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.