Jonathan Keates on poetry and song

Jonathan Keates

Filed under: Poetry

What does a poem require to make it work as a song? Jonathan Keates looks at rather a complicated aria.

Words for music perhaps

One of my earliest memories is that of my mother seated at the piano and singing The Last Rose of Summer. From the once popular collection known as ‘Moore’s Irish Melodies’, this is the one which has survived the longest, played as it is by marching bands on St Patrick’s Day or plaintively piped at IRA funerals. As Linda Kelly’s recent biography of Thomas Moore reminds us, the Melodies were his best-loved work, not just for the skill with which they adapted traditional Irish folk tunes to the taste of the Regency drawing room, but also for the eminently singable quality of their lyrics. Hardly any of this user-friendliness was lost in translation, as composers all over Europe soon discovered. Moore settings exist by Weber, Liszt and Schumann, while Berlioz fashioned an entire cycle from the collection.

What makes these little poems, Oft in the Stilly NightThe Minstrel Boy and others, so accommodating? The fact that their sentiments are so cleverly located on a middle ground between artfully simplified emotional experience and outright banality undoubtedly helps. Without achieving greatness, Moore’s lines are nevertheless memorable and elegant, their rhythm and rhyme taking skilful advantage of the melodic patterns created by the original dances, songs and laments from which their tunes derive. That they’re written in English, what’s more, doesn’t in any way undermine their status as some of the most accomplished lyric verse ever published.

A robust cultural snobbery damns English as fundamentally unfit for singing. According to received wisdom, the lack of long vowel sounds and the ugliness of clustered consonants, not to speak of those clodhopping monosyllables, keep our language firmly earthbound, unlike German, Italian or French. Contradicting this is the existence of one of European poetry’s most fertile and varied traditions of lyric verse, stretching unbroken from the early Middle Ages to the present, most of it, though not all, written with musical setting in mind. Poets as diverse from each other as Wyatt, Herrick, Byron and Auden write with the sense of a composer at their elbow. Old anthology ‘standards’ we take for granted, Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye MayShe Walks in Beauty Like the NightThe Splendour Falls on Castle Walls, are essentially incomplete as mere recited texts, without the musical dimension imagined by the poet.

Surprisingly few inflexible rules, however, seem to govern the fitness of words for music. Most song lyrics have short lines or short sentences, but this doesn’t necessarily rule out using the kind of poetry which depends for its impact on long, rolling periods with occasionally knotty syntax and voluminous imagery. One of Haydn’s most striking vocal pieces, She Never Told Her Love, for example, shapes a dramatic arioso out of Viola’s thinly-veiled confession of her yearning for Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The playwright’s iambic pentameter at its most sophisticated, with a rich freight of imagery – ‘concealment like a worm i’the bud’, ‘sat like patience on a monument’ etc – isn’t, at first glance, an ideal lyric vehicle. Haydn, including it in a set of English canzonets composed during his 1791 visit to London, exploits the line lengths to maximum effect so as to convey a sense of Viola as positively luxuriating in her dilemma as a woman in male disguise trying to tell a man she loves him without revealing her true identity.

Purcell, one of the greatest masters of what musicologists like to call ‘art song’, proved just as skilful with apparently unwieldy textual material. To a 1693 collection of sacred songs called Harmonia Sacra he contributed The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation, depicting Mary’s distress while looking for the infant Jesus during their visit to the Temple in Jerusalem. On the page the words ( by Nahum Tate, better known as librettist of Dido and Aeneas) make up a fairly unpromising sequence of standard-issue Augustan heroic couplets alternating with a handful of shorter verses. Even the divine Henry might seem to have his work cut out with:

How shall I stem the various tide,
Whilst faith and doubt my lab’ring thoughts divide?
For whilst of thy dear sight I am beguil’d,
I trust the God, but oh I fear the child.

In fact the thrill of listening to Purcell’s music springs directly from his gleeful relish at the challenge posed by Tate’s slightly chilly theological rhetoric here. Treating the lines as if they were the divinest essence of poetic inspiration clinches the whole work’s essential brilliance.

The real problems of providing apt words for music emerge in an opera libretto. My own recent experience of this, as writer of the text for Gerard McBurney’s The Airman’s Tale, given its premiere at the Imperial War Museum in 2005, has taught me a few sharp lessons. Apart from having to telescope narrative into strong theatrical situations which highlight stellar vocal quality, a halfway decent lyric drama needs to be easily remembered by the singers, let alone the audience. So open up those vowel sounds, play safe with shorter rather than longer lines, and don’t hesitate to use rhyme, a boon to composers and performers whatever their high-minded hankering after naturalistic declamation.

Whatever you do, remember that opera, an art form quite as exotic and irrational as Dr Johnson proclaimed it to be, is about singing and storytelling above all else. So keep it simple and try to avoid the dire example set by Ronald Duncan in his libretto for Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, in which one of the two choric narrators, in the course of a tedious history lesson on the Etruscans and their civilization, solemnly informs us that ‘In each room a wooden phallus stood’. Britten did his level best to ennoble such fatuity. Somewhere among the oeuvre of Darius Milhaud, after all, there is said to be a musical setting of a seed catalogue, the seventeenth-century composer Henry Lawes made a nonsense song out of a list of contents at the opening of a collection of Italian airs and Rossini boasted he could make a laundry bill into a passable operatic aria. Words, who needs ’em?

From RSL Review 2007