Tuesday 28 March 2017

Beyond the music: Christina Rossetti and my song-cycle Quickening

Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
For this final article in my series on the poems behind my songs on our new disc Quickening: Songs to texts by English and Welsh poets for which we are currently crowd funding I look at the poetry of Christina Rossetti whose poems form the basis of my song cycle Quickening which is performed on the disc by Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Rosalind Ventris (viola) and William Vann (piano).

Christina Rossetti was the youngest daughter of Gabriele Rossetti, a poet and a political exile from Abruzzo in Italy, and Frances Polidori, the sister of Lord Byron's friend and physician, John William Polidori. One of Christina’s elder brothers was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whilst her other brother William and her sister Maria were both writers, and Christina dictated her first story to her mother before she had learned to write. When she was in her early teens her father became too ill to work, and with her mother and both her brothers working and her elder sister going as a live-in governess, Christina suffered from the resulting isolation and had a nervous breakdown and bouts of depression.

Both Christina and her mother were drawn to Anglo-Catholicism and religion was to remain important to Christina throughout her life. She began writing down and dating her poems from 1842, and started being published when she was 18. Her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, appeared in 1862, when she was 31 and it received widespread critical praise. After Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death in 1861, Christina Rossetti was seen as the foremost English woman poet. Religious themes would continue to play a large role in her poetry.

Throughout her writing career her brother Dante Gabriel was important to Christina, she would write in 1888, ‘Perhaps the nearest approach to a method I can lay claim to was a distinct aim at conciseness; after a while I received a hint from my sister that my love of conciseness tended to make my writing obscure, and I then endeavoured to avoid obscurity as well as diffuseness. In poetics, my elder brother was my acute and most helpful critic.’

The poems chosen for Quickening form a thematic cycle in which the progress of the seasons Autumn, Winter and Spring is paralleled with the poet’s looking forward to death and then resurrection, with the final poem ‘The First Spring Day’ linking the two (‘So Spring must dawn again with warmth and bloom, / Or in this world, or in the world to come’).

Quickening: Songs to Texts by English and Welsh Poets comes out on the Navona Records label in the Autumn and features my settings of poems by Ivor Gurney, AE Housman, Christina Rossetti and Rowan Williams. Please do support our crowd-funding which closes on Thursday 30 March.

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