composers (Hal Leonard Corp.) and coauthor of Interpreting the Songs of Jacques Leguerney (Pendragon Press). Other publications include numerous articles and reviews on opera and song literature in many professional journals as well as liner notes for several CDs. Since 1971, Dr. Kimball's service to NATS has been diverse and ongoing at national, regional, and local levels. She is a member of the Board of Advisors of The Lotte Lehmann Foundation and a recipient of the Nevada Governor's Arts Award for Excellence in the Arts. Recently retired from full-time teaching, she remains active as a writer, clinician, and adjudicator.