Very Black Sonnets

ENS.2010.4 | 45′
Poems by Jones Very & Malachi Black
Mezzo-soprano & Cor Anglais, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Trombone, Tuba, Harp, Viola, Cello, Bass



Very Sonnets

1. The Morning Watch

2. The Latter Rain

3. The Dead

4. Autumn Leaves


Black Sonnets

1. Insomnia & So On

2. Sifting in the Afternoon

3. This Gentle Surgery

4. Drifting at Midday


Very Black Sonnets

Very Black Sonnets is a composition comprising two independent works—Very Sonnets and Black Sonnets—and three instrumental pieces. Very Sonnets and Black Sonnets may be performed separately, but when played together should include the instrumental movements introducing, dividing, and concluding the complete work.

Very Sonnets and Black Sonnets share identical formal structures, but completely different musical material is utilized in each case. The instrumental pieces use material from both sonnet cycles in carefully circumscribed ways, as well as some of the vocal lines.

Both cycles use similar ensembles dominated by lower-pitched instruments to emphasize the melancholy nature of the texts, with the woodwinds of Very Sonnets being replaced by brass in Black Sonnets. The Overture features the winds alone, the Interlude the strings, and finally in the Epilogue we hear all the instruments together for the first and only time. However, the entire ensemble never performs with the solo mezzo-soprano.

Each part of Very Black Sonnets lasts about fifteen minutes; a complete performance will last approximately forty-five minutes.

Very Sonnets

The excellent mid-nineteenth century poet Jones Very was associated with the Transcendentalist poets he counted among his friends, at least until he announced he was the second coming of Christ and found himself institutionalized. Many of his poems came to him in ecstatic visions, though they were strictly Shakespearian in form; no doubt God was as impressed with the man from Stratford as the rest of us. The four sonnets I have chosen to set are however fairly dark rather than ecstatic, and receive a correspondingly tenebrous setting.

Black Sonnets

Malachi Black is young poet whose “work appears widely” according to a brief biography. Other than that I know nothing of him besides one blurry photo on a website, but perhaps that’s as it should be; these extraordinary poems need no context.