Lear sets Tennyson’s poems
Lear published twelve settings of his friend Tennyson’s verse. We know that Lear set many more of Tennyson’s poems, and also that he set works by Shelley and by Swinburne but, with the exception of the basic musical outline of a Shelley setting included here, the music has not survived.
In many of these settings, onomatopoeic effects represent thematic motifs within the song: in ‘A Farewell’ we hear the flowing river; in ‘As Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead’ we hear a drum solemnly beating the fallen soldier’s return; in ‘Sweet and Low, Sweet and Low’ we hear the rocking cradle; in ‘Turn, Fortune Turn’, Lear gives us the sound of the spinning wheel. Perhaps the most effective of Lear’s uses of musical mimicry is his setting of ‘The Time Draws Near the Birth of Christ’ from In Memoriam, in which he gives us an extraordinarily realistic and resonant peal of bells. Emily Tennyson, who also wrote song-settings of Tennyson’s poems, spoke of this composition as ‘beloved’ by her and told Lear in a letter of 1859:
‘If I can yet [be] strong once more & be able to sing them to Alfred my pleasure in them will be complete. . . . Hallam delights in the bells ‘Mr. Lear’s Bells’ as he calls them & learns to play his scale in sixths in humble imitation.’