5th September 2014
Nick Freeth explores the relationship between poetry and music and discusses musical settings of some of the poems in the Poetry By Heart anthology.
It’s taken me a long time to stop myself rushing through poetry too quickly. The magic is much more likely to emerge if I recite the lines, or hear them read to me – and these ‘real-time’ processes can’t be hurried. I also love listening to musical settings of some poems, though I know many people have well-founded reservations about this hybrid genre. Words have their own tones and rhythms, which inevitably get overlaid by a composer’s additions; and even the finest verses will be spoiled by dull melodies and accompaniments, or by singers with wobbly voice production and cloudy diction.
But when poetry and music combine successfully, the outcome is marvellous. I vividly recall participating, as a 12-year-old, in a performance of a choral setting of ‘I sing of a maiden’ by Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989). I don’t think I’d have made much of its Middle English words if I’d encountered them in the classroom. But as my fellow choristers and I learned how to sing them, we gradually grasped their meaning, and were able to absorb their inherent sense of wonder. Berkeley’s hushed, mysterious setting complements them perfectly, and is all the better for being uncompromisingly twentieth-century, not ‘faux-medieval.’
Solo songs, where the singer takes on the poet’s voice, tend to produce a more intense effect than choral works. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote his setting of William Barnes’ ‘Linden Lea’ http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-orchad-in-linden-lea/ for soloist and piano in 1901, and created one of his loveliest tunes for its three stanzas. (Most performers use a standard English version of these, though the printed score also supplies the Dorset dialect words.) He sustains some of the syllables in a way that might have surprised Barnes, but the results sound entirely natural, and the music’s lingering over the words “…cloudless sunshine overhead” evokes, for me, an especially English kind of eternal, pastoral present.
In ‘Linden Lea’, Vaughan Williams employs a single, repeated melody; but when composers choose, instead, to ‘tailor’ their notes to every line of a poem, there’s greater scope to vary the mood, and illustrate the text more elaborately. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) excelled at this, as we can hear from his treatment of two items in the Poetry By Heart anthology: a fragment of Christopher Smart’s ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’ in Rejoice in the Lamb (1943); and T.S. Eliot’s ‘The journey of the Magi’ (Canticle IV, for three solo singers and piano, 1971). http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/for-i-will-consider-my-cat-jeoffry/ http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-journey-of-the-magi/ I have to admit that the canticle setting always leaves me cold, for all its ingenuity, perhaps because I find it hard to imagine Eliot’s Wise Men singing to us at all!
By contrast, music is already at the heart of the words in some of my favourite Britten songs. His early collaboration with W.H. Auden, On This Island (1937), opens with the triumphal flourishes of ‘Let the florid music praise!’, before a disquieting change of mood takes hold. ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’, from his Thomas Hardy cycle, Winter Words (1953), supplies music of almost cinematic clarity for the description of a boy with a violin, and the handcuffed convict who breaks into an ironic ditty (“This life so free is the thing for me!”) on the platform beside him. And in the same work, Britten conjures up a choir of angels “singing and playing the ancient stave” for ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’, the tale “the tenor man told when he had grown old.”
Whatever their brilliance and power, though, do we actually need song settings? Isn’t the poetry complete without them? The answer to the second question is, of course, “Yes”, and I think the items I’ve mentioned must be considered as works of art in their own right – incorporating and augmenting the poems without ever supplanting them. However, there’s one category of verse in Poetry By Heart to which slightly different rules apply: the two ballads, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ and ‘Lord Randall.’
These pieces have been passed down through the oral tradition as songs, and only make their full impact when heard with their associated melodies. Because several ‘variants’ of the words and music have been preserved, we have a number of versions of the ballads to choose from: the ones I’ve recommended (sung and played by Martin Carthy, one of the ‘greats’ of English folk) are excellent starting points. Enjoy!
Nick’s choices, with suggested recordings of their musical settings (all available on iTunes):
I sing of a maiden (Anon.)
Linden Lea (William Barnes)
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry (Christopher Smart)
The journey of the Magi (T.S. Eliot)
Other Britten songs:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick was born in London, has been actively involved in music since childhood, and is especially interested in classical and popular English song.
He read English at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, joined the BBC after graduating, and went on have a busy career in music radio production with the Corporation, as Jazz FM’s Senior Producer, and later as a freelance. His BBC commissions included a series for Radio 3 presented by opera singer Robert Tear, shows for Radio 2 and World Service hosted by Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, and a Radio 2 documentary on the British Library’s National Sound Archive. Since 1999, he has been a freelance author, writing extensively about music and American subjects; he also works as an editor and publisher.