Re-'Cycling' Poetry: Structure in the Twentieth-Century English Song Cycle

Burton, Natalie (2023). Re-'Cycling' Poetry: Structure in the Twentieth-Century English Song Cycle. PhD thesis The Open University.



The genre of song cycle is characterized by significant typological variety and ambiguity, to the extent that a concise working definition of the form doesn’t really exist. This complexity is partly grounded in the historical legacy of the loaded term ‘cycle’ and its inherent connotations of circular succession. Influenced by this notion, much song cycle discourse is underpinned, consciously or unconsciously, by assumptions of unity, on a variety of musical and textual levels, that have typically pointed to the success or failure of works as cycles.

This study seeks to explore several interrelated ideological, methodological and critical strands. Firstly, established singular conceptions of song cycle structure limit the interpretative possibilities available to analysts and performers. Clearly, not all cycles are circles and an openness to alternative patterns, shapes and structures makes space for new understandings of existing works. Secondly, the breadth and diversity of the song cycle repertory requires bespoke methodological approaches that respond to the specific conceptual and contextual circumstances of works and composers to provide the fullest possible account of their potential structure(s). Finally, the intermedial nature of the song cycle demands a sustained and equal preoccupation with both words and music. Close analysis of music and text that is provisional and dynamic provides an effective way of exploring issues of structure.

The repertory of English, twentieth-century song cycles is relatively underrepresented in musicological study. Finzi, Vaughan Williams and Ireland are all well-known composers, yet very little scholarship focuses on their song cycles. Informed by the principles outlined, I argue that the structure of Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge can be understood as three, paired micro-narratives, that the structure of Finzi’s Earth and Air and Rain is dynamic (having both framing and internal narrative cycle structures) and that the structure of Ireland’s Mother and Child is non-linear and determined by experiential qualities.

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