Libby Larsen: A Lover’s Journey


Commissioned by The King’s Singers, Libby Larsen’s six-part male vocal suite A Lover’s Journey tells the story of love. A Lover’s Journey is set into four separate songs, with Larsen using text from William Shakespeare and James Joyce. The work was premiered on Valentine’s Day 2001 by The King’s Singers at St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York. 


Larsen describes the set of songs in her programme notes:


“Four Valentines: A Lover’s Journey is a set of four pieces which chronicle the extraordinarily commonplace, yet supremely elegant story of love and valentining. They are settings of three texts by William Shakespeare and one text by James Joyce, published by William Shakespeare and company in 1915. When the concert date for the premiere of our new piece was set for February 14th, I began to search for appropriate texts and remembered Ophelia’s song from Hamlet ‘Good Morrow! ‘Tis St. Valentine’s Day’. 

In reading about the texts’ origins I came upon a curious custom practiced in some parts of Great Britain and Italy, whereby before sunrise on St. Valentine’s Day, unmarried women stand by their window, sometimes for hours, watching for a man to pass by. It’s said that the first man they see (or more wisely someone who looks like him) will marry them within a year.”


The Music

All four movements represent a lover’s journey as they go through different scenes in their newfound relationship. 


Song I – In the Still Garden

Set in a moonlit garden, the lover is bedazzled by a young woman, his ‘bella bionda’. The lover repeats these words to himself over and over again, silently summoning her.


The Text


O bella bionda, 

Sei come l’ onda! 

Of cool sweet dew and radiance mild 

The moon a web of silence weaves

In the still garden where a child 

Gathers the simple salad leaves. 

A moondew stars her hanging hair 

And moonlight kisses her young brow 

And, gathering, she sings an air: 

Fair as the wave is, fair art thou! 

Be mine, I pray, a waxen ear 

To shield me from her childish croon 

And mine a shielded heart for her 

Who gathers simples of the moon.


The rolling opening movement sees stretto entries from the voices that build up on the repeated phrase of ‘bella bionda’. The repeated phrase is chant-like, which creates a mysterious atmosphere. The line ‘In the still garden’ sees all but one voice drop out, making it a lone voice in the still garden. Small nuances like that make this opening song a true joy to listen to. 


Song II – St. Valentine’s Day

The second, quiet piece ‘Good morrow! ‘Tis Saint Valentine’s Day’ takes place at sunrise. In it the lovers meet and undo each other.


The Text

Good morning, it’s St. Valentine’s Day, 

So early before sunshine. 

I, young maid at the window, 

Will be your Valentine. 

The young man put trousers on, 

Opened the chamber door, 

Let in the maid who as a maid 

Departed nevermore. 

A shameless breed! 

A young man does it when he can, 

For truth, that is not right. 

She said: Before you trifled with me, 

You promised not to wed. 

I’d not by sunlight break my word

If you had not come in.


The hypnotic dissonance that Larsen uses in this mesmerising second song makes it one of the highlights of the set. From the repeating of ‘Good morning it is St Valentine’s Day’ to the staggered entries from each voice, Larsen is highlighting the importance of the text in this song. After a short climax across the ensemble, the voices retreat to the opening phrase once more before the song comes to a quiet end.


Song III – Will you, nill You

The third piece is a brief, insistent rhythmic outcry, setting words from the Taming of the Shrew ‘Will you, nill you, I will marry you’. 


The Text

Will you, nill you, I will marry you.


This short song is upbeat and full of excitement at the thought of getting married. Although only comprised of eight words, Larsen teases every last drop of meaning from the words to create an ironically meaningful interlude song. She again utilises staggered entries to create excitement as to where the next proclamation will be coming from next.


Song IV – Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day completes the Lover’s Journey.


The Text

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? 

Thou art more lovely and more temperate: 

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, 

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: 

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, 

And often is his gold complexion dimmed: 

And every fair from fair sometime declines, 

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed. 

But thy eternal summer shall not fade, 

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st, 

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, 

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st; 

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, 

So long loves this, and this gives life to thee.


The final song brings the cycle full circle with the sweetness of love fizzing through from the top voices right down to the bottom bass. Larsen uses imagery more in this song with words such as ‘Summer’s’, ‘Shake’ and ‘Darling’ being accentuated by harmony or decoration to highlight their importance within the text. The voices move together the most out of the four songs, hinting that now the lover’s have come together, they now move as one. The last two lines are sung quietly until the final line ‘and this gives life to thee’ sounds off to a perfect finish.


Final Thoughts

Libby Larsen’s song cycle A Lover’s Journey is full of musical imagery and shimmering harmonies, all of which equate to the themes of love. All of the songs are unaccompanied, meaning that all of the attention lies within the voices, creating an authentic and honest attempt at explaining love.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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