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

The Poem, the Stolen Fragment, the Inarticulate…

Ned Rorem pointed out in a 1959 lecture that the first task for the composer is simply to sort out texts unsuitable for setting. His point may seem obvious, but it is a good one. And if anyone knows about the process of finding song texts, it’s Rorem, who has composed more than 400 songs and is known for his literary discernment as well as his abilities as a writer/diarist. More than any other composer, during those dark decades of the 1970s and ’80s when song seemed to have hit its nadir, it was Rorem who advocated–through his words and his unflaggingly faithful composition of new songs–the enduring importance of this art form.

“The composer’s initial job is to find an appropriate poem,” Rorem wrote. “The test of this is the poem’s final enhancement by music; it is contrariwise inappropriate when both words and music add up to an issue of musical confusion. One poem may be so intrinsically musical that a vocal setting would be superfluous. Another may be so complex that an addition of music would mystify rather than clarify its meaning.”

Clearly, not just any text will do, and composers have tended to reach for the same sources over and over. A 20-year-old catalog of over 500 works assembled by Patricia Lust (American Vocal Chamber Music 1945-1980) shows the most popular text source was the Bible (with 22 examples), trailed by Shakespeare (18). E.E. Cummings and Emily Dickinson tie (13), followed by William Blake (12), Robert Herrick (11), and James Joyce and Federico García Lorca (both with 9). An unscientific survey of song recitals over the past few seasons seems to indicate there is a growing emphasis on using contemporary poetry as lyrics to the new song.

When Eve Beglarian comes across a poem she likes, she tucks it into a special file; sometimes ten years pass before she finds the opportunity to set it. Ricky Ian Gordon has often sets poems by Jean Valentine and Marie Howe, two teachers with whom he studied. Lowell Liebermann speed-reads books of poems and marks the ones he thinks he may later set. Other composers look closer to home for their texts. Lukas Foss set texts by his son Christopher (a recent precedent for this father/son collaboration was George Rochberg‘s settings of texts by his son Paul).

And composers write their own texts. Mussorgsky, Ives, Debussy, MacDowell, and Bernstein did, as have, more recently, Chen Yi and Gian Carlo Menotti. (On the other hand, when Tchaikovsky wrote a text, it was set not by himself but by Anton Arensky).

However, lyrics are not confined to poetry. When Joseph Addison (1672-1719) wrote that “nothing is capable of being well set to Musick that is not Nonsense,” he can hardly have had in mind the assortment of texts and text fragments that have become the stuff of contemporary song. Leonard Bernstein’s song cycle, La Bonne Cuisine (1949), on four French recipes by Emile Dumont was surprising in its time (the cycle was dedicated to Jennie Tourel, who sang it frequently). And Joseph Fennimore‘s charming Berlitz: Introduction to French (1971) with songs like “Before You Land,” “When You Go Sightseeing,” “And Not to Forget Romance!” and “In an Emergency” has been widely performed. Similarly, Peggy Glanville-Hicks made songs of five of Virgil Thomson‘s witty music reviews in the New York Herald. And Frank Boehnlein’s 1974 cycle, titled From the JC Penny Catalog, Spring & Summer, 1973, included the songs “1. What do the Symbols Mean? pg. 561,” “2. What is Mailable and What is Not? pg. 562,” “3. The Weight Loser’s Bra and Girdle with Expand-A-Thigh, pg. 223,” and so forth.

What makes these lyrics work as lyrics is that, removed from its context, the text gains an altered meaning. Through this new context, the lyrics can be ironic and newly meaningful with possible added aspects of comedy, philosophy, or politics. Examples of how this resetting of the context operates was demonstrated recently in a song by Eve Beglarian on a line from a Stephen King novel, as well as a setting by Stephen Hough on a 1939 letter by King George VI.

Another category of song lyrics could be called the “inarticulate text.” It’s nothing new: think of Ravel‘s famous “Vocalise,” a precedent for John Zorn‘s new song. Beyond the idea of the vocalise however, Meredith Monk has explored “inarticulate text,” and developed a characteristic use of repetitive clusters of vowels and consonants that are word-like but unrecognizable. Depending on the music’s emotional content, Monk’s compositions can be interpreted as being sung in an untranslatable language, or sung by someone trapped in a condition either pre-verbal (primitive) or pushed beyond words (in a heightened state of emotion or frustration). Monk’s extended song, “New York Requiem” gives the impression of grief so extreme, it becomes inarticulate.

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

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