Commissioned by the Oxford Lieder Festival

Instrumentation: Mezzo-soprano and piano
Duration: c.20’
First performance: Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo) and Chris Glynn (piano), at St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, 19 October 2019

The Tuning – five Donaghy songs

The musicality of Michael Donaghy’s poetry is often remarked upon, and perhaps this is what drew me to his texts – a musicality that is more than just pervasive lyricism, one that extends to his precision of gesture and cadence and a delight in the union of formal elegance with expressive heft.  But I think what I love is the magic, and with it the making-strange, whether of poem-as-spell or of a seemingly quotidian observation. The magic holds me.


The five poems in this set are selected from across Donaghy’s output and are unrelated, though ‘Tears’ and ‘The River in Spate’ are placed next to each other in his third collection, Conjure. They are not intended to present a coherent narrative, nor are they a cycle – though the music offers cyclic elements, and a narrative could be constructed if desired. I chose them because I could hear them sung as I read them, and – with the exception of The Tuning, whose exposition-heavy text required a different approach – I set them as songs: simple, often strophic vocal lines and a piano part focusing on a single figuration, as in classic Lieder.


After an extended introduction, ‘The Present’ places cycling pairs of vocal phrases against ever-expanding piano descents. ‘The River in Spate’ and ‘Tears’ both offer types of musical near-suspended animation. In ‘The Tuning’ the piano takes the melodic lead, sinuous counterpoint enveloping the narrator’s arioso. ‘Two Spells for Sleeping’ practices a hypnotism of unceasing pulsation and not-quite-repeating loops.

image credit: Mikkel Frimer Rasmussen / Unsplash