This was the first complete song cycle Britten wrote for Peter Pears, and he dedicated the set to him. It is an ardent and romantic setting of Michelangelo’s verse in the original Italian. As Colin Matthews suggests in this week’s film, the foreign language provided an element of disguise for a song cycle so clearly written as a love letter to Pears. The whole cycle – like the text – depicts a wide range of emotions towards the object of affection: by turn passionate, soulful, fiery and tender. Britten’s piano writing is virtuosic and the vocal range requires a formidable technique from the singer.
Britten and Pears recorded it privately in 1941 while they were still in America, and in the extracts from this recording (transferred from the original 78rpm discs by NMC) Pears can be heard in all his youthful glory. He was at that time making the transition from useful amateur to serious professional, following lessons in New York with Clytie Mundy. Even at this early stage, his voice has great flexibility and the ability to cope with the demands of both text and music in this demanding cycle.
The work was premiered at the Wigmore Hall in September 1942, a few months after Britten and Pears returned to the UK. This year’s Aldeburgh Festival sees another premiere: Colin Matthews’ orchestration of the Seven Sonnets, which will be performed during the opening concert on 8 June 2018.