Commissioned by Spitalfields Festival. First performed by The Orlando Consort and the Joyful Company of Singers conducted by Peter Broadbent at Christ Church, Spitalfields on 22nd June 2006.
Scattered Rhymes (‘Rime sparse’, as Petrarch describes his work in the first poem of the Canzionere sequence) represents an interlacing of two fourteenth-century texts which each toy with the ambiguities of intertwining sensuous and divine love. One stemming from England and one from the influences of Papal Avignon, these texts and this composition are designed to be framed by Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame (circa 1364), both contemporaneously and geographically. The movements can be performed separately, intertwined with movements from the Machaut mass, or performed continuously as a fifteen-minute work.
The journey upon which Petrarch (1304 – 1374) takes his reader in the Canzionere is, on one level, an obsessive, fifty-year love story concocted from poems and diary-like prose (he later went back and removed the latter from the manuscript, leaving only the poetry). Yet, looked at in another way it is a sort of bildungsroman, or developmental biography (not too dissimilar to St Augustine’s Confessionum), in which we see his life and thoughts develop and, concurrently, the maturing of the style in which these events are described.
In 1327, Petrarch’s eyes fell upon Laura, a beautiful young woman in the congregation of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon, whom some scholars, perhaps somewhat too eagerly, believe to be Laura de Noves, a direct ancestor of the Marquis de Sade. This is where Petrarch’s story and this composition begin. From the complete Canzionere, I have chosen three poems which highlight his lifelong obsessision with this woman whome he knew only by sight; these are sung by the four soloists. I have paired each of his sonnets with a stanza from an anonymous poem, found in a fourteenth century collation of English love songs (held in the British Library since 1831), whose author, a kindred spirit, seems to comment upon Petrarch’s plight; his words are sung by the main chorus here.
Scattered Rhymes begins with the author confused and in awe of Laura’s beauty; she is first presented in the guise of a celestial being brought to earth by God, an event which seems to prompt Petrarch’s English counterpart to comment that ‘Beauty in heaven afar laughed from her joyous star’. Decades later, in Part II, the pain of Petrarch’s unrequited love renders him ‘one soul in two bodies’, while across the Channel, the Englishman’s heart is similarly ‘not great enough’ for his desire. Finally, in Part III, we hear Petrarch toward the end of his life and many years after Laura’s death, his love has seemingly beatifyed her (or has she returned to her celestial origins?); is it Mary or Laura in the summer breeze (l’aura, Petrarch puns) whom ‘Heaven reveals’? Back in England, the anonymous author, dreaming of his own sensual encounter, too finds himself transported ‘to heaven among the rest’.
Musically, Scattered Rhymes is built up entirely from tiny fragments found in the Machaut mass: peculiarly rich ‘scrunches’ and false relations mixed with open fifths, fourths and syncopated, accented plainchant-like motifs. Adopting a technique I first used in a composition called I sleep, but my heart waketh, the perpetually shifting patterns heard here form a surface dormancy underneath which the harmonic and textural development takes place throughout the work. Petrarch’s own ostinato of obsession is recreated by dint of repeated rhythmic cells.
For centuries, composers such as Palestrina, Monteverdi, Schubert and Schoenberg have all found inspiration in Petrarch’s writings, ‘translating’ his verse musically. Yet Machaut, a composer whose influence on the entire development of Western music is impossible to overstiamte and a near-exact contemporary of Petrarch’s, was more famous in his day as a man of letters. The English language today serves as a legacy to both fourteenth century poets, as it remains a hotly debated topic as to which of them was the greatest influence upon Chaucer’s writings.
Spending much of his life mixing sacred and secular sources in his literary and musical works, it is a pleasant (and not too fanciful) thought to think of Machaut meeting Petrarch and the anonymous English poet at some point on their various travels. Perhaps, as they are found here, they exchanged ideas and ‘scattered’ their rhymes.
I am very grateful to Beatrice Sica for her invaluable assistance in preparing the text for the score.