When Soft Voices Die was written for the first night of the BBC Proms in July 2021, the first Prom concert with a live audience after the pandemic and lockdown. It is scored for voices and orchestra and the choice of texts is a response to the idea of music coming back after a forced absence. The work is a setting of two short poems by Shelley – The flower that smiles today, and Music when Soft Voices Die.
The first of these deals with the brevity of all things – all our hopes and desires, and the delightful things which we encounter in life are short-lived and doomed to die. Everything is fleeting and transitory. The second poem is about human memory: music especially lives on in our memories after the sound has died, or in our contemporary situation, after it has been forced to stop. The final stanza reminds us that love itself outlasts the beloved.
Although there is a wistful melancholy in both poems they nevertheless remind us of the things that are profoundly important to us, especially in times of trial and loss – beauty, virtue, friendship, love and music. When these things are taken away from us, such as happened during COVID, we are reminded just how precious and indispensable they truly are.
The first three voices, baritone, tenor and alto sing a verse each of the first poem:
The flower that smiles to-day
All that we wish to stay
Tempts and then flies.
What is this world’s delight?
Lightning that mocks the night,
Brief even as bright.
Virtue, how frail it is!
Friendship how rare!
Love, how it sells poor bliss
For proud despair!
But we, though soon they fall,
Survive their joy, and all
Which ours we call.
Whilst skies are blue and bright,
Whilst flowers are gay,
Whilst eyes that change ere night
Make glad the day;
Whilst yet the calm hours creep,
Dream thou—and from thy sleep
Then wake to weep.
The soprano then takes the first verse of the next poem and all four join together for the final verse:
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovèd’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
The short work can be performed with four solo voices or with a choir, both with orchestral accompaniment.
James MacMillan, 2021
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer