Curated and annotated by Jeremy Glazier
Introduction: The Alchemy of Song

If you’ve found your way here it’s more than likely that Elliott Carter’s song settings have piqued your interest and you’re looking to explore other works that bridge the worlds of music and poetry. Perhaps you read contemporary poetry but were unaware that so many composers used poems as texts for their songs; or maybe you’re a music aficionado looking to pay a little more attention to the lyrics. In any case, the genre of art song as it comes down to us today—from Schubert and Debussy and Strauss to Elliott Carter and the wide range of contemporary composers represented here—begs a number of critical questions without easy answers.

What, for example, is the relationship between music and text? Is one more important than the other? The poem, in most cases, can (and did) stand alone before the music was written. Does that relegate music to a programmatic or decorative role, as though it were simply “illustrating” the subject of the poem? Surely the music of John Adams, for instance, isn’t merely secondary to the text of Donne’s famous sonnet, but is integral to the mood and meaning of the song in its larger context.

These are questions that musicologists, performers, and audiences—not to mention composers—continue to wrestle with. David Schiff, Carter’s biographer and author of The Music of Elliott Carter, contends that Carter’s own songs “are composed in order that the words and music will ‘read’ each other, will interpenetrate and interact without priority.” Schiff has called these songs “studies in intertextuality” and notes that “the more we listen the more we realize that the poems and the music are equally ‘about’ each other.”

We might also ask: why set poems to music at all? Was something lacking from Elizabeth Bishop’s poems until John Harbison decided to set them to music? What does Augusta Read Thomas’s music add to the various poems she chooses to set? How are songs essentially different from the poems themselves, other than by the obvious addition of music? What alchemy is at work here that creates something entirely new?

Musicologist Lawrence Kramer has written extensively about art song, including in-depth analyses of Carter’s song settings and a book-length study of the genre called Music and Poetry: The Nineteenth Century and After. “Some poems,” Kramer writes, “exhaust themselves in the process of identifying the music with an imaginary circumstance.” As examples, he cites “a breathtakingly banal poem” by Ernst Schulze, set to music by Schubert, and “a conventionally overheated love lament” by Ottavio Rinuccini, set by Monteverdi. “A song that masters a significant text,” Kramer ultimately contends, “does so by suggesting a new interpretation.”

Each of the composers represented here approaches such aesthetic and compositional problems in her or his own way, offering their own interpretations of the texts they have chosen. My goal in selecting them has been to offer a cross-section of the contemporary scene: songs by living composers from eight different countries working in a variety of styles. The list is by no means exhaustive, and no doubt reveals some personal bias. Some of these works are accessible; others may be challenging to those not familiar with avant-garde practices of the last few decades; a few definitely push the limits of the genre. But taken together they offer a starting point for the curious newcomer and, I hope, a few discoveries for the experienced listener.

Jeremy Glazier

 

John Harbison (b. 1938, USA)
North and South: Six Poems of Elizabeth Bishop (1999)

Book I: No. 1: Ballad for Billie (I)
Book I: No. 2: Late Air
Book I: No. 3: Breakfast Song
Book II: No. 1: Ballad for Billie (II)
Book II: No. 2: Song
Book II: No. 3: Dear, my compass

Text by Elizabeth Bishop. Performed by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano, with the Chicago Chamber Musicians.
Compared to Carter’s 1975 cycle of Bishop settings, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, John Harbison’s North and South for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble will seem traditional, perhaps even reactionary. There are some similarities, though: both cycles comprise six poems and deal, in their own way, with the complex relationship between poetry and music. The speaker in the first poem of Carter’s cycle, “Anaphora,” asks, “Where is the music coming from, the energy?” Similarly, Harbison’s choices include references to radio-singers and a piccolo; one of them is titled “Breakfast Song,” and two others come from Bishop’s four-part “Songs for a Colored Singer”—though Harbison has titled these “Ballads for Billie,” a reference to Bishop’s remark to John Ashbery that she “had Billie Holiday in mind” when she wrote them. Like “Late Air,” they come from Bishop’s first book, North & South (1946); another poem, simply titled “Song,” was written in the same period, pointing to Bishop’s long-standing interest in poetry’s musical possibilities. The final poem in each of the cycle’s two “Books” remained unpublished in the poet’s lifetime; “Breakfast Song” was published in the New Yorker in late 2002, while “Dear, My Compass…” had appeared there eleven years earlier. Both were finally collected in 2006 in Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, five years after the premiere of North and South.

Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938, USA)
Ashberyana (2004)

I. Introduction and Recitative: Outside My Window the Japanese…
IIa. Scherzo: Laughing Gravy
IIb. Scherzo: Dear Sir or Madam
III. The Laughter of Dead Men

Text by John Ashbery. Performed by Leon Williams, baritone, with Da Camera of Houston. Conducted by Charles Wuorinen.

The first (and longest) of the four songs that make up Charles Wuorinen’s Ashberyana, “Outside My Window the Japanese…” is an absurdist romp that spirals out from the speaker’s discovery of an urban Japanese driving range atop towering Manhattan buildings. Like so much of Ashbery’s work, the poem confounds many of our expectations of lyric poetry: the arc of a narrative, the unity of imagery and form. Instead the poem maps out the ever-changing terrain of the poet’s consciousness, what Sarah Rothenberg, in the liner notes to the Naxos recording, calls “the bizarre disconnects and surprising juxtapositions […] from our own post-modern lives.” The four songs call for a baritone—a register far enough from Ashbery’s actual speaking voice that it adds to the work’s humor and yet is strangely appropriate. The trombone seems to follow the baritone’s voice like an unruly shadow: “All the way to the escape clause / he kept insisting he’d done nothing wrong, and then—pouf!—it was / curtains for him and us.” Wuorinen is often considered one of the leading practitioners of serialism in America, and his music, which has employed complex mathematical theories and fractal sets, is complex, cerebral, and challenging. It’s a perfect fit for Ashbery’s poetry.

Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964, USA)
In My Sky at Twilight (2002)

I. Deeper than All Roses
II. Lament

Text by Pablo Neruda. Performed by Christine Brandes, soprano, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW Ensemble. Conducted by Pierre Boulez.

A quick glance through the catalogue of works by Augusta Read Thomas reveals a striking affinity for lyric poetry. “Poets,” Thomas told me during a phone conversation in 2010, “have a way of saying a lot in a very short amount of space, and I find these vignettes very powerful.” In My Sky at Twilight, for example, is practically an anthology of poetry—from Sappho to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pindar to Pablo Neruda, “Anonymous” to e. e. cummings—reminding us of the ancient musical origins of lyric verse. Poetry permeates her work, not only in her vast output for voice (“People think of me as an orchestral composer,” she says, “but actually what I’ve done most is write for voice”), but throughout much of her chamber and orchestral music as well. Thomas, who was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in music, describes a room in her home that is filled with books of poetry, and from the many literary allusions in the titles, epigrams, and lyrics of her compositions—not to mention the ease with which she can recite long passages of poetry in conversation—it is clear that she has spent many hours (a “thirty-year search,” she calls it) immersing herself in literary as well as musical traditions.

John Adams (b. 1947, USA)
“Batter My Heart,” from Doctor Atomic (2005)

Text by John Donne.

This excerpt comes from John Adam’s 2005 opera Doctor Atomic, chronicling the emotional, psychological, and spiritual turmoil of the principal players in the Manhattan Project. Coming at the end of the first act, this scene depicts J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the nuclear bomb,” experiencing a crisis of faith on the night before the epoch-making “Trinity” test near Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945. For his text, Adams and librettist Peter Sellars have chosen a famous sonnet by the great 17th century English religious poet John Donne. Anyone familiar with Donne’s poem, which begins “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” will immediately realize its implications for the protagonist—who begs God to “o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” The poem has been “atomized,” forcing the baritone to repeat key phrases and circle back on various stanzas. The effect is a heightening of the psychological drama: time is suspended as Oppenheimer stares down his fate, delaying the inevitable and compounding the horror of a personal moment of angst that mushrooms into the realization that we are “betroth’d unto your enemy,” that we “never shall be free”—and that, for the first time in history, we have the power to annihilate ourselves completely.

Note: streaming unavailable because of copyright issues.

Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960, Argentina)
Oceana (1996, rev. 2004)

Text by Pablo Neruda. Performed by Luciana Souza, mezzo-soprano; Elizabeth Remy Johnson, harp; Scott Tennant and John Dearman, guitars; Jamie Haddad, percussion; Jay Anderson, bass.
For this large-scale, seven-movement work, Osvaldo Golijov chose lines from Pablo Neruda’s Cantos Ceremoniales which, he says, were “too powerful for a single voice to sing.” (Chile’s great poet-statesman, Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.) Scored for voice, small boys’ choir, double chorus and orchestra, the music moves from the wordless “call” of a single, siren-like voice to crescendoing walls of sound in successive “waves,” which implore the ocean to “sing to me the vanished / chants, signs, numbers from the river of desire.” The instrumentation, the danceable rhythm, the imagery of “the equinoctial mantle of palm trees—all have a characteristically South American flavor. In the penultimate movement, a spell-binding “Aria,” the small boys’ choir sings, “I long to be nothing but marine stone, / statue, lava, a rigid, towering monument / where the crashing waves have disappeared.” That desire to vanish into the enormity of the sea—a desire felt by Whitman, Stevens, Hart Crane and others—finds its fulfillment in the final “Chorale of the Reef,” a quiet reckoning in which the sea offers up “the shells of the reef” and transports the listener to a mythic time “where the Argonaut sails his vessel of snow.”

Sophia Gubaidulina (b. 1931, Russia)
Hommage à T. S. Eliot (1987)

Text by T. S. Eliot. Performed by Christine Whittlesey, soprano; Gidon Kremer, and Isabelle van Keulen, violin; Tabea Zimmermann, viola; David Geringas, cello; Alois Posch, double bass; Eduard Brunner, clarinet; Klaus Thunemann, bassoon; and Radovan Vlatkovic, horn.

Western audiences seem to have fully assimilated certain aspects of Russian music from the Soviet era. Some of those composers, Prokofiev, for example, are practically staples in many American concert halls; others, like Shostakovich, are held nearly universally in high regard, though they are heard less frequently than they deserve. Towards the end of the Soviet era, Alfred Schnittke achieved widespread renown with his polystylistic works, though they’re not performed frequently in the United States—and post-Soviet Russian music seems even less familiar. Sofia Gubaidulina is perhaps the best-known living Russian composer to American audiences, and her Hommage à T. S. Eliot, for octet and soprano, is an excellent introduction to her contemplative, Orthodox-inspired sound world: in addition to setting excerpts from three of Eliot’s Four Quartets (“Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” and “Little Gidding”), the piece is scored for the same instrumentation as Schubert’s octet—string quintet plus a trio for winds. The various groups are introduced separately: first the quintet, then the trio; in the third movement, the soprano alone sings, “Time and the bell have buried the day.” Not until the fifth movement do all the performers participate, and the effect is extraordinary. The final, ecstatic seventh movement perfectly captures the beauty and spirituality of Gubaidulina’s work.

Ned Rorem (b. 1923, USA)
“Faith,” from Evidence of Things Not Seen (1997)

Text by Mark Doty. Performed by Kurt Ollmann, baritone; Steven Blier, piano.

No survey of contemporary song settings would be complete without including an example from Ned Rorem, whose use of poetry goes back to the mid-1940s. Over the years he has set poems by Edith Sitwell, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and many others. A vocal critic of the avant-garde, Rorem’s music is tonal and accessible. He came out very publicly in 1966 with his memoir The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem, in which he openly discusses his relationships with Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, and others—a rather scandalous thing to do three years before the Stonewall Riots inaugurated the modern gay rights movement. Among his songs are settings of Three Calamus Poems (Whitman’s celebrated poems about “manly love”) and The Auden Songs—both dating from the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis decimated a generation. In the 1990s, Rorem set to work on a monumental song cycle Evidence of Things Not Seen, which contains, among settings of poems by Auden, Frost, Millay, and others, this setting of Mark Doty’s “Faith,” from the collection Atlantis—written as Doty’s partner, Wally Roberts, was succumbing to AIDS. Two years after the cycle was complete, AIDS also claimed the life of Rorem’s partner, James Holmes, himself a noted conductor and organist.

Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943, UK)
Fourth String Quartet, Movement 2 (1989-90)

Text by Jackson Mac Low. Performed by the Arditti Quartet: Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, violins; Ralf Ehlers, viola; and Lucas Fels, cello.

Brian Ferneyhough’s fourth string quartet was commissioned for a concert that also included Schoenberg’s second quartet, with its setting of poems by Stefan George. Like its predecessor, Ferneyhough’s fourth calls for a soprano in two of its movements. Just as Schoenberg chose a text that reinforced the “transport” or “rapture” (Entrückung) of his complete break with tonality in the fourth movement, Ferneyhough, working ninety years later, uses his text to signal a rupture with language itself. Richard Toop, in the liner notes to the Arditti Quartet Recording for the Montaigne label, writes that Ferneyhough “no longer felt able to set texts with a clear syntax and meaning.” He chose Jackson Mac Low’s “Words nd Ends from Ez,” in which Mac Low selects strings of letters from Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos; the letter strings contain the letters in Pound’s first and last names. (Mac Low, who, like John Cage, was interested in chance processes, called this method “diastic.”) The resulting nonsensical text and the complex music that accompanies it challenges Modernism’s legacy as well as our own ideas about the limits of poetry and music to convey emotion and meaning. The work is quite dramatic, and its ethereal beauty, like that of many works, is best appreciated through multiple hearings.

Note: streaming unavailable because of copyright issues.

Marc-Andre Dalbavie (b. 1961, France)
Sonnets de Louise Labé (2008)

Text by Louise Labé.

Marc-André Dalbavie’s music is marked by an affinity for the qualities often associated with spectral music, an aesthetic approach first developed in Paris in the 1970s by composers who were frustrated by what they saw as the dead-end hegemony of serialism and its rigid structures. These composers were more interested in sound itself, its timbre and “color,” and they used emerging computer technologies to explore and manipulate the possibilities of sound spectra. A generation later, composers like Dalbavie have continued this exploration, often with stunning results, such as in his recent concertos for piano and, especially, for flute. In his incredible settings of the 16th century sonneteer Louise Labé, we see him giving full rein to the emotional spectrum, in poems full of plaintive longing. Here, in sonnet V (the first of Dalbavie’s sequence), the poet laments the death of her beloved in a prayer to Venus. Interestingly, two years before this cycle premiered, a scholar at the Sorbonne published a book questioning whether Labé actually wrote these verses herself, or whether they were written by several of her male contemporaries; some scholars have found her thesis convincing, though perhaps Dalbavie’s decision to cast the part for counter-tenor instead of soprano, as he originally seems to have intended, is mere coincidence.

Note: streaming unavailable because of copyright issues.

Olga Neuwirth (b. 1968, Austria)
Five Daily Miniatures (1994)

Text by Gertrude Stein. Performed by Andrew Watts, counter tenor; Benedikt Leitner, cello; Ernesto Molinari, clarinet bass; Esther Haffner, violin; Marino Formenti, piano; and Olga Neuwirth, electronics.

The relative paucity of women composers represented here is a reflection of what Alex Ross, in the New Yorker, has called “a conspicuous disparity [that] persists” in the musical world. Despite the increased number of women composers over the past few decades, Ross notes that “the average orchestra plays, at most, one or two works by women each year.” Some women have made inroads by playing it safe, catering to popular tastes, and relying on traditional formulas. Olga Neuwirth, however, has scorned the easy path to commercial success. Demanding much from listeners and pushing her audience to its intellectual and aesthetic limits, she has refused to ignore the problems and possibilities of the avant-garde—a position that, historically, has been predominantly a masculine prerogative. In that sense, she is a direct descendent of Gertrude Stein, whose groundbreaking writings defy easy classification but nevertheless played an essential part in shaping the aesthetic boundaries of her time. In Five Daily Miniatures, Neuwirth—only 25 at the time of composition—dissects Stein’s text, breaking some words up into constituent sounds and leaving others to be sung or spoken whole by the countertenor. The resulting “song” paves the way for Neuwirth’s radical later works (such as her 2003 opera Lost Highway, with a libretto by Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek) while honoring the spirit of Stein’s Modernist experiment.

Note: streaming unavailable because of copyright issues.

Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934, UK)
Three Settings of Celan (1994)

Text by Paul Celan. Performed by Christine Whittlesey,soprano, with Ensemble Intercontemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle is among the most revered of British composers, but he is probably better known for his operatic and musical theater works—from the early, controversial Punch and Judy to the recent bleakness of The Minotaur—than for his song settings. His temperament has always seemed more suited to the dramatic than the purely lyrical. His dark humor and complex imaginings may be off-putting to American audiences, and he sometimes comes across as elitist and curmudgeonly, as in 2006 when he used an award ceremony as a platform for ridiculing the clichés of pop musicians. Nevertheless, Birtwistle’s uncompromising aesthetic is worth exploring, and his settings of poems by the celebrated Romanian poet Paul Celan afford a more approachable entry point to his non-dramatic works than, say, his labyrinthine piano concerto Antiphonies. Altogether there are nine settings of poems by Celan, who survived the Holocaust (though his family did not) only to commit suicide in 1970. Birtwistle began setting Michael Hamburger’s English translations of them in the late 1980s, and by the mid-1990s had decided to couple them with nine movements for string quartet, though they have also been performed and recorded separately. Three of the settings, “White and Light,” “Night,” and “Tenebrae,” form a tight, thematically linked triptych.

Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952, Finland)
Leino Songs (2007)

Text by Eino Leino. Performed by Anu Komsi, soprano, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo.

Though she has lived in Paris for much of the past thirty years, Kaija Saariaho is one of the central figures in the ever-surprising musical renaissance from Finland—a renaissance that includes composers such as Magnus Lindberg, composer-conductors such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, and virtuoso performers such as Kari Kriikku, for whom Saariaho composed her magnificent clarinet concerto, D’om le vrai sens, in 2010. Aesthetically, her music has been associated, like that of Marc-André Dalbavie, with the spectral movement, and she too has experimented with live electronic techniques learned at IRCAM—facts which may seem off-putting to listeners skeptical of late 20th century developments. That skepticism would be misplaced, however, as her music is sumptuous and sensual, as the Leino Songs amply illustrate. Eino Leino is a beloved poet in Finland, a figure whose works helped define Finnish literature in the 20th century; he died in 1926, aged 47, having published more than thirty books of poetry. The four poems Saariaho has chosen to set are representative of his style: short, contemplative lyrics filled with youthful melancholy and naturalistic imagery. When the poet asks, “Heart, what are you sawing?,” the heart replies, “It’s iron I’m sawing / I’m breaking your chains / so that your soul will be free, / your unhappy soul will be free.”

György Kurtág (b. 1926, Hungary)
Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky (1975-76)

Text by János Pilinszky. Performed by István Gáti, bass-baritone, and chamber ensemble.

The names József Attila and János Pilinszky are probably unknown to most English-language readers of poetry, but they are enormous figures in Hungarian literature. The liner notes to a 1990s Hungaraton recording of some of György Kurtág’s settings calls Pilinszky the “spiritual heir to Attila József,” whose “significance in Hungarian culture can only be compared to that of Bartók’s.” Kurtág’s settings of their poems might be likened to Carter’s settings of Walt Whitman and Robert Lowell, or to Saariaho’s settings of Eino Leino: a great composer setting poems by some of his country’s most important and revered poets. If English readers know Pilinzsky’s work at all, it is because Ted Hughes translated some of it in the 1970s in a selection called The Desert of Love, now out of print and hard to find even in libraries. Kurtág himself is far less known to American audiences than he deserves. His music is very different from his friend and countryman György Ligeti, whose work gained widespread recognition through the films of Stanley Kubrick. Where Ligeti tends to work in large blocks of sound, Kurtág tends to be a miniaturist, like Anton Webern, whose music he studied and admired. These Four Songs also reference other important influences, including Dostoevsky and Hölderlin.