Piece of the Week 56: Drop, drop, slow tears

Phineas Fletcher’s poem ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’ is one of the most beautiful and heart-rending Passiontide poems that I know. It’s been set to music by many composers, and most well-known is the seventeenth-century setting by Orlando Gibbons which is found in many hymn-books – but there are plenty of other great settings too, notably the twentieth-century one by William Walton.

So in choosing to set this poem I was setting myself a bit of challenge – but it was a challenge that I felt I couldn’t avoid. In 2011 I wrote, for the choir of my home church, Lion Walk URC in Colchester, a setting of Jesus’s Seven Last Words on the Cross interspersed with other material – the whole cantata was called ‘Wondrous Cross’ and we sing it at our church most years. It was also very soon taken up by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, who recorded it for Regent Records. I’ve written about the whole cantata elsewhere, but I’d just like to share my setting of this poem today.  Here’s the poem:

Drop, drop, slow tears, and bathe those beauteous feet,
which brought from heaven the news and Prince of Peace.
Cease not, wet eyes, his mercies to entreat;
to cry for vengeance sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods drown all my faults and fears;
nor let his eye see sin, but through my tears.
Phineas Fletcher (1582-1650)

When I came to set this poem, I had that strange experience that I’m sure other composers have had, almost as if a pen had been put into my hands and someone else was manipulating it and communicating the music to me. This doesn’t happen to me very often, and when it does there is a feeling that this is the finished product, with no time for the normal revision and re-writing (and, sometimes, simplification) that I habitually do.  The result is a piece which I believe speaks straight from the heart.

The possible downside of that approach are the many chromatic notes and time signature changes, which can put people off – but that is how it had to be! I wrote Wondrous Cross straight through from beginning to end, and coming back to it now, after more than a decade, I find that I was frequently enriching the diatonic harmonies with the added interval of a tone, for example in passages such as ‘Father, forgive them’, and ‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise’. But when it came to Jesus’s fourth words on the Cross – ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me’ this added interval became the more dissonant semitone, and this harmony, combined with a ‘tear-like’ falling motif, was carried over into ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’, which immediately follows.  Additionally, the interval of the semitone suggested to me, I think, the concept of the ‘false relation’ so characteristic of English choral music of the time that the poem was written, and throughout my setting the flow of the musical line results in clashes between C sharp and C natural, and F sharp and F natural, at points of climax, rendering the very few non-dissonant chords all the more special and poignant.

If it sounds as if I’m approaching this piece as an observer and commentator rather than as its creator, that is because of the way that my composing hand was led to bring it into being.

You can hear a scrolling score of ‘Drop drop, slow tears’ here, performed by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, directed by Sarah MacDonald. You can hear a complete performance of ‘Wondrous Cross’ by the same choir here, and you can hear it sung by Lion Walk Church Choir, with a string group, directed by Ian Ray, here.

I don’t think you can buy ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’ separately, but you can buy the complete score of Wondrous Cross (published by Oxford University Press) here.

Today’s image is of the simple wooden cross at the altar of Lion Walk Church – the centre of the worship.