Britten – Spirto ben nato (What I love about this song)

I love…

  • how Britten’s simple and pure musical form, fashioned just from ascending scales and a free recitative in the voice, compliments the classical form of the sonnet so perfectly
  • the upward trajectory of the rising octave scales in the piano part which set the scene and punctuate the ideas in the text, giving space for the poem to breathe and register in the listener’s mind
  • how those scales carry us aloft musically and metaphysically, traversing the chromatic and troubled inner section where the voice joins the piano, creating so much tension (“L’amor mi prende”) and finally bear us up to the final bars, where the quasi-spiritual purity of the home key is reestablished with such certainty and inevitability
  • how Michelangelo views his beloved as a work of art in this song, he himself being a sculpter and artist – he appreciates that this person is a work of perfection even beyond his powers (“Quante natura e’l ciel tra no’ puo fare, Qaund’ a null’ altra suo bell’ opra cede”)
  • the idea that outward beauty makes us believe or hope that there is inward beauty, too (whether or not it is true!) and how lovely it is to find a case where “beauty dwells with kindness” (it seems Shakespeare had the same thoughts)
  • how the last three lines suggest that in this special case it is just conceivable that this beautiful work actually could be spared death: that the gods, fates or universal powers might be swayed to bend the normal rules of reality which bind us all, and say “this should live on forever”
  • how the double (almost triple?) negative in these lines emphasises the disbelief and makes the outcry all the more passionate: how could you forbid death to not kill this beautiful treasure!
  • the irony of these last few lines for the modern reader: Michelangelo’s greatest works survive to this day, and yet this most beautiful work of art of all which inspired him to write this sonnet, this work quickly passed away
  • how the feeling behind the poem stretches out to us across the centuries and moves us still: we as human readers, even though we can’t personally see this beauty he describes, we can relate to how precious it was to him and we get a tangible sense of it: the reason it touches us is that we, too, have probably felt this way about someone at some time in our lives…?

This is the final song from Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, op. 22, text by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Here is rare footage of Britten and Pears performing the song cycle  live – go to 3:10 for Spirto ben nato. I first got to know this cycle by listening to the recording by Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson, which I heartily recommend – it also features Winter Words, the first Canticle and some lovely folk songs.


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