These five Lovesongs form a quasi-palindromic cycle in which the four outer movements are linked by their tempos (slow-quick/quick-slow) to form a frame to the central Allegro appassionato. Since the first two and the last two songs are performed without a break, the work is in effect a three-movement triptych.
The Songs are scored for normal symphony orchestra, including double woodwind, horns, trumpets and trombones, with the addition of guitar, celesta, piano and harp; a small amount of percussion (including crotales, vibraphone and glockenspiel) is used to colouristic rather than to overtly rhythmic effect. The voice is mainly independent of the various movement characters evoked by the orchestra, declaiming the words against the background of figurative detail provided by the instruments. Thus the poems retain their shapes as independent entities which the surrounding musical textures embellish and comment upon. The orchestra is heard in various formations throughout, although there us no percussion in the second song, and no trumpets or trombones in the fourth.
The sequential figure (of whole tones and minor thirds) heard as a descending scale pattern at the outset would seem to determine the material for the cycle as a whole, since the overlapping succession of its notes suggests the triadic motifs that form the ‘theme’ of the central third song, as well as the fourths (or fifths) characteristic of the melodic writing throughout (particularly in the voice part).
The steady pulse of the first song - underlined by the appearance of an ostinato idea introduced as a throbbing quaver movement on guitar and clarinet - is mirrored in the last, where it eventually forms the cadential close to the cycle as a whole. The second and fourth songs on the other hand, are linked by the more restless feel of their changing metres and by the uneven lilt of their syncopated rhythms, often cast within the pulse of five beats to the bar. The central song is set apart, both literally and expressively: an impassioned scherzando, it opens out to reveal a much more dramatic emphasis, giving outward expression to the more inwardly restrained emotions of the framing sections as it builds to a brief climax before fading away to end as it began.
Lovesongs was commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and is dedicated to Robert Tear; composed between October 1982 and January 1984, it was first performed in Manchester on 11th March 1986.