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James Newby & Joseph Middleton

Black and white photo of James Newby smiling at the camera with his arms folded

Jessica Duchen explores how the themes of restlessness, longing and isolation translate into great art.

James Newby and Joseph Middleton’s recital journeys through inner worlds that interrogate myriad shades of loneliness, restlessness and longing. Words and music are spread through the centuries, but the human emotions involved are perennial. 

First come two songs by Benjamin Britten, who began to forge folksongs into art songs to perform in recital with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, while the pair were in the US during the Second World War. I wonder as I wander is a wistful exchange between piano and voice; unfortunately it turned out that the original was not actually a folksong, but written by John Jacob Niles in 1933, so Britten could not broadcast or record it for copyright reasons. The Scottish There’s none to soothe is from Britten’s third volume of folksongs: the composer’s distinctive voice is clear in the hypnotic harmonies of the accompaniment. 

Ludwig van Beethoven’s vocal writing is often considered ungainly, yet his songs were enormously popular in his own time. ‘Maigesang’ is a setting of a poem by Goethe; a celebration of joy in nature and love, it contrasts with the lonelier devotion to the beloved in Adelaïde, which became a perennial favourite in the Viennese salons. 

An die ferne Geliebte (‘To the Distant Beloved’) is the first known song-cycle, a form invented by Beethoven, who termed it a ‘Liederkreis’ (circle of songs). He wrote it in spring 1816, to a commission from his patron, Prince Lobkowitz, whose wife had recently died. The words are by Alois Jeitteles, a Czech Jewish medical student whose poetry, published in local journals, had impressed the composer.

The protagonist longs for his faraway beloved amid the beauties of nature, evoked with lyrical, folksong-like idioms. Music plays a vital role in the narrative. He offers her his songs: ‘Take them, then, these songs that I sang to you… and you will sing what I have sung … the distance which separated us will recede …’ While the identity of Beethoven’s mysterious ‘Immortal Beloved’ is still disputed, the academically approved front-runner, Countess Josephine Brunsvík, has some relevance: the distinctive rhythm that recurs in the cycle seems to trace her name. It is present, in a multitude of variants, in many of Beethoven’s other works, especially those associated with her.

Beethoven had some connection, too, to Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘The Boy’s Magic Horn’), a collection of folk tales and poetry assembled by the poets Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim. The pair were aided and abetted by Brentano’s half-sister, Bettina, who married von Arnim, became a celebrated writer and enjoyed a lively friendship with Beethoven. The several-volume collection, published between 1805 and 1808, was a seminal text in German Romanticism. 

Between 1887 and 1901, Gustav Mahler set around two dozen of its poems, his cycle of the same name containing 12 of them. ‘Zu Strassburg auf der Schan’ (On the battlements at Strasbourg) depicts a soldier condemned to execution; ‘Revelge’ (Reveille) tells the tale of a young soldier’s departure for war and his subsequent tragedy; and ‘Urlicht’ (Primordial Light) finds the protagonist poised as if between life and death. It became the mezzo-soprano solo in Mahler’s Symphony No 2, the ‘Resurrection’.

This evening’s recital also features a UK premiere, the song-cycle Casanova in Lockdown by Judith Bingham, based on the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova himself. 

Judith Bingham writes:

‘One of the most entertaining parts of the memoirs is Casanova’s description of how he escaped from the notorious attic prisons in the Doge’s Palace – “I Piombi”. This chapter became an entertaining two-hour performance that got him into many of the salons and courts of Europe. Over the years it was doubtless much embellished, but the official records of the Palace show that the damage he did escaping over the roof did actually happen. 

This piece imagines such a performance, with Casanova painting himself very much as the victim of a misunderstanding, though it was far from the only time he was to find himself in prison. The music follows an 18th-century pattern of recitative and aria, or arietta, though spontaneity is never far from the surface.’

Franz Schubert’s vast output of songs often provided him with a vehicle for contemplating isolation. Although he contracted syphilis in his mid-twenties, this darkness of spirit was not solely a result of that. The yearning Der Wanderer, D493, a scena in several sections, was drafted in 1816, when Schubert was only 19; his preoccupations with loneliness were clearly with him for longer than the disease. The Adagio section’s theme became the basis of his Wanderer Fantasy for piano, written in 1822.

Auf der Donau (On the Danube), D553 sets a poem by Schubert’s friend Johann Mayrhofer, in which, as the vessel travels down river, ‘And in our little boat we grow afraid/waves, like time, threaten doom’. Auf der Bruck, D853 finds its protagonist riding homeward on horseback to his loved one; and Abendstern, D806 is another Mayrhofer meditation on nocturnal loneliness, switching poignantly between minor and major. 

The recital closes with two more folksong settings by Britten, both originating in Ireland. In At the mid hour of night a lover mourns his deceased beloved. Finally, The last rose of summer blooms alone, only to be scattered after her companions by the equally solitary poet. 

© Jessica Duchen

Programme and performers

Benjamin Britten I Wonder as I Wander

There's none to soothe

Ludwig Van Beethoven 'Maigesang' from 8 Lieder


An die ferne Geliebte

Gustav Mahler 'Zu Straßburg auf der Schan', 'Revelge' and 'Urlicht' from Des Knaben Wunderhorn


Judith Bingham Casanova in Lockdown (UK premiere)

Franz Schubert Der Wanderer, D493

Auf der Donau

Auf der Brücke


Anon/Benjamin Britten At the mid hour of night

The Last Rose of Summer (arr Benjamin Britten)

James Newby baritone

Joseph Middleton piano


Artist biographies