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Composers and poetry

I have a problem with poetry.  Unless there is a specific directive or inspired objective, a lot of a composer’s valuable creative time can be lavished on selecting suitable texts for musical settings.

Portrait of the English composer and poet John Dowland (1563-1626)

Much of that time is unproductive, for in several ways the poems are ‘not fit for purpose’.   The primary ‘purpose’ is to find a well-constructed poem that stimulates and balances musical ideas and can create a subtle partnership in which the composer may either enhance the sentiments expressed by the poet or add new dimensions to the words.
In my search I need to find poetry that is skilfully constructed.   The words usually come first.  A different relationship will exist between a writer who is working with a composer, one in which the words may come first, though not infrequently a clever lyric writer will impose very effective words on music already written.
Some, like the 16th century John Dowland, write their own poems.  However, I am in pursuit of poetry already written.  The search is usually through a poet’s collected work, or anthologies from a period appropriate to the musical intentions – discovering a common theme for a sequence of songs, or an intended historical thread with which to bind a musical work together.    The judgement of selection will be based not only on content, but also on the poet’s inventive skill.   And this is not only the inventiveness of the imagery.   Important as that must be to the composer, the proficiency with which the structure of the poem has been made is equally vital.   Poetry that is without rhythm or rhyme, an undisciplined flow of pretentious words that creates no more than a description of vision, emotion or condition displays no structural skill upon which a composer can build any further enhancement.
I would look for poems that are not only an ingenious distillation of prose imagery, but contain that focus within a discipline of structure that may possibly make it a remarkable creation, but will certainly make it a workable foundation.   But of course not all structurally sound poems are musically useful; indeed many are poor pieces of work.  Music itself often proves that familiarity with structural rules and conventions in no way guarantees a notable outcome.   There was a mass production of several thousand European symphonies in the latter part of the 18th century and they all followed the customary structural and harmonic procedures of the day obediently.  A huge proportion of them (and, as I have suggested elsewhere, even some by Mozart) are quite poor stuff.
Poetry now presents different challenges of a structural freedom outside the conventions, and composers who seek ordered, balanced work must be discerning.   Some of the choices of text made by Schubert in over 600 songs written in his relatively short life follow the rules well enough but are very modest efforts as poems, yet Schubert made so many of them into outstanding masterpieces. That he did recognize quality verse is suggested by the frequency with which he made different settings of the same poems by Goethe and Schiller.  Music works best with well-made texts.  Discipline is an unpopular concept in the arts; in music the failure to recognize structural cohesion, the lack of tonal awareness, dynamic light and shade are some of the elements necessary to sustain fundamental musical education.   Being in an orchestra is one of the few disciplines left!
Conversations with colleagues persuade me that there are similar issues around drawing in the art schools and using words in literary contexts. But these are all disciplines, and as such are feared by the many careless practitioners who are trying to prove that they are not needed any more.  Success comes without them, the easy way.  Those who are unable to recognize talent hand out the rewards to those without it.   But then someone comes along with real talent, and those who recognize it are staggered.  Best not to notice it; rocking the boat threatens too many comforts!

Posted by author: Patric
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4 thoughts on “Composers and poetry

  • All makes perfect sense, Patric. I once had to set some dire words, but on occasions, I have rewritten prose to make it fit a musical setting better. (I also love writing, as well as composing!) I also agree with all you have said about discipline.

  • ‘Poetry that is without rhythm or rhyme, an undisciplined flow of pretentious words that creates no more than a description of vision, emotion or condition displays no structural skill.’
    I’m not quite sure what you mean by this, Patric. There are many different styles of poetry. For example, free verse poetry, concrete poetry, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, prose poetry. These styles of poems are often distinguished from each other by their structure. They may not use a traditional form, regular metre, or end rhymes, but that doesn’t mean that the writers are completely unaware of any conventions. I can think of several high-profile poets in the UK who may use a traditional form (or a version of a traditional form), for one poem, but not for another. In each case they are working with rhythm, line, stanza, sound, and image to find the best balance of elements for the poem, whether they are working towards a formal structure or not.

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