'Piano' by D.H. Lawrence

A cross-curricular lesson for Middle School, Secondary School, High School, KS3 or GCSE children, with a part-song for high voices with piano accompaniment, a music video/animation, poetry analysis and writing, music analysis and composition, class presentations and more.

Teaching Resource: Developing confidence with unseen poetry
This should be used before introducing pupils to the poem or animation.

Animation by Paula Downes, music by Andrew Downes, poem by D.H.Lawrence.

View or purchase the sheet music for this work.

The Poem
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me; 
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see 
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings 
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings. 

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song 
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong 
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside 
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide. 

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour 
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour 
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast 
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Poetry Background
David Herbert Lawrence, novelist, short-story writer, poet, and essayist, was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England, on September 11, 1885. He was devoted to his mother who died of cancer in 1910. She was adamant that her sons would not become miners like their father, and fought hard for their education. It is thought that this poem is autobiographical. Lawrence clearly finds it painful to look back on his idyllic childhood when his mother was still alive.

Watch this video for a detailed analysis of the poetry.

Comparison of two versions of 'Piano'
Discuss these two versions in small groups and report back to the class. 

Music Analysis and Composition
View or purchase the sheet music for this work.

Andrew Downes has employed multiple techniques to paint the words and to depict the emotions of this poem.

He sets the words mainly syllabically, often in a recitative or plainsong style, to suggest loneliness and sadness. By contrast he uses a long melisma on the word 'appassionato', and a short arch-shaped melisma on the word 'smiles'.

There is unison singing contrasted with singing in parallel octaves and parallel fifths and full chords. After the opening soft unison, notice the sudden sweet major chord on the word 'child'. Notice the sudden wide 7th on the word 'boom' followed by contrary motion to depict the 'tingling strings'. 'In spite of myself' is the moment when the texture becomes fuller, the voices split into more parts, as the 'mastery of song' betrays the author to the past. He 'weeps to belong' with the voices at the extremes of their ranges and then the tension lifts as he sinks into the past in unison octaves going down the scale. 'And hymns in the cosy parlour' is set to a chordal hymn-like texture including a suspension, followed by unison singing to a 'tinkling piano' accompaniment. The full chord on 'burst' really bursts out of the previous texture of bare parallel 5ths. The loud unison octaves in the voices, accompanied by thick broken chords in the piano on 'appasionato' are followed by the sparse texture of the voices in two parts a fourth apart repeating the same note and then a jagged unison melody to show the loneliness of the protagonist. Over a held bare chord in the piano, the same as the opening of the song, the final sentence, 'I weep...' is set to two-part imitative counterpoint reiterating the weeping, with the two parts coming together in contrary motion to a sweet third on the word 'child', and a unison final note. 

Downes makes great use of atmospheric ostinatos in this work in the piano accompaniment. Look for ostinatos and explain why he has used them at these points. Watch this video to learn more about ostinatos.

Composition Task
Create your own setting of 'Piano' by D.H.Lawrence. You can speak or sing the words. Use the piano to accompany you.

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