Song Spotlight: “To Gratiana Dancing and Singing” – W. Denis Browne
The First World War was a horror that affected every corner of our planet. It is no surprise, then, that a great number of British composers were affected or killed by service in the war. Several forward-looking English art song composers were killed serving their country, and their work was ended far too soon. William Denis Browne (1888-1915) is one such composer. Browne died in service on June 4, 1915, at just 26 years old. Prior to that, he wrote to his mentor at Clare College, Cambridge, requesting that any piece of music that “didn’t represent W. Denis Browne at his finest” be destroyed. As a result, Browne left behind very little music. Today we have under 10 art songs, 3 choral pieces, and a handful of small instrumental pieces. It is staggering to think what wonderful musical gems we may be enjoying today from Browne and the several other composers whose careers were cut short by The Great War.
Fortunately for us, we do get to enjoy this song, at least. To Gratiana Dancing and Singing is pure elegance and beauty around every corner. The vocal line sweeps and curves around this poem which beautifully encapsulates a performance by Gratiana. Graceful triplets are peppered through the whole song, making the singing of the vocal line itself a kind of dance. The execution of the piano part follows suit, with a dance being performed, quite literally, by the left hand. At the beginning of the song and in the third verse, Browne has written a pattern that requires the pianist to continuously cross the left hand over the right. The left-hand covers a span of about 2 and a half octaves every beat. This challenges not just the pianist’s aim, but also their grace. This pattern requires a very fluid and easy movement of the left hand over the right to avoid unwanted accents and keep everything in musical time, without distracting from the sonorous melody in the right hand. This melody continues throughout the song in duet with the vocal line.
The vocal line should sound elegant and simple in performance, but the rhythmic variety involved will be a challenge for many singers. Constantly alternating between straight eighth note and triplet rhythms will challenge the sense of fluidity and connection in even the most seasoned vocalists. It is absolutely essential for the singer’s execution of this song to sound easy, because that is the whole essence of Richard Lovelace‘s poem. Gratiana’s effortless dancing and singing have made the whole world enamored with her. Let’s take a look at Lovelace’s original poem. (Note: In Browne’s setting of the text, he omits the second sestain.) Each stanza follows the same rhyme-scheme: AABCCB. A stanza with this rhyme scheme is known as a tail-rhyme stanza, and it divides each sestain into two groups of three. To me, the grouping of text in threes always suggests some type of dance, most obviously a waltz. Given this, it’s interesting to note that Browne set this text with a meter of 4/4.
Remember that poetry, especially from this era, was written to be read aloud. Try reading this poem aloud to yourself a couple of times before listening to the recording below of Browne’s setting. Before focusing in on trying to find meaning in the words, read the poem once while simply enjoying the words for their inherent music. That is to say, revel in the sounds of the words and the charm of the rhyme. After that, take a closer look at each line and comprehend its meaning. Once you feel like you know the poem, take a listen to W. Denis Browne’s lush and effortless composition. A good art song should enhance the feelings evoked by the poem, as well as give the listener a sense of what the composer saw in the poem. When you listen, can you imagine what Browne felt and thought the first time he heard or read this poem?
Even, and glorious, as the Sunne,
Gratiana steeres that Noble Frame,
Soft as her breast, sweet as her voyce
That gave each winding Law and poyze,
And swifter than the wings of Fame.
By such a Starre made Firmament,
Which now no more the Roofe envies ;
But swells up high with Atlas ev’n
Bearing the brighter, nobler Heav’n,
And in her, all the Dieties.
And the Ambitious hopes he brought,
Chain’d to her brave feet with such arts ;
Such sweet command, and gentle awe,
As when she ceas’d, we sighing saw
The floore lay pav’d with broken hearts.
Like the Harmonious spheres that bring
Unto their Rounds their musick’s ayd ;
Which she performed such a way,
As all th’ inamour’d world will say
The Graces daunced, and Apollo play’d.
Artistic Director, Ohio Song Project