Words and Music

Being interested, as I am, in the confluences of the arts particularly how literature and music work together I have come across a few interesting pairings and since I know that we are all looking for ways to respond to each other’s posts I thought I would throw this one into the mix and see what other poems have been successfully set to music, at least in the opinion of my classmates.

In addition to The Lady of Shalott, which I mentioned in an earlier post, Lorenna McKennitt has set Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman to music. Noyes isn’t in the anthology but I recall this as one of the poems I had to memorize in school and Anne of Green Gables recited it for a contest in the book by the same name.  I find the piece too long, but my daughter likes it a lot, so I include it here. McKennitt does a good job of evoking the Celtic music of Ireland which is where the poem is set.

One of the most successful pairings of poet and composer, apart from the financially successful but otherwise saccharine efforts of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Cats, was Benjamin Brittan and A.H. Auden. Brittan set several of Auden’s poems to music and the two actually collaborated to write the acutely ironic Tell Me the Truth About Love for Hedli Anderson, a cabaret singer.  The collaborations are noteworthy in this context because they represent the ‘modernity’ of both the poet and the composer and are a good example of where 20th century ‘classical’ music was going. You can hear the dissonance and disconnection in both they lyric and the music.

The first is Tell Me the Truth About Love.  (I apologize for the quality of the video) The poem is both funny and sad when viewed against Auden’s struggle to be accepted as a homosexual in a world where it was still illegal.

Some say love’s a little boy,
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world go around,
Some say that’s absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn’t do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It’s quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I’ve found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn’t over there;
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton’s bracing air.
I don’t know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn’t in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

A more serious, and moving piece is Now the Leaves are Falling Fast. In it Auden explores the heartache of trying to be a couple in an England that would not accept homosexuality. The images are stark and barren with little sense of hope.

Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse’s flowers will not last;
Nurses to the graves are gone,
And the prams go rolling on.

Whispering neighbours, left and right,
Pluck us from the real delight;
And the active hands must freeze
Lonely on the separate knees.

Dead in hundreds at the back
Follow wooden in our track,
Arms raised stiffly to reprove
In false attitudes of love.

Starving through the leafless wood
Trolls run scolding for their food;
And the nightingale is dumb,
And the angel will not come.

Cold, impossible, ahead
Lifts the mountain’s lovely head
Whose white waterfall could bless
Travellers in their last distress.

If you are interested, I recommend that you have a look at Brittan’s Peter Grimes.  It is a complete departure from the operas of the 19th century and a great window into the way Englishmen viewed the world in the wake of two world wars.

I would be interested to hear about any other examples of poetry set to music that you have come across- from heavy metal to rap.





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8 Responses to Words and Music

  1. alexandramueller says:

    I was hoping someone would make a post about this. I am a huge fan of Loreena McKennitt myself, and I think her pieces based on this poetry to be some of her best work. She adds a completely new level to these poems which I think benefits the works. Her beautiful music and unique voice lend the words a new life, and she has this soulful power which I believe does the poems complete justice, allowing the depth of emotion and meaning to come through the words and affect the reader in a way that I believe is stronger than if the poem is simply being read off the page.

    • cljones says:

      I stumbled upon McKennitt’s music by accident years ago and have listened to it ever since. Her style traces the ‘roots’ of Celtic music across the three continents that the Celts migrated across before settling in the British Isles. You hear echoes of India, the middle East and even Spain and France all of which were once Celtic homelands. The simplicity with which she renders the poetry into songs is what makes them work. Neither the music or the ‘lyrics’ overwhelm each other and the music suits the style of the poetry, Tennyson and Yeats being of different nationalities and styles.

  2. jcdegner says:

    I thought you raised a really interesting topic in this post. I was especially interested when you mentioned the musical “Cats”. I saw this play about a year ago and absolutely adored it. I was very interested to learn that the music in it is based on the poetry of T.S. Elliot. I really loved all of the lyrics to the various songs; I thought they were extremely creative and innovative. In my opinion, Andrew Lloyd Webber did a fantastic job of setting Elliot’s poems to music. Many of the songs in the musical are quite dissonant and yet hauntingly beautiful in my opinion, which suits the mood of the poetry. Webber ensured that the unique aspect of Elliot’s writing would not be lost within the melody. I noticed when we read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in class that the author still used language to ensure that his poetry would stand out from other writers’. I must admit that I think Elliot accomplished this goal, and that I like his poetry even better within the context of the “Cats” music.

    • cljones says:

      I am glad that you enjoyed the musical. I, perhaps, did not because I am not a huge fan of musicals in general and I felt that the actors were so busy trying to imitate cats that they forgot the rest of the performance. The whole thing seemed to devolve into a weird modern ballet of hip thrusting and rolling around on the stage. I never got a sense of any ‘character’ as I did when reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or “The Wasteland” which we covered in an American Lit. Course that I took years ago at UWO. What is worth mentioning is how Andrew Lloyd Webber managed to string together a story from poems which are not actually linked into an overriding narrative. Though the ‘plot’ is not complex it does seem to hold together rather well.

  3. Ali Bayne says:

    This is interesting, a friend just showed me this album by The Speakers called ‘Yeats is Greats’. It’s a compilation of poems by William Butler Yeats and original songs, but it’s very contemporary; something I’ve actually been listening to on my ipod. It’s a folk-y vibe, and I really recommend it. One of my favourites is ‘To A Child Dancing in the Wind’, where they harmonize the classic poem and add some upbeat guitar melodies and vocal harmonies:

    DANCE there upon the shore;
    What need have you to care
    For wind or water’s roar?
    And tumble out your hair
    That the salt drops have wet;
    Being young you have not known
    The fool’s triumph, nor yet
    Love lost as soon as won,
    Nor the best labourer dead
    And all the sheaves to bind.
    What need have you to dread
    The monstrous crying of wind?

    Here’s the link to the track listing. It’s also available on iTunes: http://www.thespeakers.info/yeatsisgreats.html

    • cljones says:

      Sorry it took so long to get back to you. I am sorry that we didn’t actually get to study Yeats in 340. He has some wonderful poetry, as does Dylan Thomas. If you are interested there is a great recording of Gareth Wynn-Davies reading Dylan Thomas. Because he is able to do the Welsh accent the rhythm of the poetry and the rhyme make such sense.

      It is interesting how hearing the poetry sung or spoken in its original accent highlights the skill of the poet so much more than just seeing the words in a book.

      Thanks again for the new music!!

  4. mrubling says:

    Interesting post! I love the ties that can be made between literature and music (and really any other form of art for that matter) as artists have the freedom/flexibility to create their own interpretations. Your mentioning of Benjamin Brittan and A.H. Auden also reminds me of how poets such as Tennyson and many others looked to the past to talk about their own present society.

    In addition, I found this other song called “Grendel” by the 80’s English band Marillion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ny04UI3IkPI). You can read the lyrics here: http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/Grendel-lyrics-Marillion/4C89443621A0079F48256A49000F9477.
    The song is based off a book which is in turn based off of Beowulf but in this retelling, Grendel is the hero and it really draws on parallels with hypocrisy in society (such as the way we cast out the disturbed). Plus I love the merging of the the 80s modern neo-progressive rock with an Old English heroic epic.

    • cljones says:

      You are right. This is an interesting re-envisioning of the Beowulf Story. It reminds me of the film that Gerard Butler made a few years ago. Both highlight some of the moral ambiguities of the poem, such as the character of Beowulf himself.

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