Commissioned by the Grosvenor Ensemble

  • 1111/1000
  • soprano, mezzo soprano, baritone, bass
  • 8 min
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins & Composer
  • English

Programme Note

The sound patterns of this Hopkins sonnet (a cry from the darkest depths of a soul bitterly struggling for perfection) are so sophisticated and 'musical' that I wanted to leave them to speak clearly without interference. They are sung in an incantatory style, my rhythms attempting only to bring out Hopkins' symmetries and constant cross-references. He wrote: "This sonnet should be almost sung: it is most carefully timed in Tempo rubato." This forms the main thread of the piece, sung twice over to the rising first 5 notes of the twelve-note set, introduced by the horn at the beginning.

In addition, I wrote a 'sub-poem', which reaches a hand into the Hopkins' text and with the sounds it grasps, it re-creates completely different, though related, sentences, necessarily slower moving and more compressed in utterance. Thus 'Earnest, earthless, equal' becomes 'Stir-less Sea'. My words were latent in Hopkins', and show how the same sounds may have at least another level of meaning. An analogous principle is applied to the music. Following ideas from Philip Batstone's brilliant theory of 'multiple order functions' each note is part of at least two pitch sets (and two rhythms sets), hence its 'multiple function'. These secondary sets derive from, and reach a hand into, the Hopkins text sets, closely paralleling the behaviour of the texts themselves. The whole work might be described as an exact note and rhythm canon, which also works if the two (for example) canonic lines are added together into one line.

Finally, I constructed a third text level (bridging over from the text levels to the instrumental levels) which consists entirely of vowels supplementing and complementing Hopkins' elaborate vowel scheme. These are also sung to the secondary sets.

Imposed on this predominantly Adagio texture is a single sequence in twelve parts consisting of very quick notes for the concerned wind, which expresses the duration set. Thus the first outburst is twice as long as the fourth, and four times as long as the sixth (which is also true of every set in the piece).

Black Sonnet was specially written for the Grosvenor Ensemble of London in August 1970.
© Jonathan Harvey

by Gerard Manley Hopkins (Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves') by Jonathan Harvey

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, vaulty, voluminous, stupendous
Stir-less Sea; all evolve; You in us. Pen us,
Evening strains to be time's vast, womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all-night. Even in straying

Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height Oh! too low my
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, stars principal, overbend us, Ways are to sip love again
Fire-featuring heaven. For earth her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end, as - Eat your herb and apple pull.
Tray or aswarm all throughther, in throngs: self in selfsteeped and pashed - quite Wrongs in ash I
Disremembering, disremembering all now. Heart, you round me right. Wring: ember, gall. I
With: Our evening is over us our night whelms, whelms, and will end us Without Tree - sour hell and illness
Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish damask the tool-smooth bleak light black, Oh! believe on Thee! I
Ever so black on it. Our tale, O our oracle! Let life, waned, ah let life wind Err, lack, ail low, rack-lie, weigh.
Off her once skeined stained veined variety upon, all on two spools part, pen, pack Say, wry tears! Gnaw
Now her all in two flocks, two folds - black, white right, wrong reckon but, reck but, mind Raw for! Wreck my
But these two ware of a world where but these two tell, each of the other of a rack Ease. Air-earl
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathed and shelterless, thoughts against thoughts in groans grind. Thaw sin's own rind.