An exploration of Auden’s great words, by Tom Deveson
‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ – six words, five of them monosyllables, open one of Auden’s best- known and best-loved poems.
There are many things to say about the poem as a whole, and I’ve said some of them elsewhere; as have far more distinguished commentators like the poets John Fuller and Anthony Hecht.
Here I’m looking briefly at what six musicians have done with it; and to keep things within manageable limits, I’ll go no further than that unforgettable first line.
A] Lennox Berkeley probably discovered Auden’s poetry through his friendship with Benjamin Britten. Both composers set a lot of Auden’s work – Britten’s relationship was closely personal as well as professional – and all three collaborated during the latter part of the 1930s. Berkeley’s version of the poem dates from about 1937; at the head of the score we read ‘To Benjamin’.
After two bars of slow quaver chords in E flat accompanied by off-beat bass octaves on the seventh and sixth degrees of the scale, the voice sings E flat-F- G-A natural-B flat-A natural-G. Yes, it’s part of a rising scale that reaches a half-climax and then slightly falls – a musical gesture mirroring an act of love as well as an associated movement of feeling – but it’s not the traditional E flat scale that the key signature of three flats suggests. The fourth note – A flat – has been sharpened by a semitone so that we are in the Lydian mode. The gentle swaying rhythm is like a post-coital lullaby, soothing here but rising in ardent intensity later in the song. And the Lydian nuance? I can’t help recalling Milton’s beautiful heart-stopping lines from L’Allegro written three hundred years earlier:
‘…Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,
Married to immortal verse,
Such as the meeting soul may pierce
In notes, with many a winding bout
Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,
With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running;
Untwisting all the chains that ty
The hidden soul of harmony.
That Orpheus self may heave his head
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear
Such streins as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half regain’d Eurydice…’
B] Auden and his life-partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretti for two of Hans Werner Henze’s operas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1983 Henze wrote a little tailpiece, a set of Three Auden Poems.
He said: ‘I have tried to achieve a musical equivalent for the structures, ideas and images of the verse’. I think he achieved it.
His setting is headed ‘with utter simplicity’ and begins at once with the voice, accompanied in unison by a bare piano line, singing F-G- A-B- C sharp-D- sharp-C sharp. The slow 4/4 crotchet pace – matching the trochees of Auden’s poem – is altered minimally in the second bar by a dotted crotchet gently linked with a single quaver. It follows a very similar rise-and- fall pattern to the Berkeley and it’s a section of a scale again; but here it’s a whole-tone scale, creating a different [but complementary] feeling of peaceful passivity. In a whole-tone scale there are no real tonic and dominant notes, no fixed points of harmonic tension and relaxation; all the notes are equal. In these seven notes we already seem to anticipate a line from later in the poem: ‘Soul and body have no bounds’.
C] Beth Anderson was born in Kentucky, studied in California and lives in New York. She saw a poster of the poem on the subway, took the thought of it home and wrote the song in 1998 as one response to the AIDS crisis in the city:
It begins with two bars of rocking arpeggios in the piano, a fountain of notes that sway between F major and A minor. The voice enters and sings ‘Lay your sleeping head’ to E-F- G-A- C – there’s that rising scale-like pattern again – but then plunges nearly an octave straight on to ‘human on my faithless arm’ without the tender vocative endearment of ‘my love’. This seems to reflect an aspect of the time in which it was written. Beth Anderson is concerned with ‘the ephemerality of beauty, as well as faithlessness, disease and death’. It evokes pleasure as well as the threat that it will be all-too brief. The song is dedicated to the composer Ned Rorem, although Beth Anderson didn’t know that he had set it too.
D] Ned Rorem wrote The Auden Songs for tenor, violin, cello and piano in 1989:
His version of Lay your sleeping head is much longer than the others considered here. It lasts for well over nine minutes. A solo cello plays a long winding tune, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Allen, joined eventually by the other two instruments. Two minutes pass and there’s a kind of cadence on E flat before – at last – the unaccompanied voice leaps a full octave in its first three notes, turns melismatically around the ‘ee’ of ‘sleeping’, and falls via a diminished triad onto A natural with the word ‘love’. It’s that Lydian sharpened fourth again; but the effect here is suggestive of declamation as much as of tender intimacy. There is great clarity to the sound but it feels as if Rorem is in awe of Auden. That’s entirely understandable – so am I – but Auden’s words almost ask to be overheard rather than heard. This setting is nearer public than private.
E] The German jazz pianist and composer Andreas Schnermann brought out an album of twelve Auden songs in 2007 under the not entirely original title Tell Me the Truth About Love.
His version of Lay your sleeping head doesn’t start, like Berkeley’s and Rorem’s, in a version of E flat, but in its close relative of C minor. Eight slightly syncopated bluesy chords move down the scale from the dominant G to the tonic C. Scurrying cymbal-taps create an atmosphere of incipient agitated wakefulness. Inga Lühning does little to dissipate it when she starts to sing. Her voice is a bit too sweet, too chirpy. The meditative trochaic tetrameter on the page becomes a jaunty wishful wakefulness in the ear. It’s less a lullaby and more of a lark.
F] Tord Gustavsen is a jazz pianist and composer, born in Norway in 1970. He and his ensemble brought out Restored, Returned in 2009, winning the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy.
The eleven tracks are framed around poems of Auden’s, and Lay your sleeping head is sung by Kristin Asbjørnsen. Her voice is husky, cracking and rasping breathily on the words ‘head’ and ‘love’ as – after a single C major chord – the melody moves down the scale C-C- C-B- B-A- A before a long-held pause and a cautious crack on the drum. There’s a tiny rubato; the rhythm is very slightly syncopated but not enough to show in a printed score, if there were one. The effect is tentative and disillusioned yet curiously and aptly undefeated; it’s the music of three in the morning. Its sound has been described as ‘profane gospel’. We’re reminded of the many Auden verses that owe something to Cole Porter, to Brecht and Weill, to the blues.
I’m not going to recommend a ‘best’ version. You might be able to guess my favourites, but why not listen and choose your own?
I’ll recall instead the words that Auden addressed to musicians:
Only your notes are pure contraption,
Only your song is an absolute gift…
You alone, alone, O imaginary song,
Are unable to say an existence is wrong,
And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.
by Tom Deveson