"That Music Always Round Me": A Response to Helen Vendler

By Fuchs, Kenneth | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

"That Music Always Round Me": A Response to Helen Vendler


Fuchs, Kenneth, Michigan Quarterly Review


I intend to respond to Professor Vendler's lecture by acquainting you with some of the twentieth-century American and European composers who have responded to Whitman's prose and poetry through music. I hope to demonstrate how the art of music, joined both vocally and non-vocally with the words of Walt Whitman, "can be considered in a discussion of human values.

Professor Vendler points out that prose mediates value through images and the semantic content of words. Poetry relies more on syntax and sound, although not abandoning images and the literal meaning of words. Music may be thought of as a third category. Though, of course, words may be present in a musical composition and images may be evoked as well, the primary content of music is sound; musical syntax is a crucial element in the development of sound as a communicative medium.

It may not be immediately apparent that music, especially mere sound, mediates values. I believe, however, that it does, both in the sense of communicating extra-musical content and in the sense of communicating human values. Social actors as diverse as churches and dictators, even parents, have banned one form of music or another, understanding intuitively that music does convey social values and does so with an undeniable force.

Throughout my career as a composer, I have often turned to the written word (both prose and poetry) and visual art for musical inspiration. As a student in the early 1980s, I involved myself in the diverse artistic milieu of New York City and found many sources of inspiration, including non-musical ones. With regard to visual art, I fell in love, in particular, with the works of the Abstract Expressionist artist Helen Frankenthaler. Her large, freewheeling, brilliantly colored canvases embodied for me the spirit of the enterprise, and it occurred to me that the aesthetic of Abstract Expression ism-states of feeling expressed through gesture-is as relevant to music as to painting. I immediately set out to compose works that would create a mood suggested by a particular painting.

Audiences have wanted to know if there was some correlation between, say, brushstrokes or colors or shapes and particular notes or chords or melodies. There is no such simple correlation. I would say today that it is the values that those paintings expressed to me that I tried to mediate through music.

In each of these works, my intention was not to illustrate paintings musically, but to use my responses to them as an emotional wellspring from which to create communicative musical statements. The content-the values-inherent in the paintings suggested to me the emotional landscape, the shape, and finally the form, of the music that I would compose. The content of the paintings, then, suggested the content of the music.

Professor Vendler identifies four different paradigms with her chosen Whitman poems: the collective, the representative, the first-person lyric, and the impersonal historic. These paradigms have their musical equivalents. The hymn and the chorus usually express collective values, while the ballad commonly expresses representative values. One can easily imagine "0 Captain, My Captain," for example, set as a ballad. The rhapsody and the toccata express individual celebration, and the fanfare suggests impersonal historic values.

It would be an interesting project to consider what paradigms composers have developed and how they employ them. Professor Vendler writes, "A poem is expected not only to inscribe itself within the subject-matter and values implied by its chosen paradigms, but also to extend, reverse, or otherwise be original in respect to those very paradigms." A composer also, in responding to prose or poetry, can echo the literary form employed by the poet. Or, the composer can create a new form, a freely flowing form that takes flight from the poem, perhaps one that goes against the literary form used in the poem, thus creating a heightened intensity for dramatic effect. …

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