A Journal of Contemporary Arts 








From April 1997


Should the study of poetry be emphasized in a conservatory of music? There is an obvious reason for doing so which obscures, I think, the true reason. A great deal of music, obviously, is the setting of poetry. If we are to understand this kind of music, clearly we must understand the poetry as well. Let us, therefore, study the poetry which has been set to music.


Excellent. Let us do so -- but let us not pretend that what we are studying is really poetry. For poetry which has been set to music is no longer poetry at all; it is music. Its quality as poetry may have served to inspire the composer, but it is as music, as song, that it moves the listener. It has often been remarked that the greatest composers of vocal music have created great works with apparent indifference to the quality of the texts they have set. Such anomalies cause no difficulty when we realize that the excellence of the poetry serves primarily to stimulate the composer; and that in a musical imagination of sufficient power and depth, the merest suggestion from the words may suffice. Thus, it is hard to decide whether to admire Schubert more for so faithfully rendering the greatness of Goethe's Erlkonig or for creating a sublimity in Die Winterreise which is nowhere perceived in the cliches of Wilhelm Muller's poems. But for true prowess in a composer, the palm must go to Mozart for his amazing transformation of Schikaneder's doggerel in The Magic Flute.


There do, however, seem to be requirements for a text to be set beyond its appeal to the composer's imagination. Rossini once bragged that he could set a laundry list to music. After meditating for some years on this remarkable statement, I realized that Rossini was actually making things quite easy for himself. He did not claim, for example, that he could set an editorial from the New York Times or a speech from Hamlet. A laundry list may seem ridiculously pedestrian and "unpoetic," but a little reflection should convince us that it contains exactly what a composer needs: clear, concrete images with strongly sensuous and emotive overtones. "Shirts, socks, shorts..." Need I go on?


But the properties in a text which render it suitable or unsuitable for setting clearly have little or nothing to do with its literary quality. Is there, then supremely great poetry which cannot be set? One can never be sure, of course, that a new kind of music or new kind of composer isn't going to come along and do the heretofore impossible; but the case of Verdi and Shakespeare is instructive. I had a friend once who claimed that he preferred the English translations of Verdi's Shakespearean libretti to the plays as Shakespeare originally wrote them. The libretti had strong, simple images and emotions -- good juicy melodrama that can work such wonders on an audience -- and none of that overelaborate subtlety of rhetoric, metaphor, and implication that can reduce a modern director -- and evidently did reduce my friend -- to despair. The sheer delight in words well used seems to have been high in Shakespeare's day. Verdi understood the wonderful characterization that such a word-sense made possible, but he also realized that the richness had to be taken out of the words before the flavoring of his music could be added.


There is a kind of inverse proportion between musical and poetic means. The grander the opera, the less likely it becomes that even the clearest words will be understood -- or needed. In Schubert's Erlkonig we have that rarity, a great poem which has become great music, because the modesty (as distinguished from the power) of Schubert's musical means permits simple syntactical relationships in the language to operate on the musical level. But the poem is also of a very particular kind. Goethe's literary ballad uses a deliberate, in some respects highly artificial, simplicity of diction and syntax which makes its survival in the musical medium possible. But in all these considerations, we wander increasingly from the study of poetry as poetry and from the question of what value, if any, such study can have for a student of music.


In order to see the advantages to a music student of studying words without music, I should like to consider for a moment the Aristotelian conception of art, and the predicament in which we find ourselves when we try to relate this conception to the art of music without words. Art for Aristotle is most fundamentally a "mode of imitation." It reflects, portrays, represents something beyond itself: "various objects through the medium of color and form.... character, emotion, and action" -- and he explicitly includes "the music of the flute and lyre" as well as all forms of narrative and dramatic poetry in this definition. The question immediately arises: what is the relation of the imitation to the original, or as we would say, of art to life? Aristotle makes it clear that the relation is not simple, not a matter of mere reflection, as in a mirror. Art arises from a human instinct for harmony as well as for imitation, and the various manners and media of imitation transform their "objects" in various ways, ennobling them, as in tragedy, for example, or caricaturing them, as in comedy. There is, therefore, a conflict inherent in all art, implied by the instincts from which it arises: the urge to imitation, to fidelity, to accuracy in the representation of experience, and the urge to harmony, to the creation of an object which in itself is well-proportioned and beautiful.


How can one make a beautiful reflection of an ugly world, which is yet true to that world? An account of the ways in which this paradox has been resolved becomes an account of the triumphs of artists. Aristotle's theory accounts for something else in our experience, that the creation of enduring truth and beauty in art is supremely difficult.


This brings us to a fundamental problem posed by the art of "absolute music" -- music without words. There have been those who deny that such music imitates anything at all, represents anything at all beyond itself. Almost any serious musician, I think, would resent so catastrophic a limitation on the meaning and significance of his art; but how is one to answer such a denial when it appears to be impossible to state with any satisfactory precision what the objects imitated in such music might be? At this point the poet enters and answers triumphantly, "Why, let your doubting musician experience another art -- preferably an art that, like music, unfolds in time. Let him experience a tragedy of Shakespeare, an ode of Keats, a seventeenth-century love lyric, a poem of Yeats, Frost, Stevens. Let him realize that this alien art of poetry which so clearly and, in the main, unambiguously reflects our human experience gives him substantially the same kind of resolution and exaltation as the music he loves. But the poetry, as he responds to it, is inextricable from the life that the poetry portrays. Form and content are one. His joy in the poetry cannot be separated from his sense that the poetry is telling him something, even though he may not be able to say exactly what. Poetry, like music, deals with the unsayable; but because the unsayable in poetry is so clearly there as part of an external 'subject,' his conviction will be deepened that the unsayable in music must also be there external somehow to the music."


Let us put this a little differently. There is no way for even the purest musician to escape the fact that music must be talked about; and yet, as we know to our sorrow, there is almost no satisfactory way to carry on such talk. The reason is that the objects of imitation in pure music are unknown to the conscious mind. The solution among musicians -- and in the classes in a conservatory of music -- is usually to discuss music only in terms of its inner structure, its harmony in the Aristotelian sense, and ignore its aspect as imitation. The non-musician, hearing such discussion, frequently has the impression that music has been reduced to some kind of arid technical exercise. And frequently the music student himself succumbs to the same impression. Clearly this is a serious problem for music education. (And one hears increasingly the complaint that it is also a problem for contemporary music performance.)


But what is one to do when the only alternative in the realm of music criticism would appear to be the vague impressionism that one often finds on record jackets? Perhaps the relief from this dilemma at the present time lies outside of music criticism entirely: in the more effective and convincing criticism to be found in the other arts, particularly in poetry. It is not only possible to talk about the objects of imitation in poetry; it is essential. There is simply no way to discuss any aspect of a poem -- even its rhythms -- without considering its subject. If there is any hope of improving the ways in which we talk about music, the impetus and the inspiration for such improvement is likely to come from parallel disciplines like the criticism of poetry.


Of course, the apparently nonobjective character of pure music has led to attacks on the principle of imitation in the other arts as well. As Archibald MacLeish expressed it in a famous slogan, "A poem should not mean / But be." Poets like Mallarme and Wallace Stevens have striven to make their subjects vague or inconsequential, so that their poems might approach the purity of music. But as the years pass, it becomes increasingly evident, I think, that this program has produced a poetry, exquisite perhaps, but notable for its limitations. When Stevens and Robert Frost met, Stevens said to Frost, "You write on subjects." Frost retorted, "You write on bric-a-brac."


But nonobjectivity is a modern illusion, even in pure music. A reviewer of an early performance of one of Beethoven's last quartets, although he found the music extremely difficult, was perfectly aware that it dramatized, not just feeling, but also "thought" and even "philosophy." As the years have gone by and as the classics of our musical repertoire have slipped into an ever remoter past, could it be that we have simply begun to forget their nature as imitative art? If this is so, then the study of poetry may help us to remember.



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