Boom Times for the Art Song: A HyperHistory of Poetry and Music

When Philip L. Miller, in his introduction to The Ring of Words (an anthology of song texts published in 1966) wrote that “the quality of the song is closely related to the quality of the poem,” he was stating one side of a debate that has raged since the late middle ages (post Machaut) when composers by and large stopped setting their own poems (except for the flowering of Renaissance lute songs). Miller implies that the finer poem makes the finer song.

But an alternative view has held that the greater the poem, the less it is suitable for setting to song, that is to say the less it “needs” music (as Ned Rorem has pointed out). As has been written about ad infinitum, great songs have been made of poor poems and terrible songs of great poems (the tradition of Lieder—and for that matter, melodie—abounds with examples of the same poem being set badly and beautifully). But Miller’s statement also presupposes that the song text is a poem, whereas composers of the past century and the new millennium have been choosing to set all manner of texts to make songs.

There are a few obvious qualities that a text must have in order to become a lyric—it must be able to be clearly understood when sung or spoken. Therefore, the text should not use words that can be misheard and ought to use a simple syntax or sentence structure with few dependent clauses. Beyond those two technical points, the waters get murky. What makes an “interesting” poem or text, one that—as a song lyric—will “say something” to the listener is a highly subjective issue.

Schubert was often said to have been able to set a menu-card and make a song. This could be read merely as a statement about Schubert’s genius, as in Schubert could make a song out of anything. But it could also point to that almost magical aspect of song-making: the response of the composer to the text. That is to say, should Schubert have chosen to set a menu-card, we would hope it might have been because his feelings would have been in some way aroused by it; and if he had found inspiration in a menu card, his response might have resulted in another great Lied. Setting aside the fact that there are greater and lesser Schubert Lied, perhaps the statement also implies that Schubert never set a text that did not in some way inspire him.

I have often thought that songwriting is a form of translation. Just as in translating a text from one language to another it becomes necessary to find analogues between two different languages, so composers try to find the musical expression of a literary text. Of course, in the act of the text’s translation into song, these two language systems (the words and the music) are heard simultaneously. Through this fusion of text and music, one becomes impossible without the other. When the composer gets it right, the poem becomes other than what it was.

This makes me reconsider the question I have asked many times: what makes a good lyric good? Perhaps, in the end, this is a meaningless question. A poem, after all, may be judged as a poem; there are criteria that the poet and the poem itself (and the tradition of poetry or the tradition of the breaking of tradition) set forth. Taking into account one’s own aesthetic stance, a poem can be judged as either successful in its aims or not. Similarly (and again accounting for aesthetic stance), a song may also be judged as successful or not, if particular criteria are applied.

But lyrics—on their own without the music—as song lyrics are impossible to qualify. Potential song lyrics may be clever, witty, wry, inspiring, moving, or dramatic. They may have wonderful language and technical brilliance. They may be poetic masterpieces. Or amusingly titillating verse. Or terrifyingly avant-garde rants. But, they have not earned their stripes as great song lyrics until they inspire a composer to write a great song, then they become great song lyrics.

Miller was exactly right when he wrote: “Whatever the quality in a poem that makes it right for musical setting, a composer’s success may be measured in terms of inevitability—the conviction that the poem was destined for just this music and that the music could have been written only for the poem.”

It is precisely this quality of inevitability that arises when a talented composer has a full response to the text—whatever that text might be—and this synergy creates a great song. What makes a great lyric great? Ultimately, its ability to inspire great music.

From Boom Times for the Art Song
By Johanna Keller
© 2002 NewMusicBox

Page 2 of 1212345Last »