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

Of Malaysia, Nightingales, and Stained Glass

For the New York Festival Of Song commission, entitled “Pantun,” Milton Babbitt drew quatrains from a poem by John Hollander. The author of seventeen collections of poetry and eight books of criticism, Hollander is a poet particularly known for his mastery of traditional and invented forms. His life-long fascination with form is evident in the invention and brilliant playfulness of his poetry, as well as in his scholarly books on the subject. In addition to several settings by Babbitt, Hollander’s poems have been set by Elliott Carter, George Perle, and Hugo Weisgall, among others.

The title of this recent song, “Pantun,” refers to the form of the poem. The pantun is a four-line stanza form in Malay poetry in which—briefly stated—each quatrain consists of two sentences that seem disjunctive but are connected by linguistic, sonic, and/or symbolic means. In the song setting of Hollander’s pantun, Babbitt’s gentle pointillist piano accompaniment and yearning vocal lines echoes the allusive sense of loss in the poem, which concludes:

A splashing drop, another drop of water
From the bowl I touch.
Somewhere near midnight I start up
And weep in the pillow that I clutch.

Significantly and characteristicaly, Hollander investigated the pantun form’s original roots, eschewing the more popular form—generally called a pantoum—that is a somewhat watered-down version that came into English poetry via the French symbolists. To find out more about the original Malay form, Hollander had the help of a friend who had done anthropology in Malaysia.

“He lent me a book of pantuns along with some rough translations,” Hollander said, “and I’d gotten a grammar and managed to puzzle out some of the things.”

He utilized the form most strikingly in his 1976 book, “Harp Lake,” in which the pantun circles around in its subject matter to the Lake of Galilee (which is harp shaped) and continues the pantun later in the book as a kind of post script, afterthought, or allusion to the dual nature of the form.

Hollander and Babbitt first collaborated in 1962. Wanting something for soprano (specifically Bethany Beardslee) and synthesizer, Babbitt approached Hollander, who saw that the combination of live and synthesized voice offered the opportunity for a kind of dialectical approach. He suggested Ovid‘s tale about the ravished voiceless maiden, Philomela, who is changed into a nightingale.

“It was a great chance to write something that used to be done a lot in the 16th through the 18th centuries,” Hollander pointed out, “and that is the echo song.”

In the text for Philomel, Hollander provided the composer with myriad opportunities to call into question and exploit the expressiveness of music and words, of articulation and inarticulateness through the use of Philomela’s thoughts and the song of the nightingale. The result is one of the most successful and important 20th-century works of vocal music.

Of the major contemporary poets, Hollander is one of the most knowledgeable about music (along with Donald Justice who studied composition with Carl Ruggles). While Hollander’s innate musicality is obvious in his poems and his interest in music is everywhere evident in his critical works (his first book of scholarship was The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700), he denies having had formal music training. When pressed, he allowed that he studied violin as a child for two years until he couldn’t bear to listen to himself any more (he quit before the lesson on vibrato), and then played some piano, clarinet, and folk guitar in high school. In college in the early 1950s, he attended a class taught by the renowned British musicologist Thurston Dart, studied harmony and counterpoint and learned a lot, he said, writing exercises that were “pastiches of Palestrina.” Then he became interested in lute music.

“Today if you want a lute, you buy a lute in a lute store,” he said. “This was not possible in 1950 or so. There just weren’t any outside of a couple of makers in Germany.”

He re-tuned his guitar and learned lute tablature and by the mid 1950s, as a junior fellow at Harvard, he was performing as what he termed a “pick-up lutenist” with early music groups in Cambridge, including the Camerata of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (which later became the Boston Camerata).

“But,” he concluded, “I don’t really have what I would consider formal music education. And then one day in 1957 or so, I heard a recording of Julian Bream. And I said ‘Good! That’s it! And I don’t have to play lute in public any more. And I don’t dare.’ I thought, ‘Congratulations, there are now professional standards.’ Because before there really weren’t. And so I stopped doing it.”



Milton Babbitt, one of Hollander’s musical collaborators
Photo courtesy C.F. Peters

During his college years, Hollander first heard Milton Babbitt’s music. By then, he had been listening to contemporary music and had gained some discernment, but he had, he has said, very “complex feelings” about serialism.

“One of the exciting things about Milton’s music for me,” Hollander said, “is not the fact that there is this total organization, but his amazing rhythmic gifts. Those are the things that are not so easily talked about.”

As the friendship between the poet and composer developed over the years, Hollander was surprised to discover Babbitt’s knowledge of and interest in popular music.

“On one occasion, probably in 1962 or so, Milton sat down at the piano and proceeded to demonstrate to me the difference styles of different spacings of chords in the reed sections of some of the major big bands. It was staggering.”

Another time Babbitt surprised Hollander was in 1982 when the composer chose to set Hollander’s poem entitled “The Head of the Bed.”

“I never in a million years thought it would be set to music,” Hollander said. “It’s a long, strange, difficult poem.”

Hollander supposes that Babbitt was attracted to the poem by its intricate structure of discreet sections. But he was surprised when the composer set the text without any section breaks whatsoever, with the words rushing by.

“I was startled and fascinated,” Hollander remembered. “I realized that there was something right about giving the poem that kind of reading. It brought out a kind of driving thing and the poem is like a bunch of dreams that one wakes out of and goes back into. That’s the way a very good composer can take a text and give a critical interpretation in and by means of the setting. That’s what he was doing.”

Hollander, naming no names, admitted that there had been settings of his poems in which the music was “trivial” or in which the composer had taken an overly literal representation of the words—the kind of thing, Hollander said, that one only admires in a madrigal from 1600.

But since 1922, Hollander said, anything can become a song text, even a page from the telephone directory. He complained that too many contemporary composers choose canonical poems so they can “become Lieder composers too.” And this has led to the poems of Emily Dickinson and the shorter poems of Robert Frost being “overworked.”

Hollander often cites Paul Valery‘s remark that “setting a good poem to music is like looking at a painting through a stained glass window.” It’s a viewpoint that he does not find entirely true.

“Anyway, wouldn’t it be interesting,” he asks, “to look at certain paintings through stained glass? What would you see? And would what you noticed be about the painting? And to what degree? Maybe it all would be.”