My post about Doctor Atomic has got me thinking about this whole business of effectively setting poetry to music. This is something John Adams has always been exceptionally good at, even if I don’t agree with his approach to writing for the stage. But it’s certainly not a given that any good composer would be able to do this well.
Most of my career has focused on writing for the voice, whether it was for art songs, choral pieces or theatrical works, and so being able to analyze a text is something I’ve had to learn (and am still learning). I recently adjudicated a composition competition where many of the submissions were vocal pieces, and it was a big surprise how few of those composers seemed to know, or even care, much about how to handle a text.
Personally, I’ve always been drawn to theater, and that type of text setting comes to me fairly naturally. Of course, it helps that in that type of project, one normally has the ability to help shape the text according to the requirements of musical setting (or write it oneself, which I’ve been doing lately). But in the case of setting poetry, as is usually done with art songs and choral pieces, it’s been more of a struggle.
For starters, the process of choosing texts can be daunting. I’ve only once been given a specific poem to set (e.e. cummings’ “I think you God for most this Amazing”), and it was just pure dumb luck that it happened to be appropriate for musical setting. I’m very picky. For me, in order for a poem to be “settable”, it needs to have very short lines and very few ideas packed into a stanza, which disqualifies most poems. I think a lot of composers fail to recognize that most poetry stands on its own without music, and shouldn’t be monkeyed with. Poetry should be chosen that leaves space for the composer to enhance it through music — perhaps to draw out a hidden meaning. There needs to be room for interpretation.
Here’s an example of a wonderful poem by Emily Dickinson that’s short enough to allow a composer to take his or her time coloring each line. I used this poem in my chorus/orchestra piece Cycle of Friends, and used repetition to stretch the poem into a musical form (think Kyrie Eleison in a Mass).
Are Friends Delight or Pain?
Could Bounty but remain
Riches were good —
But if they only stay
Ampler to fly away
Riches are sad.
For composers wishing to improve their text analysis skills, a great resource was just published a few months ago. In Break, Blow, Burn Camille Paglia walks you through her own reading of 43 poems from various periods. (I’m still working my way through it.) The point isn’t whether you agree with her readings. If, like me, you haven’t had extensive training in this area, reading her explanations gives you a feel for what to look for when choosing and setting poetry. Unless you’re an English major, you probably need this book, or something like it.
I can’t help mentioning that Dr. Paglia was one of my teachers at the University of the Arts before her first book Sexual Personae made her a celebrity. All I can say is, yeah, she’s really like that.