The Ring of Words: An Anthology of Song Texts

The Ring of Words: An Anthology of Song Texts

The Ring of Words: An Anthology of Song Texts

The Ring of Words: An Anthology of Song Texts

Excerpt

"Song. In relation to the study of music, a song may be defined as a short metrical composition, whose meaning is conveyed by the combined force of words and melody. The song, therefore, belongs equally to poetry and music." So begins the famous article by Mrs. Edmund Wodehouse in the earlier editions of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Yet of the few attempts that have been made to write the history of the song, not one has approached the subject as a combined art, with poetry as the inspiration of music. To be sure, if one studies the literature and the music of the middle ages one comes on the same names, for then poetry and music were conceived as one--indeed, not only did the poet set his own verses to music, but he sang them himself, perhaps to his own accompaniment on a stringed instrument. Then as each of these arts unfolded it became a considerable thing in itself: the art of the poet, of the composer and of the musical performer, each grew to ever greater complexity and to ever greater subtlety.

Yet the two creative arts did not drift completely apart, since for centuries music remained predominantly vocal. In the madrigal literature of the Renaissance we find, over and over, the names of such famous poets as Petrarch and Dante. The care with which their texts were set, the descriptive detail that colors the vocal lines, is well known to anyone who has enjoyed singing madrigals. But as these part-songs were written primarily for the pleasure of the singers (there were in those days no audiences as we have them today) the modern listener may miss many of the details. In writing for the church, composers drew on the timeless texts of the liturgy and the Bible. The very familiarity of these texts, and the impersonality of the Latin language, tempted them to indulge in more and more elaborate counterpoint. Spurious though it may be, the story of the composition of Palestrina Missa Papae Marcelli in a conscious effort to prove how distinctly words could be set in polyphonic music, is not without significance. To hurry on through the years, the birth of Italian monody, and of opera itself, were attempts to bring together, on equal terms, the sister arts of poetry and music.

In this discussion of the art song we will limit ourselves to music for one voice and piano, occasionally with the addition of an obbligato instrument. In setting such limits, of course, we rule out the whole magnificent literature of the lute song, and early German lieder by such masters as Albert, Erlebach, Telemann, even Johann Sebastian Bach (with such a gem as Bist du bei mir composed for voice and figured bass). Classic Italian arias, well known in the various anthologies, and cantatas by French and Italian masters, must also be denied a place.

The nineteenth-century German lied was the result of a fusion of three elements. If it had its primary source in one genius, the man must certainly have been . . .

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