Rhythm and Tempo: A Study in Music History

By Curt Sachs | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4

Ancient Israel and the Beginnings
of the Eastern Church

RHYTHM IN WORDS AND IN MUSIC. Philologists have been asking why rhythmical poetry, as opposed to music, is allowed to violate the evidently fundamental quality of all rhythm: the exactly equal distance between stimuli or entire groups of stimuli. Indeed, unless the reciter rambles on and on, even a regular pattern—dactylic, iambic, or otherwise—is very far from the theoretical fiction of exactly equal units of time: the actual lengths of spoken syllables and their emotional stresses are rather different. Often not even the theoretical pattern is left intact, and the poet will speak in groupings so irregular that the very word 'foot' seems out of place.

The answer derives from the fact that rhythmic organization, a purely formalistic quality, is necessarily at loggerheads with any intellectual or even emotional 'content.' The words of a children's song can be so insignificant that a child hardly cares to understand them. A definitely unintellectual poem like "Ring around a rosy, A pocket full of posy" thrives on its regular iambic accents and its equally iambic melody. And the situation is not very different when it comes to church hymns and national anthems. Words can, on the other hand, be so pregnant in meaning that we would not even like to set them to music—hardly any musician has composed music for the poems of Schiller. And in such a case, rhythm, though existent, recedes in importance and is not allowed to attract attention.

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