Durham Book Festival

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The song-cycle ‘Notes from Underground’, Thursday 15th October, Gala Theatre, was just one of the many events in this year’s Durham Book Festival calendar. This event was aimed at exploring the work of W.H. Auden, one of the greatest and most famous poets of the 20th Century.

Commissioned by New Writing North, ‘Notes from Underground’ is a song-cycle collaboration between two Newcastle professors, Sean O’Brien and Agustín Fernández. It brings Auden’s poetry to life by setting it to music, which includes a chamber choir (Voices of Hope) and a baritone soloist (Benjamin Appl), as well as the Royal Northern Sinfonia providing the chamber ensemble.

Auden was born in York in 1907, and then moved to Solihull with his family in 1908, making him a local of the North East. He was always fascinated by the Northern Pennines and the lead-mining industry in the area, which later inspired his poetry. Auden’s work also deals with ideas of politics, morals, love and religion, which are reflected in the poems selected for ‘Notes from Underground’. This is seen specifically through the poem, Now When I Was A Curious Boy, where he writes ‘All was there to serve my pleasure / The miners and their high-born masters’.

“The music was a brilliant mix that highlighted the danger and temptation”

‘Notes from Underground’ opened with Voices for Hope’s rendition of Hymn to St. Cecilia. This piece is the result of a collaboration between Auden and his friend, and fellow artist, Benjamin Britten. Auden wrote the poem, which Britten then set to choral music and was completed in 1942.

As mentioned above, ‘Notes from Underground’ is also set to choral music, following the pattern set by Britten and Auden’s collaboration. This arrangement by O’Brien and Fernández works perfectly with Auden’s poetry. At times dark and foreboding and at others more light and playful, the music was a brilliant mix that highlighted the danger and temptation presented in the poetry. The descent made in the poetry is used to present the song-cycle as a dream descent into the underworld, where the man stands trial before being sent back above, ‘I dreamed I went to hell to learn’. The story starts off with fear of the unknown, the ‘monster crouched inside the stone’ and moves towards desperation to be back, ‘Carry me up to the light / And leave me to stand on my own two feet’.

“The story starts of with the unknown the ‘monster crouched inside the stone’”

The evening finished with three songs from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. These songs are similar to the ideas expressed through Auden’s work in that they speak of the land and nature as a means of expressing themselves.

The evening finished with three songs from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. These songs are similar to the ideas expressed through Auden’s work in that they speak of the land and nature as a means of expressing themselves.

I do have to say that this evening was different to what I had expected. Only knowing a little of Auden’s poetry, I was slightly worried that I would not be able to understand the context and the meaning of the poetry. However, the music score that accompanied the poetry allowed the audience to connect. I came away feeling like I could understand the emotions inspired by the poetry.

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