Abbott Without Costello
What with all the recent hubbub on these pages over the importance of text in music, I imagine that many of you are desperately curious to know my thoughts on the matter. Today is your lucky Wednesday.
In the discussion of popular music with classical musicians, I often find myself confronted with the argument that the socially progressive message of groups like the Clash is undercut by the musical conservatism that characterizes its presentation. In other words, if one were to remove the lyrics from “Police and Thieves”—the Clash version or the Junior Murvin version, take your pick—one would have eliminated all or most of its progressive persuasiveness.
What if we excised the libretto from W. A. Mozart’s collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte? Doesn’t Leporello’s aria “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” trade on the somewhat perverse relationship between words and music? What if we bowdlerized the lyrics of “Se vuol ballare” such that the central “dance” conceit vanished? Suddenly Mozart seems a lot less witty. It goes without saying that we would have no idea what’s happening in the opera’s narrative, but more importantly, we would lose the perspectives that the music and text offer on one another. The very melody of “Come scoglio” means less without the text.
This is truer yet of texted chamber music. Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte is a personal favorite. Writing a twelve-tone piece with a tonic is one thing, but writing a twelve-tone piece with a tonic about authoritarianism is quite another. If Schoenberg hadn’t made the piece’s anti-fascist thesis explicit through Byron’s poetry and then conditioned both the text and music mutually, would Nono have written his seminal Variazioni Canoniche?
Text is an inseparable part of music. It is an information-carrying medium like any other musical parameter, albeit with the richness of an entire language (sometimes several) and literature within it. It doesn’t matter whether I like to pay attention to the text or not: If a composer decides to include words in his or her piece, it is my responsibility as a listener to interpret them just as I interpret the “music” part of the music, the harmony and rhythm and timbre. Two dimensions of meaning—the text itself and its role in the argument of the piece relative to its context—lie in the balance.