Music and Literature
Research & Writing- Professor Graham Ashton
Final Paper - MM piano performance
Historically, words have played an important role in shaping the music of composers. In the first part of my research, I will describe the roots of ‘text painting’ or ‘lyric poetry’--where music serves the sentiment created by words. I will then discuss an art song by Schubert, and an album by Leonard Cohen as evidence for how such text painting continued into our modern times. In the second part of my research, I will focus on how works of music or literature can change within the context of a larger work. Writers have described works of music within literature, and music within poetry. Composers have quoted music within music, and writers have involved plays within plays. Such literary deviation can toy with pre-conceived notions of what the works mean, leaving an audience with more than one popularized perspective.
To offer a history on the relationship between words and music, words have been set to music in the form of lyric poetry, dating back to ancient Italy, Greece, and China. The earliest form of lyric poetry occurs during the medieval times with the Troubadours. Singing messengers from Italy used music to speak of subjects as meaningful as truth, often what we modern folk consider reserved as religion. As explained by Cooper Oakley in her book on hidden tradition, ‘here and there some few frankly acknowledge that in the study of the writings and poems of the Troubadours, traces of hidden knowledge on their part become revealed, a knowledge which pertains to some more ancient tradition than that of the Catholic Church’ (104).1 Therefore, words and music have been translating commonly accepted religious values for longer than that of the Catholic Church. Described by the french scholar Louis chevalier de Jaucourt, lyric poetry was: “a type of poetry totally devoted to sentiment”. Music would accompany poetry based on a regular meter. The most common meters were lambic, trochaic, pyrrhic, anapestic, dactylic, and spondaic; All of these meters are based on variations of two to three stressed or un-stressed syllables. In the 16th century, sonnets were set to music. Popularized by the likes of Shakespeare, the idea of lyric poetry began to hold a significant place in the history of western literature. Spain used lyric poetry for religious devotion. Japan developed the style ‘naga-uta’, in other words: ‘long song’. In the 17th century, poets in Germany and Japan also employed lyric poetry as it was popularized at the time. By the Romantic Era, Europe had devoted its art to lyricism. Having spread to Italy with Ugo Foscolo, Spain with Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Russia with Pushkin and Sweden with Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom, lyric poetry had become the main source of expression during the Romantic era. Beethoven’s ninth symphony is a prime example for how words and music began to have more of an interplay. Beethoven departed from tradition and included lyrics in his 9th symphony, inaugurating the Romantic Era with such visual and programmatic intention, as words are essentially more visual than sound. Lyric poetry, however, originally described as having rhythmically schemed words set to a lyre accompaniment, is only where the relationship between music and words began. Growing into a full-throttle love affair, words and music have played upon each other for centuries. Operas have been composed to libretti. Symphonies have been composed in response to works of literature. Improvised Jazz has been influenced whole-heartedly by spoken word. Film music has been created in response to scripts. It is as though without the history of poetry and literature, the breadth of musical repertoire composed would be greatly lessened. Words have played a large role in the development of musical styles, and have created images for composers to play upon for centuries.
The trajectory of my analysis begins with some art songs from the Romantic Era. Programmatic music, or music that is ‘titled descriptively’ was popularized during Romanticism. What began with some works by Beethoven eventually became the new ‘style’ of the time. In his ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata (Op.81a), Beethoven wrote the syllables “Le-Be-Wohl” over the first three chords, the german word for ‘Goodbye’. Such expression provides an audience with a better context for the work--that it was composed as a reaction to the French attack on Vienna, where Beethoven’s beloved Archduke Rudolph was forced to leave his own country. The romantic work: Wintereisse (Op.89), composed in 1827 by Schubert and set to the poetry by Wilhelm Mueller, is a good example for how far the subtle changes Beethoven made addressing an audience with 3 syllables, led to an art song of 24 unique ‘poems’ within a larger musical work.
In Schubert’s Wintereisse (Winter’s Journey), beginning with the words: “I come here a stranger, As if a stranger I depart”, Mueller encompasses much of the wandering anxiety that is relevant to the Romantic Era. Here you can see, just in the first few words of the work, how the concept of being a stranger is accepted.2 Some of the themes of romanticism include nature, wandering, visual imagery, sensation, and dreams. Love is a big part of romanticism though it is qualified for its visualization (often by describing nature). In this sense, the music of Schubert is visceral, for it portrays natural beauty at its best. The Linden Tree, the fifth song of the cycle, discusses how the ‘word of love’ was drawn in the bark. Such a tree is placed in the center of many German towns, as a symbol for love as hope. However much of the song cycle is dark. In the songs, nature is a big part of the process to explain how love or passion is ‘fateful’, meaning in the favor of nature of something greater than ‘human’ control. In this sense, we can see in the ninth song, Will o’ the Wisp, that ‘our joy our sorrows are all a will o’ the wisps game!’. Thus, our love is merely in the hands of fate.
The poet who then comes to mind as similar to Schubert, is Leonard Cohen. An English Major at McGill University in the 1960s, he was a musician who followed his passion of words, vehemently. In this case, we can see that his album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” are comprehensive only if you give the words a chance. Here is a song-to-song analysis of the album.3 The primary themes of his album are that he values travel whether by car, trains, or drugs, reflecting by windowsills, the futility of religion, and the power of moons (often a symbol for sexuality). The songs of Leonard Cohen are not easily overcome. One must listen and quietly ponder his content. I analyzed the works of other songwriters, easily and impulsively, only to realize that Cohen was unlike them in his patience. In the first track, Suzanne, he states, twice: “And you want to travel with her, And you want to travel blind, For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind”. The phrase suggests that Cohen will include the theme of traveling throughout his work, so that place is meaningless, and person (or immediate environment) is everything. Continuing forward, he states: “And Jesus was a sailor, When he walked upon the water, And he spent a long time watching, From his lonely wooden tower, And when he knew for certain, Only drowning men could see him, He said “All men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them”, But he himself was broken, Long before the sky would open, Forsaken, almost human, He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone”. In this phrase, it is understood that Cohen takes religion very liberally. He does not like to box people into virtue. He in fact describes Jesus as lonely and less wise than his female counterpart. In this case he elevates a woman and shirks away from religion by describing its savior as lonely --- suggesting a less religious life could be better. In the second song on his album, master song, he states, twice: “And now do you come back to bring your prisoner wine and bread?”, continuing with: “You kneel for him to come”. In these two phrases, Cohen describes religion as something that pertains to love and relationships. Naturally, when marriage is placed in a church, it is regarded as a religious service. In Cohen’s sense, the reference to wine and bread suggest communion, and is pertaining to eating with one’s lover. The colloquial tone of the phrase degrades or lessens religion to the ‘ordinary’ routine process of day to day life. In this sense, we see how Cohen respects love between a woman and man over love to one’s ‘savior’. Furthermore, when he explains later in the second song: “Then I think you’re playing far too rough for a lady who’s been to the moon; I’ve lain by this window long enough to get used to an empty room. And your love is some dust in an old man’s cough who is tapping his foot to a tune”, the context is as follows -- Cohen observes how his lover has decided to have an affair with his friend, or ‘her master’ whom he happened to know personally. He then describes in his song that he thinks she is too good for him, and that he has essentially been reflecting on the matter by a window, awaiting her return, as this new man is not equipped to love her adequately. Without really saying he is truly equipped for her, he accuses this other ‘master’ of being incapable of support. To move along at a rapid pace, though his second tune is full of content that can be further analyzed, in the third song on his album, titled ‘winter lady,’ he again brings up the concept of ‘travel’ but this time in regards to a lady rather than himself. He states, twice: ‘trav’lin’ lady, stay awhile, until the night is over. I’m just a station on your way, I know I’m not your lover”. In this context, he uses the visual imagery of a train station to reference the idea of a place that one can be a stranger, just as was significant throughout Schubert’s Wintereisse. The concept of being a ‘stranger’ is relevant in the tunes of both composers. In fact, Cohen’s next song is titled: Stranger Song. In this tune he states, twice: “It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone who is reaching for the sky just to surrender”, continuing with the biblical allusion of: “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger”. In this case we hear the theme of escapism with the words ‘stranger’ and ‘looking for a manger’. The two words rhyme, and indeed the tune itself has some interesting trumpets playing alongside the guitar. In fact you cannot ignore the trumpets when the words get to, an again repeated phrase: “you notice there is a highway that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder”. At this point the theme of escapism is very real and it is impossible to disassociate Leanord Cohen from the subject, despite the love had for his soft-spoken nature. In the fifth tune, Sisters of Mercy, Cohen states: “Yes you who must leave everything you cannot control”. It is again another escapist idea, to leave. Furthermore, he explains in biblical terms: “I made my confession to them”, portraying the ‘sisters’ as godly, though they are feminine and plural. Furthermore, he states, twice, in a most affectionate way: “We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right”--- explaining how he valued them spiritually more than as physical beings. By elevating a group of ‘sisters’ he speaks for the value of women. In the sixth tune on his album, ‘So Long Marianne’, he describes his first love, and it’s potential. By stating four times: “Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again”, he explains how true love or his earliest love was a series of ups and downs. Furthermore he states: “Well you know that I love to live with you, but you make me forget very much.” In this phrase, we see how young love can be both beautiful and blind -- or forgetful. In his seventh tune on the album, “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye”, Cohen describes an affair post his ‘young love’ experience (as the life trajectory so often goes). He states, twice: “I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm, your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm, yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new, in city and in forest they smiled like me and you”. He continues with: “your eyes are soft with sorrow, Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye”, as well as “Our steps will always rhyme”. The tune describes what it is like to have chemistry with someone, even if you are not blind to the experience. In this case, Cohen is aware of the magnitude of his feelings, where he no longer ‘forgets’ things, but is rather aware of them. He completes the affair by stating, twice: “Let’s not talk of love or chains or things we can’t untie”. In this sense we see that Cohen is being wary. In the eighth song on the album, ‘Stories of the Street’, Cohen states: “I lean from my windowsill in this old hotel I chose, yes one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose” as well as: “With one hand on the hexagram and one hand on the girl, I balance a wishing well that all men call the world”. In this sense, we see how Cohen is grappling with the angel and the devil. But it is unclear which path he chooses, making the experience more human (or flawed), than biblical (or virtuous). In the ninth tune on the album ‘Teachers’, Cohen states: “who takes down what I confess? Are you the teachers of my heart?”. In this tune we can see how Cohen is looking for a teacher, or an answer to his problems. In the last tune of the album, “One of us cannot be Wrong”, he tells a story as he so often does with the informative outcome: He taught that the duty of lovers is to tarnish the golden rule. And just when I was sure that his teachings were pure he drowned himself in the pool. His body is gone but back here on the lawn his spirit continues to drool”. In this sense we know that Cohen is far from a “know-it-all” and instead, poses questions, regarding his existence. While he thought that it was good to ‘break religious rules’ for love, he also was unsure after his friend who advised such a thing, offed himself. In this sense, he is lost. The album ends with Cohen’s moaning and singing out of tune in an ‘old country’ fashion. He seems uneducated and it was his intention to act as such, despite having a high education in the English language. His work suggests that music can serve the words in a way that elevates storytelling.
Now in the second section of this research I would like to discuss how works of music or literature can change within the context of a larger work. In Thomas Mann’s novel, Doctor Faustus, there is a work of fiction that describes an ongoing relationship between a writer and composer. 4 In the novel, the protagonist states about the composer: “Adrian himself would surely never--in, let us say, a symphony-- have announced such a theme so prematurely, would at most have let it insinuate itself from afar in some subtly concealed and almost impalpable fashion” (7). In this sense, we hear how Mann describes, from the perspective of a writer, how his friend, a composer, would be so hesitant to ascribe content without fully thinking things through. His perception of a composer is at best scientific and removed from human emotion. Another instance in which Mann describes a composer in such a fashion: ‘As I said, I never attended the lessons; but I cannot help imagining that my friend reacted to the scientific data conveyed to him by Herr Michelsen with basically the same, rather indefinable demeanor with which he had responded under the linden tree upon learning that nine bars of horizontal melody, when placed vertically above on another in a trio, can result in a harmonious grouping of voices. His teacher knew a little Latin, which he taught Adrian and then declared that the boy--now age ten-- was ready if not for the second then certainly for the first grade of higher education. His work was done’ (37). Early on in the novel, it is clear that the composer is described as an overachieved scientifically minded outlier. And as such, his ‘indefinable demeanor’ is difficult to box from an early age. Throughout the first half of the novel, Mann defines the composer as a difficult breed, one who only comes to his ‘duty’ as a ‘citizen’ later in life, after going through theology school and realizing it was not right for him. Adrian (the composer) only realizes later that he was meant to pursue music as a compromise between his scientific and spiritual self.
So describing a composer as such is one example of the way music within a literary context can redefine for the reader what it means to be a musician. Naturally, musicians come in all shapes and sizes, but Mann asserts the composer mind as such. Now to give non-fiction examples of how Mann includes the works of Beethoven and Mozart within his sphere, here are some descriptions that lend Mann’s opinion on the subject. Mann states: “the visual of a Mozart score provides the practiced eye--the clarity of its disposition, the lovely allocation among instrumental groups, the clever command of the rich transformations in the melodic line. A deaf man, he shouted, someone with no experience of sound, would surely have to take delight in such sweet visions.’ (67). Such an expression reveals how music is not limited to the auditory experience, but, rather became visual during the Romantic era. Furthermore, Mann describes Beethoven as a rule-breaker, or one to take tradition and separate it form the whole. Not far from the truth you can hear Beethoven’s rebellion: “Beethoven, then, so we heard, had enjoyed the reputation of being unable to write a fugue, and the question was, how close was this nasty slander to the truth? Apparently he had attempted to refute it. Several times he had inserted fugues into subsequent piano music, but in a three-voiced form: both in Hammerklavier Sonata and in the one that begins in A-flat major. In one case he added “With some liberties”, a sign that he was well aware of the rules he had broken” (61). In this sense, we can see how Mann portrays Beethoven as a rebel or as an innovator. Not far from the facts, Mann does elevate the composer to a person of great power or freedom. In this case we can see how the perspective Mann offers is one of great respect. Lastly, Mann goes so far as to describe a performer. He has already depicted how he sees Beethoven, Mozart, and his composer friend, but now he lends an opinion on the performer. He states: “His mouth imitated what his hands were doing. Boom, boom- voom, voom-throom, throom- he struck the grimly vehement opening accents of the first movement, and in a high falsetto he sang along with passages of melodic sweetness, which, like delicate glimpses of light, now and then illuminate the storm-tossed skies of the piece” (58). In this sense, the concept of ‘storm and stress’, or ‘sturm und drung’, derived from Goethe, is realized. Mann does acknowledge that the 19th century performer will value and bring to life the score or script. Mann’s description of ‘light’ makes the music visual.
Another author, Milan Kundera, offers some insight into how music can be portrayed through literature. In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera states: “Surgery had been the one consistent Ess muss sein! or It must be! (a phrase taken from Beethoven) in Tomas’s life, yet he gives it up almost with relief. Now his life is lighter still and it is harder for anyone to hurt him. (The narrator says that Beethoven’s inspiration for the refrain (Ess muss sein came from a joke, his reply to someone who owed him money and asked him if he really had to pay him back immediately)”.5 In this case, it is evident that the music of Beethoven can transcend literary ideas as he was one of the first composers to program him music. He used words to describe certain musical ideas visually. Within the context of Kundera’s work, it is understood that music has enabled the author to better describe how the protagonist, Tomas, has taken life as ‘fateful’ or rather unchangeable. In explaining this Tomas is described as giving the ideal up as ‘a relief’, meaning, he knows that fate is inevitable and therefore not worth stressing over. The use of Beethoven’s music to render such a concept changes the meaning of Beethoven into serving the purpose of the novel. In any case, context has changed the meaning of works of art in other fashions as well. When stories are within stories, or plays within plays, the meaning of the work changes depending on its context. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there is a play within the play titled “The Mouse Trap” which Agatha Christie turns into her own play. Going back to Leonard Cohen’s album “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, he includes a story within a song during “Suzanne”, where he states: “And Jesus was as a soldier/When he walked upon the water/And he spent a long time watching/From his lonely wooden tower/And when he knew for certain/Only drowning men could see him/He said “All men will be sailors then/Until the sea shall free them”/ But he himself was broken/ Long before the sky would open/ Forsaken, almost human/ He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” In this case, Cohen offers his opinion on religion early on in the album (which is a theme throughout the album). Cohen uses the album to make a statement on how religion is flawed and sometimes corrupt. In this context, the person he suggests is above Jesus’ wisdom is Suzanne. He thus defers religion as something inferior to his love for a woman.
Music has also changed meaning when being quoted within another work of music. Wendy Carlos and Heinz Holliger are both 20th century composers who have quoted the works of Bach and Schumann in modern contexts. Carlos is famous for her album ‘Switched on Bach’ (1968), where she takes certain works by Johann Sebastian Bach and records them on synthesizer. Holliger took the last work Schumann ever composed prior to throwing himself out of a window (thus initiating his commitment to an insane asylum where he starved himself to death): Gesänge Der Frühe, and transcribed it for choir orchestra and tape in 1987. Such works changed the meaning of the original work, as they used different instrumentation, and the audience of the 1900’s is very different than that of the 20th century. Thus including technology (tape and synthesizer) to transcend older compositions originally designated for the piano alone has captivated our modern audience.
The current medium that most translates music to the general public is music within film. Classical music has been used to render concepts within films. But with the advent of recording, new technologies were developed that changed the nature of music and its reliance on technology. Now, film scores often consist of completely electronic music. The collaboration between the two mediums (classical/electronic) has led to some beautiful film scores. Some scores, such as that for the film The Pianist actually employ classical works, such as Chopin’s Ballade n.2, as well as his waltzes, for part of the film. The film itself, the Pianist, renders the life a formerly wealthy jewish pianist who goes into hiding after Germany is taken over by nazis. There is a profound moment in the film when the protagonist, the jewish pianist, plays the second ballade of chopin for a gestapo solider who decides ultimately to help him survive by hiding him in his family’s basement after his performance on the broken piano. The music then translates a large part of human connection and human decency or goodness. The meaning of the music then changes from it’s original meaning that was a reflection of the poet, Adam Mickiewicz, a polish poet whom inspired Chopin to compose ballades. But within the context of the film, the music becomes about the script, rather than about the poetry. Furthermore, other instances that translate and render classical music in a unique context include how, in the film Birdman, Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto is quoted as a drunk sad actor flies through the skies of Manhattan. In the film, Nymphomaniac, Franck’s cello sonata (or violin sonata, which was originally written for cello), is played as Charlotte Gainsbourg pines for a sexual partner as she struggles with an addiction to sex. In the film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, Beethoven’s fifth symphony plays during scenes of violence where men are attacking people in a mob on the streets, suggesting the music of Beethoven renders violence. In the film Coco before Chanel, the music of Stravinsky is placed against a backdrop of elegant clothes essentially lending the idea that the affair Coco had with Stravinksy meant more than perhaps it did. The desperation of Gainsbourgs’ sex addiction, the dream-like state of a pining actor in Birdman, and the innocence of a jewish victim during world-war two are all plot choices that affect the meaning of the music that is employed, essentially using the classical music that was perhaps somewhat programmatic (or not at all, as was the case with Beethoven’s fifth), to serve image or plot. Film is the new landscape for music as now sound often serves picture.
In the 21st century, music has changed from what was classical music, acoustic instruments and concert halls, to the new technologies that are used to produce film music. New technologies have been used to change the sounds that we hear. Synthesizers and tape in the eighties have now transitioned into full-fledged sound boards and programming stations in recording studios across Hollywood, New York City, London, and all the major cities where film studios exist. Films such as the movie Drive don’t even use any acoustic or classical influence for the music, yet the music serves the film very well. Producer, Cliff Martinez, uses a computer to create an entirely electronic-pop score to the film so as to create suspense and drama leading up the the sad ending that occurs. Vintage keyboards are the main source of his inspiration. The tunes ‘A Real Here’, ‘Under Your Spell’, and ‘Tick of the Clock’ all are meant to suggest a dreamlike state, using electronics to take away from any human or earth-like demeanor. Such a possibility, to create sound that defers from human feeling and moves toward dreams or perhaps a detached human nature, were made possible only with the technology of our modern day. Later on, in 2014, BBC reissued the score with tracks re-done by artists as famous as CHVRCHES, Banks, Bastille, Eric Prydz, SBTRKT, and the 1975. Such ‘musicians’ may not even be able to sing a tune in any specific key nor may they be able to play an acoustic instrument, but they were able to produce a tune that can suit the context of a film.
The film industry is the new landscape for music. Dating back to the early 20th century, when the advent of the film industry was occurring, our first films were in black and white, with Chaplin gesturing, and classical or broadway music playing. But, the industry has expanded, and grown. The industry has pulled from the vast repertoire I discussed dating back to the middle ages, and has moved on to create works of music impossible of existing prior to our modern technological advancements. I anticipate the collaboration between the classical and modern instrumentation can last a bit longer, though the acoustic instruments that were once respected when orchestras and radio broadcasting were significant and selling--are no longer as significant as they once were. Now the new landscape is visual. It pertains to the film industry and it’s ability to communicate meaning via vision and sound. As David Bowie once said, “Don’t you wonder sometimes ‘Bout Sound and Vision’? While I believe history repeats, and our generation relies on the music of the past few hundred centuries, it is important to recognize the new medium in which literature and music can co-exist. The two ancient art-forms, that is, music and literature, are now bound to this modern context that can amplify its beauty within a new frame. It is our responsibility as musicians to find the people and environment in which music and literature can now work to serve our youngest set of eyes and ears. In this sense, film is currently the most accessible form of communication for musicians and writers alike.