This is a co-production between Opera North Projects and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) but is administered by Opera North. As part of the RSC’s festival in 2006 they had the complete works of Shakespeare over a yearlong season, and I was asked to do a programme of settings of the sonnets and was, in addition, curator for the project. For this we devised a structure in which I wrote about an hour’s material for the second half of the performance, setting eight sonnets, and for the first half I was able to commission different composers, chiefly from outside the world of “classical” music. All used the same resources – my two singers soprano Anna Maria Friman (also sings

with Trio Mediaeval) and tenor John Potter (formerly with the Hilliard Ensemble), plus an eight-piece group modelled on my own ensemble (2 violas, cello, bass; piano; bass clarinet/clarinet; guitar/electric guitar; percussion, including cimbalom).

The composers for the first half were:
American singer Natalie Merchant,
Rumanian violinist/composer Alexander Balanescu,
Irish singer/actor Gavin Friday,
electronica composer Mira Calix,
and the Mercury Award winning Antony Hegarty (with Nico Muhly).

Each piece in the first part is preceded by a reading of the sonnet by a Shakespearean actor, while the spoken versions of the sonnets, in my settings are integrated I to the music. As Gavin Friday performed the speaking part in my settings, he also sang his own piece in part one; otherwise John and Anna did all. In the first part each of the sonnets was preceded by a spoken version, given by a Shakespearean actor, which is an option for performance – Gavin, on the other hand, read mine within the structure of the music rather than separately.

During the last ten years, I have been drawn more and more to music modelled on structures from early music, especially madrigals and laude. My first book of madrigals, written for the Hilliard, sets commissioned poems by my operatic collaborator Blake Morrison. For the second I turned to Petrarch, in Italian – to the Laura sonnets in the Rime Sparse – and stayed with him for the third book (in remarkable Irish prose translations by J M Synge) as well as the fourth (setting the longer sestina form). I have since embarked on choral settings of Edwin Morgan’s “Sonnets for Scotland”, starting with Silva Caledonia for the Estonian National Male Choir.

So to turn to the Shakespeare sonnets feels like a natural progression. Unlike Petrarch, of course, the sonnets do not constitute the main body of his work. But they are a rich and complex set of poems that interconnect and cross-refer in endlessly fascinating ways. In choosing the eight that I eventually set I consciously avoided those that are essentially love poems. I developed, rather, a sequence of the more abstract sonnets, those which focus on ideas of time, poetry and sometimes love – but above all in relation to concepts of impermanence and mortality, inevitably pervaded with melancholy. Four of the settings are duets, for soprano and tenor, and each singer has two solos. Two of the sonnets contain specific musical references: number 128 to the act of playing the virginals, number 102 to the song of the nightingale; and two, numbers 128 and 146, have instrumental postludes. Each musical setting is preceded by a spoken version of the sonnet, but spoken precisely within the music and leading directly into the sung version. At the end of the last sonnet, sonnet 64, the spoken voice and the two singers come together, recalling fragments from the text – like the last readable inscriptions on a faded monument.

My settings are dedicated to the memory of the Scottish poet George Bruce.

A CD recording of the entire project is under discussion.

Part One (c.35’) (each may be preceded by reading of sonnet)

Natalie Merchant Sonnet 73
Alexander Balancescu Sonnet 43
Mira Calix Sonnet 130
Gavin Friday Sonnet 40
Antony Hegarty/Nico Muhly Sonnet 27

Part Two (c.60’)

Gavin Bryars: Nothing like the Sun
Sonnet 60, Sonnet 123, Sonnet 128, Sonnet 94, Sonnet 102, Sonnet 146, Sonnet 55, Sonnet 64

Performers (11, excluding Shakespearean actor for readings in part 1):

Anna Maria Friman, soprano; John Potter, tenor; Gavin Friday, speaking voice, part 2/ singer part 1;
Morgan Goff and Nick Barr, violas; Nick Cooper, cello; Gavin Bryars, double bass;
Roger Heaton, clarinet/ bass clarinet; James Woodrow, electric and acoustic guitars; Christopher Bradley, percussion (includes cimbalom); James Holmes, piano/ music director

Contact Dominic Gray, director of Opera North Projects and the instigator of the project, for all technical and financial information (

Gavin Bryars