The story of the sonnets
Home Première RNCM The story of the sonnets text and commentary CD and Downloads


The story behind the “Sonnets from the Portuguese”
and these present settings.

The title "From the Portuguese" is confusing. Elizabeth Barrett was herself the 'Portuguese', secretly writing the 44 sonnets which were to chronicle her emotions through the twenty months of her and Robert Browning’s courtship, from the first of their 574 letters in January 1845 up to the dramatic days of September 1846 when the couple first secretly married and then 'eloped' to Italy. Only three years later did Robert Browning first see these beautiful poems, which he is said to have declared "the finest Sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare's".

These are not the feelings of a young girl. Elizabeth Barrett was thirty eight at the time and spent much of her life confined to her sick room. She was already a much-read poet, more so indeed than Robert Browning, and it is of significance that she chose to channel her emotions through the highly disciplined format of the Petrarchian sonnet, with its fourteen lines, ten or eleven syllables each, and its distinctive rhyming sequence abba abba cdcdcd.

One of the ways by which these musical settings aim to be faithful to the spirit of the text, and its discipline, has been to impose constraints upon the music, similar to those the poet herself worked within. It will not be obvious to the ear; but the rhymes of the text are paralleled by similar notation matches ("eye-rhymes" included!) so that the notes for the end of each line of sonnet one, for example, are

                                                                    F   D  Csharp.jpg (1366 bytes)  F  F  Csharp.jpg (1366 bytes)  Csharp.jpg (1366 bytes)  F  B  A  B   A  B  A

All being well, these limitations will not be obvious, the music hopefully managing to capture faithfully the various changing moods and emotions of a remarkable woman.