John Donne & Music:

Paths to an Opera

by Chris Jarrett

The belief in the inherent lack of emotionality in the masculine species is more than debatable. Perhaps it is now (in 2005) just about time for both sexes to give this prejudice over to the dusty, yellowed archives of times when men were too afraid to accept their own "weaknesses" and women too afraid of revealing their designs. Still today, however, experience shows us that men tend to hide or be afraid of showing their emotions in a direct way. What did Godfather Marlon once say? "Women and children can afford to be careless - men cannot." Certainly, men have traditionally taken or born unwillingly the biggest responsibilities (and the power) of almost all world societies since the beginning of civilization. Honest, direct, or careless emotionality can destroy long-built security and even send countries to ruin — and it has.

No wonder indeed, that even after the first emancipation of women in Europe and North America at the end of the 19th century and very obviously until today the realm of "serious" music has been one in which women have played, and do play, a much smaller part than that of men. Surely, this is a thorny field, but it isn't oppression alone that, as concerns the art of composition, has kept women all over the world in a state of reservation, instead of in one of liberation. This field, rightly or wrongly, still is a stronghold of masculine ambition. You see: men can express themselves in music without being caught.

Literature is somewhat different — it can be more easily discussed, and has a more direct and concrete impulse. One can sure get caught as a writer! If what you write is what you mean — word for word — you had better not change your view too quickly or you could be in bad trouble with your surroundings and make some very careless mistakes indeed. But does this kind of static thinking pave a road toward more understanding of things universal, or is it merely an antiquated habit based on false pride and vanity? Music,on the other hand, accepts contradictions much more easily — it is more easily capable of revealing the beauty of the process of thought and feeling and not simply the result. It is based on logic and mathematics, but even the most naive listener accepts the spontaneity of it's expressiveness, and indeed regards it as one of it's most important qualities. A musical idea is expressive and impressive simply because it appears at the right time, NOT because it is primarily LOGICAL. The unpredictability of an idea is worth more than it's infallibility. Here, it is not only possible, but outright necessary, when building a musical structure, to contradict; and this, (if the composer feels the "correctness" of his subject) in order to find something that may reflect truth. These aspects appear in smaller quantities in dance and poetry — that is, in art — forms in which rhythm plays such an important part. The impact of a spoken sentence is very much dependent on the placing of the accents, (as well, of course, on the volume used). Poetry can convince us that something is true by giving us the impression that it must be, even if, by closer analysis, it appears fantastic. This is the realm of contradiction in which intellect and heart are at one, and where, perhaps, truth is nearest. This would not be the first time in intellectual history, in which art were to be defended as the ruling right hand of science. John Donne's "manly persuasive art" is a prime example of the use of rhythm to make points clear, which we would otherwise discard as absurd. His "cornered soul" is an example of masculine collectedness, but equipped with an incredibly high emotional risk-factor at the same time. He's not a punch-line poet, giving us the expected point at the expected time in hopes of raising a self-satisfied smile on the reader's face, but an ingenious debater, searching and struggling for the truth in debate against the greatest of all contestants: himself.

That poetry and music are related is surely nothing new, but the fact that the rhythms of much of Donne's poetry were not well-suited to the music of his time and that they are to that of ours is a sure sign of an historical and prophetic genius. Put this together with the scientific metaphors in many of his love poems, as well as in the Anatomies and Anniversaries, and we can even speak of him as a researcher or discoverer who has hidden himself behind the mask of a courtly gentleman. Even in those times — at the beginnings of modern scientific research — he seemed to know that pure analysis was not the long range answer. The laws of God, Nature and Man are of immense difference in quality and purpose. Man can do only what he can, and, strive though he will, he will hurt himself or go mad in the end looking for answers in a law system his mind is simply not capable of understanding. That the world is "all just supply, and all relation," is nothing less than a poet's inner prophesy of the theory of relativity. His descriptions of the body as a microcosm equal in complexity to the macrocosm of the universe, is — as basically religious as it is — an inspired scientific insight. His obsession with the difference between man's ability to REcreate and God's Creation out of nothing, and his constant repetition of the unfathomable difference between 0 and 1, is the logic of the 21st century. His Satires (the first in English) have a rough, critical tone even reminiscent of the enfant terrible of rock music, Frank Zappa; and of course, the unabashed sexuality of some of his sonnets and elegies is astoundingly modern. (Even the first usage of the word "sex" as intercourse instead of gender is credited to Donne.)

Donne's poems integrate so many elements typical of modern musical composition: mathematics, science, spontaneity, emotion, sensuality, complex rhythms, expressiveness, and the love of the contradictory, that one could say his writings are the products of a man making music...... but getting caught,too.

These are reasons enough for a modern musician to become curious and to tone his songs or an elegy, but why write an opera? Certainly Donne is known to those who love English literature; but in what contexts do the majority of readers, not concerned with depth or detail, see the poet? From my experience with readers, he is either seen as a bawdy poet or a super-mystic, and both are dead wrong. Of course, there is Jack Donne, King of the Orgies, and there is the Dean of St. Paul's — a strict believer in the Resurrection; but the genius Donne is not between these poles; he's somewhere else altogether. To find only one word to place him is impossible, but I will provoke a little by saying, that Donne was first and foremost a man of compromise. ("I hate extremes") This will sound strange to those who see his erotic-poems,and his exciting and critical sermons as static expressions — in fact, Donne was only using his genius for what he considered the good of the moment or the time. He was trying to be the counterweight of other extremes, (albeit extremes of stagnation and false pride) for the "betterment" or at least the awakening and education of his fellows. He was able to make others aware that their standpoints were extreme even if accepted by society, and that extremes are felt differently by different members of the same. His ambition and willingness to give up principles for his own benefit has often been skeptically seen (by modern writers) as an ugly underside of his criticisms of Elizabethan society. But wasn't Donne also looking for opportunities to act upon things he discovered, and play a constructive role without losing himself totally? Perhaps he needed to see how far his peers would allow him to go before they called a stop to his challenges, in order to enable himself to find a more comfortable place in the center of society thereafter. In any case, his positions were more often than not those of compromise and apostasy, and his provocations look very different when taking historical and biographical contexts into consideration. Emotional, sometimes aggressive, yes — an extremist he is not.

The other way some see Donne is even more ahistorical and disconcerting. Perhaps it comes from to the modern "need" to pull away from what is seen as Western society's ultrarationalism, and seal all philosophical thinking with mystic glue. Besides, isn't he a "metaphysical" poet? This term has indeed done it's share of damage. Donne is no more a mystic than any well-educated Christian, theologically located somewhere between Catholicism and Protestantism. His belief in the physical Resurrection is, in fact, less mystical than all the soul-transformations and breadless paradises of even very modern preachers. His love-poems are (in a very musical sense) satiated with scientific analogies and logical games; but these serve the purpose of forcing the reader to think farther and wider than he is prone to do while reading a love-poem — they give us awareness, not a wishbone. Donne is a self-critical searcher,(which is about the opposite of an esoteric) and someone who wanted to act upon his beliefs in a very physical way, be it in love or in religion.

The answer to the "opera question," then can be summarized as follows: my opera is (among many other things) an attempt to find and bring out Donne's meaning by revealing historical and psychological contexts and creating an entertaining work at the same time. That is why it is not just a conglomeration of poetic settings, but an overview of his whole life, using certain moments to represent his poetry. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn't have turned Donne into a hero — if he appears so in my opera, then only as a hero who makes difficult and perhaps hypocritical compromises. To my knowledge, it would then be the first opera with a compromising hero. The listener himself must decide if apostasy was the right answer or just another way to represent vain genius, or if Donne sacrificed his religion in the name of ambition.


"John Donne" is in 3 Acts and in German. I have written most of the libretto and translated most of the poems used. Donne is not particularly well-known on the Continent, and I hope to make a small contribution to his popularity here,or at least arouse curiosity. A small summary of the libretto and a description of the opera can be found on

The 3 Acts describe 3 big steps in J.D.'s life. Firstly, his upbringing in a Catholic family and the difficulties he had being raised by a mother who considered martyrdom the most worthy goal of life. Act 1 continues until the death of his brother in prison, which is seen as the experience-horizon opening his search for acceptance as a gentleman in a generally anti-Catholic society. For all appearances, he has given up his search for true religion. The second deals with the gentleman Donne and with "Jack," in all his erotic exuberance until his downfall after the marriage to Ann More. Act 3 takes place in the depressed home of the Donne's and shows the desperation of the family and John's inner struggles until his decision to accept the post of Dean of St. Paul's, his dynamic preaching, and finally his death in a shroud.

As to the music and some specifics of the plot, I can give a few separate examples, without giving too much away:
One of the dramatic highlights of the first act is the execution of John's uncle Jaspar Heywood. Here all is on stage : the cacophonic street merchants, the Catholics coming to see their martyr, singing an unabating ostinato of the Stabat Mater, the provoking and raw-handed Puritans in an ecstasy of hate, the soldiers trying to keep the peace, Jaspar being hanged, and the little John (boy soprano) himself, just crying between it all. Poems used in this act include excerpts from "Progress of the Soul," "Anatomy of the World," and the 2nd Satire.

In the Second Act, Donne has returned from sea, and has 2 affairs. It's the time of Jack Donne and all his sex and revelling. One scene of high action occurs after Donne leaves Julia, to have an affair with Lucy. When Donne and Lucy visit the "The Mermaid," they meet Julia with her new lover, who happens to be a poet of the old Petrarchan style. The music is imitative, and reminiscent of the madrigals of Elizabethan England, without copying them. John sees an opponent in Julia's new lover and he challenges him. Julia's lover reads his endless Petrarchan comparisons and Donne reads "The Comparison," which is a comparison of 2 styles of poetry deriding the old comparitative style and comparing Julia with Lucy at the same time. Shakespeare enters to have a drink but is so put off by these discussions that he leaves quite tonelessly. Donne makes love with Lucy only to return to the party and be crowned "King of the Orgies." The act ends with the marriage to Ann More, which sends poor J.D. into prison.

The 3rd Act is concerned with Donne's struggles at home and his wrestling with himself as concerns his place in society. Only after his wife's death, can he decide to take the position of Dean of St. Paul's. A sermon (excerpts from various works) is preached while his mother (still alive) weeps outside the Anglican church door. Lying on his deathbed, 2 sculptors are working on a final portrait. When they see that he has died, they go to his bed and find some newly written texts. They read while turning the portrait toward the audience at the same time. The sculpture shows only half of Donne, the other half is nothing but raw stone, and they read to the audience:


©2007 Chris Jarrett. Published with express written permission.
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