‘The Spirit’s Song’ and ‘O Tuneful Voice’ (Hob. XXVIa:41-42) (c. 1795)

Cecily Lock, September 2005

These two single English songs were composed to texts written and given to Haydn by Anne Hunter (1742-1821), the widow of the famous surgeon John Hunter (see also 'A Pastoral Song'). Mrs. Hunter's Romantic conception of life after death conveyed in 'The Spirit’s Song' clearly inspired Haydn to give his very best.

Hark! what I tell to Thee:
No sorrow o’er the tomb!
My spirit wanders free,
And waits till Thine shall come.

All pensive and alone,
I see Thee sit and weep.
Thy hand upon the stone,
Where my cold ashes sleep.

I watch Thy speaking eyes,
And mark each falling tear;
I catch Thy passing sighs,
E’re they are lost in air.

The piano part is highly imaginative and beautifully written and the intricate relationship between the voice and piano is extraordinary. Furthermore, the atmospheric piano introduction, the unexpected entrance of the voice on the mediant, the effective unison on 'my spirit wanders free', and the wide range of the vocal line add to the uniqueness of this marvelous composition.

The poem 'O Tuneful Voice' was given to Haydn as a farewell present at the end of his two very successful visits to London in 1791-1792 and 1794-1795. Haydn, obviously flattered by such emotional lines, returned Mrs. Hunter’s compliment by setting the words to music. The resulting composition is tremendously expressive, the beautifully flowing vocal line supported by the continuous triplet movement in the piano accompaniment. As in 'The Spirit’s Song' the entrance of the voice - this time with a diminished chord leading to the tonic chord in second inversion - is strikingly unconventional.

The piano part, too, is carefully written. The stretch of a ninth in the right hand in bar 2, the intricate ornamentation in the 3rd and 4th bars, and the melodic line assigned to the thumb of the right hand from bar 5 onwards reveal Haydn’s interest in the technique of piano playing, probably stimulated by the excellent London pianists of the time. The use of sonorous full chords and octaves, a highly chromatic passage in bars 58-59 and a characteristic recurring phrase in the left hand (stated for the first time on the word 'heart') lend much depth to the work. The beautiful modulation on the words 'and still to hear that sad farewell when we were forced to part' is particularly moving. Anyone experiencing this marvelous composition will wonder whether there was perhaps more to the relationship between Anne Hunter and Joseph Haydn than pure friendship.

O Tuneful voice, I still deplore
Thy accents, which I hear no more,
Still vibrate on my heart!
In Echo’s cave I long to dwell,
And still to hear that sad farewell,
When we were forced to part!

Bright eyes! O that the task were mine,
To guard the liquid fires, that shine,
And round your orbits play,
To watch them with a vestal’s care!
To feed with smiles a light so fair,
That it may ne're decay.

The expressive musical language and colouristic effects in both 'O Tuneful Voice' and 'The Spirit’s Song' foreshadow that of the later German Lied. Both songs were published in German during Haydn’s lifetime and must have played an important part in the development of the genre, leading the way for such famous Lied composers as Schubert and Schumann.