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

Whitman, 50/50 Royalties, and Waiting for Permissions

“Since I’m making my living writing music full time, I can’t just write something because I want to,” Lowell Liebermann said, in answer to a question about how he comes to choose the poems he sets. “In the case of the New York Festival Of Song commission, they were looking for something very specific—by a contemporary composer and about the future.”

It was in an airport bookstore that Liebermann happened upon a book of poems by Pulitzer-prize winner Mark Strand. He read it on the plane and knew immediately that the poem, “Blizzard of One,” was right for the commission. Usually, Liebermann said, he relies on his large collection of poetry books, whose pages are marked with metal tabs.

“I can go through a 500-page volume of poems, speed-read through it, and in a few minutes pick out the ones I could set,” he said. “As soon as I read the poem, I know whether I can set it to music. It has nothing to do with whether it’s a good poem or not. Sometimes my favorite poems are things I can’t imagine adding to. I’ve gone through a volume of poems ten years later for a second time and I tend to pick out the very same poems.”

However, one poet he has changed his mind about is Walt Whitman. For years, while he read Whitman’s poetry and admired it, he found it impossible to set to music.

“Whitman is rhapsodic and has those long lists of things,” Liebermann explains, “and at times he can be embarrassing, corny, and dated. But I decided to set him for my second symphony. I couldn’t find one long poem that worked for me, so instead I set bits of poems.”

For Robert White‘s recital at the Metropolitan Museum, Liebermann turned to Whitman again and set “On the Beach at Night.” The course of commissions does not always run smoothly however. Currently, Liebermann is writing a song cycle for the baritone Lester Lynch for a Marilyn Horne Foundation concert in April. He had been looking around for texts and not finding the right one.

“Lester suggested a poet he likes and I found the poems absolutely awful but I went and inquired anyway,” Liebermann recounted, “and when the agent turned me down, I was so relieved. Then I mentioned another poet but Lester said ‘his words don’t really speak to me.’ So I said, ‘Lester, reading a poem and singing a song can be two entirely different experiences.’ After all, Schubert wrote some glorious songs to some rather miserable poems.”

Four months before the concert, Liebermann was still waiting for permissions from the publishers of the poetry, nervous that any delay would not leave him time to complete the music. As back-up, he said he had 12 poems picked out, of which he would probably end up with six; and some of these are in the public domain. Getting permissions from publishers had become such an ordeal that it was tempting to just set works in the public domain, which would mean not dealing with contemporary poets at all.

“It’s just frustrating when the publishers take a lot of time,” Liebermann said, “and they want a lot of money. You have a work by a poet who is dead and the publisher demands 50 percent of all royalties and you’re not even getting an exclusive right to use the poem. It could be set by 100 different composers.”

At other times, Liebermann has worked with lyricists to meet the requirements of a commission. When NYFOS was presenting a program on the topic of scenes from American life and asked him for something on the topic of marriage, he could not find anything suitable in his library. Then during a residency at Yaddo, he met poet Laren Stover and read drafts of her unfinished poems.

“She’s a wacky kind of writer,” he said. “These poems were sort of twisted and perfect and I asked Laren to expand them for me. The result was a cycle called Appalachian Liebeslieder. The whole thing became a kind of one-way collaboration where she would write poems and get them to me and I would say, this part won’t work and then I need a poem for this part. She was very obliging.”

The poets Liebermann prefers to set–Whitman, Yeats, Crane, Randall Jarrell–use clear language that is not overly literary, he said. And the poems have a universal resonance and avoid politics. As an example of a poet he would never set, he named T.S. Eliot, because of his linguistic complexity. Liebermann holds the opinion that the poem’s language does not affect his musical language, and he characterizes the interaction between words and music as “actually kind of a parasitical relationship, a matter of the poet clicking with what you the composer want to do.”

Although he finds the quality of songs being written now quite variable, he is pleased by the resurgence of song and, like many others, credits the return to tonality as a major factor. One element in the new song that does not interest him however is the inclusion of pop. He recounted an experience he had while conducting a composition masterclass. In the front row, a sullen student sat with crossed arms, glaring at him. Finally, at the end of the class, the student raised his hand and asked accusingly why Liebermann never used elements of art rock in his music.

“It’s because I’m not interested,” Liebermann answered. “If I had wanted to be a rock musician, I would have been. Sure, pop elements creep into my music, when the music requires it. But I don’t feel compelled to create fusion. I don’t like pop music and I didn’t grow up listening to it. What I want is to be part of a western art music tradition.”