• Brian Elias
  • Somnia (1979)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)
  • 2(pic).2.1(Ebcl)+bcl.22220timp.3perchp.pf(cel)str
  • Tenor
  • 25 min
  • Brian Elias
  • Petronius Arbiter
  • Latin
  • There are no performances of this work

Programme Note

The authorship of the six poems used in this Song Cycle is generally attributed to Petronius Arbiter (died ca AD 66), Nero’s Arbiter of Elegance and author of the Satyricon, a comic ‘novel’ with poems interspersed in the prose narrative. As only a small portion of the Satyricon survives, it is possible that several of the small collection of poems attributed to Petronius and preserved in mediaeval anthologies came from the missing parts. The sixth poem (Qualis nox) is found in the main text of the Satyricon; the second and fifth poems although part of the separate collection of his verse are consistent with Petronius’s style. Many of the poems used in this cycle are more satirical and explicit than Helen Waddell’s romantic translations would lead us to believe. The fifth poem exists in a particularly famous translation by Ben Jonson, 'A Fragment of Petronius Arbiter'. However, the translations are very moving and brought me to these poems in the first place.

William Arrowsmith, author of a translation of the Satyricon writes in his introduction to the work: "(The Satyricon) was clearly written not to be read silently but to be read aloud by a trained artist with a voice and virtuosity capable of registering the enormous variety of the work, its typically Roman relish for high sound, its sudden shifts of pace, every nuance of parody and inversion, every variation of subject and style. Indeed the episodic structure of the Satyricon is itself determined and clarified by this fact of oral presentation. Variety is central, and so we see the work again and again separate itself into discreet episodes, each episode bounded by a subject or a tone or a style."

It is these considerations which were foremost in my mind while writing the work, ie that the poems were written to be read aloud (as was all classical literature), that they represent a great variety of verse forms and demonstrate a wide range of flexibility and style, and that above all, the Latin itself was very much alive and vibrant, clearly heard by the poet.

Therefore, the tenor part is throughout the most important aspect of the work even though the orchestra does more than merely accompany. Each of the songs is different from the others and there are no more direct musical links except between III and IV. The music develops throughout the work, the sixth song containing distant memories of the first.

I O Litus is a quiet song of homecoming. Repeated arpeggiato chords develop throughout the song.

II Lecto Compositus follows without a break. It is boisterous in places and mostly very quick. The comic dilemma of a frustrated search for love and blind obedience to Amor is paralleled with quick harmonic changes, big chords and pizzicato figuration.

III Sit Nox Illa, a poem of tender melodies, is a slow and quiet song of love. Embolium (interlude) is without tenor and follows the third song directly. Repeated chords refer indirectly to the first song and anticipate the fifth; tension is built up to the tenor’s opening statements of the fourth song.

IV Foeda Est (attaca) opens passionately and then relapses into the quiet music of the third song.

V Somnia is a sombre piece, moving quickly. The falling string chords at the beginning
recur developed throughout the song serving as an important punctuation for the central
ostinato. This is the most formally rhetorical of the six poems, heavily ironic and yet
vulnerable to the superstitions it ridicules.

VI Qualis Nox ends the cycle simply, with a few references to previous material.



Brian Elias