Klarinet Archive - Posting 000107.txt from 2001/07
Subj: Re: [kl] poetry - a two way street?
Date: Wed, 4 Jul 2001 10:59:02 -0400
Bill Wright says:
>>I happened to sit next to a violin professor from Eastman at a concert
tonight, and the conversation turned to history. He made the statement that
musicians seem to appreciate poetry more than poets appreciate music. He
gave various historical examples of music based on poetry, and what the poets
said when they heard the music that their poetry had inspired.
>>We've discussed the connections between language and music, but it never
occurred to me that some of these connections might be one-way streets.<<
As an English Major and sort of writer, I think the violin prof is correct.
Poetry is self-contained. A poet works out the subtlest shades of meaning
and word relationships, rhyme, consonance (related consonant sounds),
assonance (related vowel sounds), varying line length, pauses, tiny changes
in meter and much more. Even the best music smoothes all these out. Worse,
it divides the reader/listener's attention. Music has its own subtleties and
complex relationships, but they're only slightly related to those of poetry.
At least the first few times through a poem, you need to read it slowly and
haltingly, stopping to understand what's happening, going back a few lines
and reading again to "get" it. Eventually, you will want to go through from
beginning to end, but that's only the final stage of a multi-stage process.
As Dylan Thomas said, the printed page is the place to work on the poem. A
staged reading is the place to give the poem the works.
The last thing highly wrought poetry needs is to have something added to it,
no matter how good that "something" is.
The better the poetry, the less well it takes to music. Even Schubert set
mostly poetry that can generously be described as mediocre. My mother was
fluent in German and could hardly bear to listen to Die Schoene Muellerin or
Wintereisse because the poetry was such awful doggerel. Schubert set many
Goethe poems, of course, but Goethe refused even to look at them, and even
Schubert's genius could reproduce only the outlines of Goethe's poetry.
Schubert's Goethe settings work because they're great music, not because they
express the poetry in all its subtlety and variety. Die Schoene Muellerin
works because the poetry by Wilhelm Mueller is of no particular interest and
serves simply as a skeletal support for Schubert's music.
Schumann's Dichterliebe sets great poetry by Heine, so it can be done. I
think Dichterliebe works so well because Schumann used extensive preludes and
postludes to set up and comment musically on the poetry, and because the
poems are quite short and express single ideas.
Shepherd on the Rock works because the poetry is so simple and "straight."
It really wasn't intended to be read as a poem, but to serve as a vehicle for
the music and for the singer it was written for, to show off her high range,
low range, cantabile and coloratura technique.
By contrast, Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" poems have their own strong internal
music, and Ned Rorem's settings, though fine music and brilliantly worked
out, simply steamroller the poetry until it's unrecognizable, at least for me.
Music and poetry inhabit worlds that overlap only slightly. If they're to
work as one, it has to be planned from the outset. Schubert's Goethe
settings are not a very good way to read Goethe. We listen to them because
they're great music, expressing the outlines of what we notice is some pretty
The same thing applies the other direction. The Mozart Clarinet Concerto is
complete in itself. Suppose a great Goethe poem happened to fit it
perfectly. Suppose Goethe had written words to be sung to it. No matter how
good the poetry, I don't think K. 622 could be improved, or even be
satisfactory music, in such a performance.
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