Ned Rorem: Visits to St. Elizabeth’s
Marrying Words to Music
I began this series for the No Song is Safe From Us blog with an attempt to define what a song is at a time when the word is widely used in everyday speech to connote all music and also to attempt to try to understand what it is about songs that make them so popular to the point that they subsume any other kind of music-making in the greater public consciousness. I ultimately concluded that the appeal of songs stems from how they seamlessly meld music and words and, nowadays in the perceptions of most people, also blur the distinction between creation and interpretation. The singer of a song is a semi-magical alchemist who is able to blend words and music (whether his/her own or someone else’s, most folks assume it’s his/hers whether or not it actually is) into a powerful vehicle for personal expression. But many extraordinary songs were the product of more than one author.
A brief aside: I’ve encountered numerous songwriters over the years who are reluctant to identify themselves as “composers,” assuming that the exclusive writing of mere songs is somehow not worthy of so lofty a moniker. My usual response to such folks is: “Did you write the music for your songs?” And when they say yes I follow up with, “Then you’re a composer; did you also write the words for your songs?” And when they again say yes I say, “That means you’re actually a lyricist as well as a composer, so you’re actually more than just a composer.” Admittedly these exchanges can sometimes be more confounding than confidence-building to folks who feel excluded from the “composer” club, but it’s nevertheless an important conversation to have: the club isn’t and should never be so exclusive.
Some of the most popular composers were primarily composers (almost exclusively) of songs (almost exclusively). The golden age of the Broadway musical, which was the time when showtunes were the primary source material for American Popular Music, was dominated by a series of legendary songwriting teams who carved up the responsibility of creating songs into writing music and writing lyrics: Kander (music) and Ebb (lyrics); Lerner (lyrics) and Loewe (music); Rodgers (music) and first Hart (lyrics) and then Hammerstein (lyrics), to name some of the more famous examples. The music of George Gershwin may now be standard repertoire at orchestra concerts, but in his lifetime he was most known for the famous music he wrote for hundreds of song hits, most of which had words by his brother Ira. Once upon a time, music from Victor Herbert’s operettas was so popular that it was being played in restaurants all over the country, but he wasn’t paid for the honor. (Wow, how times have changed, or have they?) Anyway, Herbert joined forces with a bunch of other disgruntled creators seeking remuneration and that’s how ASCAP and the whole concept of performing rights for music creators was born. (An additional aside: the fact that a song is greater than the sum of its parts—words and music—actually has legal ramifications. Composers and lyricists who collaborate to write songs together have a 50%-50% share in the end product, both the music and the lyrics: that restaurant where musicians were performing Victor Herbert’s songs, even if they were doing instrumental versions, had to eventually fork over royalties not only to Victor Herbert but also to the lyricists he wrote the songs with as well.)
Since a song is a symbiotic melding of words and music, a collaboration between a composer and a lyricist almost has to be akin to what Star Trek fans know to be a Vulcan mind meld. The great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who most famously wrote songs with Richard Rodgers but also created some fabulous songs with Sigmund Romberg, Jerome Kern, and many others, once claimed that in the best songs the words and the music are married to each other so much so that it is impossible for most listeners to be able to discern which came first. I particularly love the Hammerstein-Kern song “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” which originally appeared in the musical Show Boat (which opened on Broadway in 1927, the same year that Dock Boggs showed up at a studio to record “Sugar Baby”). Every clever turn of phrase in Hammerstein’s lyric is matched by a similarly clever turn in Kern’s music. Every musical cadence has a corresponding punch line. My personal favorite: “Wild old men who’ll give you jewels and sables only live in Aesop’s fables.”
Part of what is so aesthetically satisfying about hearing words and music “marry” each other so well is that while it sounds so natural and easy, it’s actually rather difficult to pull off, especially in a collaborative context. As anyone who has ever been married knows, it’s a perpetual life challenge to get two individuals to be on the same page. And the stronger their personalities, the stronger the challenge. (Which is why when you find the one with whom it works is the “sweet mystery of life” as Rida Johnson Young claimed in the lyric to one of the most famous songs featuring music by Victor Herbert.)
But the difficulty goes beyond getting two people to agree to something that will result in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The thing is, despite the conjecture proposed by archaeologist Steven Mithen (in his fascinating book The Singing Neanderthals) that they were one and the same phenomenon for mankind’s antecedents, music and language have morphed into extremely different cognitive realms. Ultimately, the goal of language is communication, whereas music evades precise meanings. I say the word table and (presuming you have even the most miniscule familiarity with the English language) you immediately draw a picture in your mind of what a table is, whereas Bb above middle C played on an oboe is merely Bb above middle C played on an oboe. However, when words are attached to music, the music suddenly has a specific immediate meaning and those words are also suddenly transported away from a specific linguistic context into something that can be universally appreciated. This is why you don’t need to comprehend Portuguese in order to love bossa nova.
Although the relationship between how we perceive music and language is extremely complex, as cognitive neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel has explicated very effectively in his exhaustive 2008 study Music, Language and the Brain, people actually listen to and process words and music quite differently, so a skill for one does not necessarily imply a skill for the other. I pride myself on having perfect pitch and yet, much to the chagrin of my in-laws, I am completely flummoxed in my attempts to distinguish and reproduce the nine different tones used in Cantonese.
This is perhaps also why I am so enamored of people who can successfully write both lyrics and music (like those singer songwriters who think they don’t belong in the composer community even though they are composers as well as lyricists). To briefly return to Broadway, there have been a few examples of folks who were equally masterful wordsmiths and tunesmiths—Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Jerry Herman, and Elizabeth Swados immediately come to mind. But curiously, two of the most significant Janus-headed creators—Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim—had successful careers as lyricists long before they were acknowledged for their musical brilliance. And yet, I could not imagine any other composer matching the verbal complexities of the dramatic dialog transformed into lyric in “Been a Long Day” (the ultimate pick up song) other than Loesser or anyone coming up with a better tune to fit the equally challenging dialog-duet “Barcelona” (the ultimate morning after song) than Sondheim.
Sometimes, of course, songwriters willfully subvert the seamless weaving of words with music intentionally. I still remember being startled the first time I heard extremely dysfunctional text setting in the 1990 hit “Been Caught Stealing” by the Los Angeles-based alternative rock band Jane’s Addition (written by two of the band’s members, bassist Eric Avery and singer/frontman Perry Farrell): “When I want something, I don’t want to pay for it.” The rhythm of the tune has nothing to do where the accents would fall if those words had been spoken. (The word that should be emphasized in the second clause of that sentence is “pay,” but instead the emphasis falls on “it.”) It’s completely wrong, but therein lies its charm. While Oscar Hammerstein II probably would not have been very impressed, to me it’s magical precisely because it breaks the rules and as a result calls attention to the extremely fragile relationship between sound and syntactical meaning.
That relationship is something all composers must be mindful of whenever they attempt to put music to words, something that is potentially even more challenging when the words being set already exist since there’s no way to negotiate revisions the way there could be with a lyric-writing collaborator. And the older or more famous the poem is, the more risky the prospect. If a work of art is already complete and has an independent reception history, is it really artistically valid to attempt to add something else to it?
Of course, the answer—for anyone who treasures the centuries of so-called “art song” repertoire—is a resounding yes. While I love the poems of Guillaume Apollinaire, I love their transformation into mélodies by Francis Poulenc even more. While I love the way the words cascade across the page in “Apollinaire’s tragic 1917 World War I poem “Bleuet”(a technique which presaged the concrete poetry movement of the 1960s by two generations), I treasure the emotional arc of Poulenc’s 1939 eve of World War II setting of it, which completely eschews the irregular typography (because how would you set that anyway?). (In addition to the very nice Felicity Lott/Pascal Rogé recording I linked to above, I’m also quite enamored of a recording of it by the recently deceased Nicolai Gedda accompanied by Dalton Baldwin, but that one isn’t currently available through YouTube. It is on Spotify, but why not just buy it?) Also, as someone who only studied French formally for three years (and the best I can do is engage in a little pleasant but not terribly profound small talk), I can identify with the playfulness of Apollinaire’s “Hôtel” all the more when I hear it as a Poulenc song lyric.
I have to confess, however, that some of my all-time favorite “art songs” are settings of poems I don’t know at all in languages that I completely don’t understand like Jean Sibelius’s sublimely beautiful 1917 “Norden” which I discovered through a stunning recording of Sibelius songs by soprano Karita Mattila accompanied on the piano by Ilmo Ranta which was released on the Finnish label Ondine. The text (in Swedish) is by the 19th century poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877) who is hailed as a national treasure in Finland, but when I was first smitten with this song I had no idea what the words were about and, like those fans of bossa nova who can’t comprehend Portuguese, I didn’t care. That is not to say that it isn’t a lovely poem and when I did find a translation of it and was finally able to understand it, it made me appreciate Sibelius’s intense ultraromantic and hyperchromatic setting of it all the more.
But I should probably make my point about how a great poem can be made even greater through a sensitive musical setting with something in a language that everyone reading this blogpost can understand, so for that I’ll point you all to a fabulously creepy 1950 poem about a visit to the poet Ezra Pound in an insane asylum by the great American poet by Elizabeth Bishop called “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s.” A mere seven years later it was set to music by one of the most prolific art song composers of all time—Ned Rorem (b. 1923).
Part of what makes Rorem’s setting so effective, aside from the extremely manic vocal line is the demonic piano accompaniment, a seemingly endless cascade of figurations that teeter at the edge of sanity as well as playablity even when played by its composer as it is in this performance featuring soprano Regina Sarfaty that was recorded very soon after the song was written.
Strangely though, as much as I’m completely awed by that song every time I hear it, my favorite Rorem song will probably always be his 1946 “Alleluia” which is really not remarkable text setting at all since it only features one word—the title! But since he does so much with so little (and the whole thing’s in seven as well!), you don’t even completely realize that’s all there is unless you’re focusing exclusively on the lyrics, and why would you be? It’s admittedly not an equitable marriage, but it’s an extremely happy one. And Susan Graham’s performance of it with Malcolm Martineau, no pun intended, is divine.
Originally posted on February 28, 2017.