Review of Yonatan Malin, Songs in Motion: Rhythm and Meter in the German Lied (Oxford University Press, 2010)

By London, Justin | Music Theory Online, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Review of Yonatan Malin, Songs in Motion: Rhythm and Meter in the German Lied (Oxford University Press, 2010)


London, Justin, Music Theory Online


[1] Art song involves an oftentimes uneasy marriage between poetry and music, and nowhere is this more apparent than in their respective rhythms. In Songs in Motion Yonatan Malin wades into the sometimes fractious relationship between poetic rhythms and musical rhythm and meter in the nineteenth-century German Lied. Malin serves not as a marriage counselor, but more like a sociologist (or sociobiologist) of marriage, a neutral observer, but one with a deep knowledge of and love for the institution.

[2] Malin approaches poetic and musical rhythm and meter in the Lied taxonomically, looking at the most common musical renderings for poetic feet along with their settings in lines of different length (iambic trimeter, trochaic tetrameter, and so forth). He also develops a straightforward schema for representing poetic rhythms and their (musical) metrical setting: accented syllables are indexed relative to their metric position; beats that carry weak or empty syllables are marked with a dash. So, for example, a trimeter (three-stress) line in simple duple meter might be set [1, 2 / 1 - ], that is, with strong syllables on beats 1, 2, and the following 1, and a weak or empty syllable on the next beat 2 (16-17). With this elegantly simple premise and methodology, Malin first shows the range of possibilities for putting particular poetic rhythms into various musical settings, and then-and this is the book's key contribution-he is able to show what possibilities were actually used and are most prevalent. Malin is thus able to talk about these songs in terms of the compositional choices made under a complex set of constraints, both musical and lyrical. He is also well positioned to trace the rhythmic evolution of the genre over the course of the nineteenth century, from a poetically dominated volkstümlich approach, preferred by composers and poets (especially Goethe) at the beginning of the nineteenth century to settings with far greater rhythmic variety and complexity at the century's end.

[3] In his opening chapter Malin lays out his basic poetic/musical taxonomy, with an ear sensitive to the nuances of both poetic and musical rhythm. The feet of German lyric poetry involve two or three syllables, typically arranged with three or four stresses per line (trimeter and tetrameter), though dimeter and pentameter (and longer) lines do occur. As Malin notes, however, "the recurring patterns of stress and line that define poetic meter get us only so far to a full understanding of poetic motion...The relationship between poetic rhythm and [poetic] meter is analogous to the relationship between musical rhythm and meter" (9). That is, like patterns of duration in music, words can appear in different poetic meters, and have different senses of accentuation, depending upon their setting and placement. In taking account of the nuances of poetic accentuation, Malin takes special note of substitutions (e.g., replacing a strong-weak trochee with a weak-strong iamb), degrees of accentuation in longer and more complex lines, and caesuras within and enjambments between lines. He then rings the changes for trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter line types, illustrating each with numerous musical examples. Malin shows how increasing "poetic cardinality" (moving up from 3 to 4 to 5+ stresses per line) leads to increasing complexity and variety of musical settings and textual-musical rhythmic interactions. A structural Rubicon is crossed in the case of pentameter, as the five-stress line naturally supports a trimeter subcomponent-indeed, such subdivision of the pentameter line is not only possible, but likely.

[4] In laying out the interactions between poetic and musical rhythm and meter, Malin also resuscitates the work of Hans Georg Nägeli (1817). Nägeli spoke of the "polyrhythm," that arises from the interaction between poetic rhythm, melodic rhythm, and accompaniment rhythm (and the metrical aspects of all three). Nägeli's approach marks a shift in Lied aesthetics at the start of the nineteenth century, moving from a preference for volkstümlich tunes to a more ambitious artform of higher status (32). …

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