Forward by Diana McVeagh
In 1954 the Royal College of Music invited Finzi to give the Crees lectures the following May. The Crees lectures had been founded in 1950, and the speaker could choose his subject. Finzi had long been gathering his thoughts on words and music, and for these three lectures he settled on The Composer’s Use of Words: a discussion of words and music, fusion and conflict, problems of composers and poets, vocal forms and many theories, all of which leave the birds still singing and Pilate’s question unanswered. The press reported the lectures widely, and Tempo wanted to publish them. Finzi however had used many live illustrations to demonstrate his points, and also understood that writing for the printed page needs a tauter style than writing something to be spoken. They would need considerable editing, he replied, and at that moment he had no time to spare from composition. His reasons for refusal seemed to give me licence to edit the talks, reducing the three to one, and, for the moment, simply to refer to the illustrations.
Crees Lectures by Gerald Finzi
Professor Gilbert Murray once wrote that when he was an undergraduate at Oxford his philosophy tutor told him to write an essay on the difference between right and wrong. He wrote forty pages but did not cover the subject. So he went on with it the next time, and the next time, and for several times after. He found, fifty or sixty years later, that he was still going on with it. When I came to prepare these lectures, I felt that, as with right and wrong, there was no end to it; all had been said before, and few final conclusions could be drawn about anything. The sense of one generation becomes the nonsense of the next. For many years I had read widely on the subject, collected random articles and sporadic correspondence - of which there is an immense amount; and a natural response to English poetry had played a part in my own work. Even this last was of no help; the little one knows of one’s own methods is too personal to be any guide to the processes of others. Perhaps all this is a variation of the liberal adage ‘Man came before the state, and after the state man will remain’ - ‘before the Theories came Music, and after the Theories Music will continue’. So in discussing other people’s theories I hope I have added none of my own. One’s own preference for this or that type of music must not blind one to the qualities of others, always remembering that when Sir Michael Costa heard the last Amen chorus in Messiah, he turned to Dr. W. H. Cummings and said “Now, this is the most magnificent thing ever written”. Dr. Cummings agreed with him. And when Berlioz heard the same chorus he turned to his neighbour, a Mr G. A. Osborne, and said, “It seems to me that they are all gargling their throats”. Mr. Osborne agreed with him.
Straightaway you can see two incipient schools, Costa and Cummings, Berlioz and Osborne, and musical history, no less than any other history, is full of such polarities. We find a school of highly evolved contrapuntal choral music, and we find a council of Trent in the sixteenth century trying to exclude even harmonized music because the interweaving of the voices made the words inaudible. And did not Queen Elizabeth’s injunction of 1559 permit the singing of a hymn or such like song as long as the words be distinguishable.
Thus, with the pros and cons, are schools formed. The ideas and words and works, both of corporate bodies and of the more stimulating individual minds, are too often taken as gospel truths, by which future paces must be set, rather than as a contribution to a whole truth or whole art. Although we may fondly imagine that we are exerting free will, there is a constant changing of the “mores” or climate of ideas, from which we can hardly escape. It is this, quite as much as questions of individuality, which makes it possible for the same world to hold such utter differences as, say, Maurice Greene’s eighteenth century settings of Spenser’s Amoretti, and Dr. Edmund Rubbra’s contemporary ones. ‘What guyle is this’*, for example, could start a discussion about the two composers’ approaches to the same poem, their differences of accentuation, style and mood. Even more it could show two composers, well known in their day, writing in an idiom, which, for all their individual qualities, was an inescapable part of their environment. We shall never know Greene or Rubbra until we recognize this, and only when we are familiar with their language can we assess what manner of men they were or are.
When one considers that the Oxford History of Music occupies seven volumes, and Groves Dictionary nine, and that more than half of the history of music is concerned with vocal music, it is clear that here I can attempt no chronological history of voice and verse. Rather I have selected a few salient points, almost as much concerned with letters as with music. Another limitation is that I deal mainly with English words, though I may occasionally go abroad. Not all my examples are included for their excellence. As Hardy said “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.” Lastly, there will be no discussion of vocal technique or methods of teaching singing. Outside politics, there is no subject which rouses greater contention. It has long been so. In a book on vocal music, published in 1821 advice was given that when performers were feeling nervous of fearing their circulation to be below par, they would be wise to take a little refreshment and tune their throats to the pitch of healthy vibration with a glass of wine, or one of the strong peppermint lozenges made by Smiths of Fell Street, Wood Street. To this some angry annotator has added a footnote in pencil “Pepper mint lozenges are the worst thing to take immediately before singing”. It reminds one of the young singer who asked Plunket Greene’s advice as to whether he should give up smoking and was told sooner give up singing”.
Yet the problems of singing and language are vitally linked. Every type of song - whether recitative, sprechgesang, bel canto, German Lied, French chanson, or English song - ultimately comes down to vocal technique, and if we have learnt one lesson in the last hundred years it is that native song grows out of native language. H. C. Collis’s Voice and Verse covered that from the English angle, and we should always remember it as a background. To Plunket Greene singing was the “making of words more beautiful by music”, and to the composer for whom words are significant (for they are not significant to all composers) the surest way to communicate is for his audience to be able to hear and understand the words. This is not a view shared by Mr John Christie of Glyndebourne who, in outlining a policy for opera, wrote “first of all the language is relatively unimportant. It is the lesser vehicle in which the musical story is told.” Mr. Christie is a public benefactor, but I doubt whether he is a composer. Though he at least recognizes that the voice is attempting to tell something, I do not think he or anyone else would be satisfied if an opera were sung on ‘la’. You will remember the genesis of the English madrigal as told by Nicholas Yonge; how only his friends who understood the language enjoyed singing Italian madrigals; those who didn’t either did not sing or did so with little pleasure. Therefore he obtained English translations “in which the accents of the words were well maintained” though some few notes were altered. It was in 1667 that Pepys went to hear some Italian singers: “The words I did not understand, and so know not how they fitted, . . . but I perceive that there is a proper accent in every country’s discourse, and that do reach in their setting of notes to words, which therefore, cannot be natural to anybody else but them; so I am not so much smitten with it as it may be I should be if I were acquainted with their accent”. Again, nearly fifty years later in 1711, we find Addison writing: “The only fault I find in our present practice is the making use of Italian recitative with English words. The recitative music in every language should be as different as the tone or accent of each language”. It is difficult to realize that, even within living memory, English was often considered unsuitable for music. A paper read before the Musical Association in 1887 by Charles Salaman gives an idea of the prevalent state of mind. He said, “an impression has long prevailed in the minds of Englishmen, no less than foreigners, that our language is unfitted for music”. He maintained that this was a fallacy, originally accepted without due reflection, and since upheld because no-one had troubled to probe the subject.
Although Salaman made no mention of the English madrigal or Lutenist schools of whom little was known in his day (and that little generally misunderstood) he was well aware of the greatness of Purcell who, he said, “in every page of his vocal music, whether for the Church or for the Stage, afforded irrefragable proof of the fitness of the English language for English music”. That is only another way of saying what Henry Playford had written in his preface to Orpheus Britannious: that Purcell had “a peculiar genius to express the energy of English words, whereby he moved the passions as well as caused admiration in all his auditors.” How came it then that a low opinion of our language came to exist in a country which had produced, not only Purcell, but Byrd and Weelkes, Dowland and Campion, to mention only a few in one of the world’s great musical galaxies; how came it that by Salaman’s time music had so “seized up” that it was not possible to recognize the excellence to be found even in the by-paths of the preceding century, in such a song as Stanley’s ‘Welcome Death’?
If you look at a once famous anthology, published in 1898, turn to poetry and pick out at random, say, the commentary by James Ashcroft Noble on William Watson, you will find a commendation and expectation written by a critic who was clearly thrilled: no young poet ever gave greater hopes. Then, if you look at the Chapbook A Bibliography of Modern Poetry, published in 1920, you will find that men like Masefield, Drinkwater and Hodgson, collectively known as the Georgians, were said to be bringing a new life into modern poetry. Ralph Hodgson was described as “a real descendant of the great poets. As long as poetry lasts these poems will remain”. The war poets were called “the new Elizabethans”. But, alas, William Watson, by this time Sir William, is described as “a pompous poet left over from the last century”. Turn again to a volume of this decade - The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse - edited by Kenneth Arlott. Here we are told of the characteristic insipidities of the Georgian Poets “with their cult of respectability and their pastoral-weekend England of trout streams, parish churches, cricket and R.S.P.C.A. collecting boxes.” We are told of the mawkishness, clumsiness, and namby-pambyness of the Masefields, Drinkwaters and Hodgsons. Of the importance of the contemporary poets there seemed little doubt, though we can be quite sure that, only just round the corner, a school is preparing to make mincemeat of T. S. Eliot and all the verse which that latest anthology represents.
Quite clearly the Victorian, the Georgian and the contemporary critics wrote as recognized men of letters, and, one would think, with balanced judgements. Yet, equally clearly, something was at fault. Not all things can be bad simply because they are succeeded by something else. Such is a parallel to what goes on continually in the sister art of music. The climate of ideas has a profound influence on the creative artist. Hardly anyone, except the madman, can be free of it. The composer is apt to write what is wanted. If he lived in 1780 he would, as likely as not, have provided his solo song with a flute part and the publishers would have expected it from him. If he had lived in 1830 he might have provided a harp part; but he would have to be a very important man today, whose name alone would guarantee a sale, to expect his songs to be welcomed by publishers if they had flute or harp parts.
Nearer to our own times, Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, was published in 1896 and through the first two decades of the twentieth century composer after composer found in it an extraordinary quarry for songs. It has been said that what Heine was to German composers Housman was to English. Somervell, Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Ivor Gurney, Butterworth and scores of others less known found in his work something that coincided with a particular phase in our music. Perhaps it was linked to a general movement in which office workers wanted to belong to the country scene (from which they really stood apart. It coincided with folk-song collecting and Norfolk jackets, and a reaction from the Teutonic hegemony. Nothing could better sum up the feeling than Butterworth’s ‘with rue my heart is laden’*, so reminiscent of English water colour, and economical in an entirely new way: saying more in its few strokes than any words could do.
And today? He would be a bold man who would set Housman, or, much more likely, he would have no impulse to do so. Yet those poems remain the same and it is we, not they, who have changed. Composers too may still be significant even though their language is one which, for the time being, is not in current use. Throughout musical history we find a confusion of idiom with individuality. We condemn a school because the language has become familiar or distant, jaded, or incomprehensible to us, and it needs a rare critical judgement to realize that greatness remains greatness whatever idiom it uses. The mind can be conditioned to accept almost any style, and is as capable of unlearning as it is of learning. A parallel to the fatuous literary criticisms above - is Dr. William Gardiner’s opinion, which can be accepted as a general one when he wrote in 1832: “the just expression with which the English language was set, placed the style of Glee-writing very much above the madrigals of Byrd, Wilbye, Bennet and Weelkes. Their pieces remain unrivalled specimens of canon and fugue, but miserable instances of that union which should ever subsist between the words and music.” Who shall blame him for such nonsense? He was brought up to accept the dominion of the bar-line, the music he was criticizing was incomprehensible to him. He did not criticize Byrd, Bennet, Wilbye, and Weelkes. He criticized a process of thought which he did not understand. Whether such examples from the past help us to have sounder judgements today depends upon how much we realize that men are great or small not according to their language but according to their stature.
This constant conditioning and reconditioning may help to explain the extraordinary morass into which English song, in fact all music in England, had sunk by the middle of the nineteenth century, when an obsession for Italian, and then German, art had finally displaced any vestige of our own. The lesson that native song grows out of native language has to be learnt again and again. Purcell died in 1685, yet by 1711 we find Adison discussing the fashion for Italian opera: there is no question that our great grand-children will be very curious to know the reason why their forefathers used to sit together in their country, and to hear whole plays in a tongue they did not understand .And again: at present our notions of music are so very uncertain, that we do not know what it is like. Only, in general, we are transported with anything that is not English; so it be of foreign growth, let it be Italian, French or high Dutch, it is the same thing. In short, our English music is quite rooted out and nothing left planted in its stead.
Though the English musical renaissance has been discussed for the last sixty or seventy years, in 1942 we find Mr. Edward Sackville West writing: it was high time the long, sinuous, rhetorical Italian line reappeared in English vocal music, which was dying of a surfeit of Brahms, on the one hand, and of folk tunes on the other. I offer no comment. History has already done so. As to those who argue that our language is less suitable for singing than Italian or other languages because its sibilants and consonants make too many unsingable words, no composer, nor poet for that matter, accepts our vocabulary lock, stock and barrel. It was calculated by an Italian, Salvoni, that out of forty thousand words in his language only six thousand could be used for Italian opera arias. And Algarotti tells how Jacopo Peri, composer of Euridice, - la prima opera in musica - carefully observed those Italian words which were capable of intonation or consonants, and those which were not. He was exact in noting down the different accents of grief, of joy, or all the affections incident to the human frame; so scrupulous was he in his course of vocal experiments, that he scrutinised intimately the very genius of the Italian language.
What is necessary for Italian might possibly be necessary for English. No composer of any country can expect to use his language without selection. When Sir Henry Bishop and Thomas Moore were working on the National melodies which were adapted to Moore’s original poetry, the poet, in order to ensure the most musically sounding words, so often substituted one word for another that after three years of revision, scarcely one word of the original was retained. There was a similar collaboration between Stanford and Alfred Perceval Graves. Today Graves’s new verses to Irish tunes might not be so welcome as they were then. Be that as it may, the two men collaborated for fifty years and enough of their correspondence has been published to show with what detail every word was considered. Thus we have Stanford objecting to the word “beautiful” - always uncomfortable to sing. To both men the tunes were sacrosanct and Graves’s verses had to undergo a close scrutiny from one who knew as much about the setting of English as anyone of his time.
What happens when fashion, environment, and the general “mores” press so hard upon a period in art as to well-nigh destroy it altogether? Those whom we regard as the founders of our musical renaissance - Stanford, Parry, Mackenzie and Cowen, all born between 1847 and 1852, came into an environment which made it almost impossible to accept English as a language fit for music. An extraordinarily interesting fact is that Parry, early in his career published four Shakespeare Sonnets, originally composed to a German translation, as being less intractable from the singer’s point of view. The songs were only afterwards adapted to the English text. In Parry’s own words in his diary “I found I could get along better with the German than the English words”. Even Stanford published as his Opus 4 and 7 twelve settings of Heine in German. A look at the immediate predecessors of these men gives some idea of the reason for this. Take, for example, Sir Herbert Oakley, born in 1830.
I do not choose him with the object of laughing at him. No doubt he played an important part in the music of his day. Needless to say, he was educated at Leipsig and Dresden. He was Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, as well as Composer to her Majesty in Scotland. He celebrated the Queen’s Jubilee in 1887 with a volume of twenty songs to German, French, Italian, and English words. One of his English settings, Tennyson’s “Flow down cold rivulet”, has a German translation printed with the English, and in the very first bar the vocal line fits the German words better than Tennyson’s original. Two crotchets are allowed for “rivulet” which fits “bachlein” but overlooks the fact that “rivulet” is a tri-syllabic word. Presumably the singer is expected to put the extra quaver in.
Most of us have learnt the difference between quantity and accent, and how in reading poetry, and also setting it, the natural rhythm and stress of words must be preserved at the expense of metrical accents. As R.O. Morris wrote, only a very ignorant person would accentuate the first lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost like this:
Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste,
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
We can hardly call Oakley an ignorant person; at least he seems to have known four languages. But what did he do with Tennyson’s simple metrical scheme? He sets it completely squarely -
Flow down cold rivulet to the sea,
Thy tribute wave deliver
No more by thee my steps shall be,
For ever and for ever.
All that glorious play between quantity and accent is lost, and if the composer ever received excitement or stimulus from the poem he certainly failed to communicate it. Indeed, but for an elementary piece of word-painting, by which “flow down, cold rivulet to the sea” is set to a falling scale, there is little to show that Oakley gave any thought to the poem he was setting. Even Sullivan, so fine a craftsman, and so deft in his setting of English in one sphere, failed miserable when he tried to wear the Teutonic mantle. In 1866 he asked Tennyson to write for him the words of a little song-cycle, “German fashion”. The cycle of eleven songs, The Window, must be one of the most abject failures of collaboration.
Still further back into the nineteenth century abyss, Tennyson was treated even more unkindly by Balfe, (1808-1870). His setting of “Come into the garden, Maud” is as insensitive as anything done by Oakley. Whereas Oakley at least set Tennyson’s poem, Balfe almost makes up one of his own. He omits seven of Tennyson’s stanzas, shortens the last, and repeats any words he wants at any moment. Performed with his accents, pauses, ritenutos, it shows to what depths vocal music had reached. Tennyson, whose lyrical genius attracted composers of his time as much as A. E. Housman did of his, had an acutely sensitive ear. Stanford, who collaborated with him several times, tells us that “without being a musician, he had a great appreciation of the fitness of music to its subjects, and was an unfailing judge of musical declamation. As Tennyson expressed it, he disliked music which went up when it ought to go down, and which went down when it ought to go up.” Stanford never know him wrong in his suggestions on this point and gave an example about a line in The Revenge:
“Was he devil or man? He was devil for ought they knew.“
When Stanford played it to him, the word “devil” was set to a higher note in the question than in the answer; and the penultimate note “they” was unaccented. Tennyson at once said that the second “devil” must be higher and stronger than the first, and that the “they” must be marked:
“Was he devil or man? He was devil for ought they knew.“
Stanford realized that this was right and altered it. He thought that Tennyson’s insistence on perfection of detail made him a most valuable teacher of accurate declamation. Again, when Tennyson recited the lines “Let the bell be toll’d”, he emphasized the first word, as well as the third and fifth, because he wanted three strokes of the bell, not two -
“Let the Bell be Tolled”.
It is easy to understand Tennyson’s indignation at Balfe’s “Come into the garden, Maud”, and how such a composer’s attitude creates a justifiable hostility in the poet towards music. Of course, better songs than this were written, very often by obscurer people like Horn and Hatton; and very ordinary people, unknown to musicians, were singing “Bushes and Briars” and “Unquiet Grave”, “The Spring of Thyme” and “Yonder sits a fair young damsel”. But that particular tradition had yet to be rediscovered.
If we consider their environment, it seems a miracle that men like Stanford and Parry were able to become so sensitive to English. A generation has passed since their deaths, and today they are almost in the same relation to a new generation as were the madrigalists to Dr. William Gardiner. The time has not yet come for a re-assessment, a sorting of the great from the dull and a recognition of personalities who spoke in such a different language from that in use to-day. When that time comes it will be found that there are few greater masters of the setting of words to music. Neither Stanford or Parry used the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum, as did, for instance, Elgar or Mahler, but what magic Stanford was able to achieve! Look again at one of his more familiar Irish songs, “The Fairy Lough“*, through the eyes of Plunket Greene, for whom it was written. He doubted whether there was another piano forte song which contained so much imagery and musical illustration in so short a space. He, as the singer, describes the little black lake, so far away and high among the heather that the fairies and seagulls and herons have it all to themselves. He describes the song as a ‘berceuse’, rocked upon the little waves which carry the sleeping sea-gulls round and round. Notice how Stanford uses melisma to suggest the floating seagulls on the word “all”. As one would expect, Stanford’s vocal line follows the inflections of the poem, but at the same time he combines a simple but subtle word painting, using a dark tessitura for “black and deep”, or “a dark lough,” or a high tessitura for the word “High”. And never once is the melodic line sacrificed, or obscured by the illustrative accompaniment which evokes the little waves so often seen at the edge of shallow waters, or the cry of the curlew.
Parry never achieved a magic of this sort, but his capacity to deal with words was equally skilful. One would have called it innate if his back ground and his early struggles with the Shakespeare Sonnets were not known. His range goes beyond Blest Pair of Sirens and the Songs of Farewell, to the patter of Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin or that magnificent declamatory song “Let the day perish wherein I was born” from Job. Setting prose presents quite different problems from setting metrical words.
Declamation was one solution. - Another is found in “Behold he sendeth one”, from Voces clamantiam, one of those curious ethical cantatas for which he compiled his own texts - in this case from Isiah, with ten lines of his own by a final summary. It is not the best of Parry, but is a good example of Biblical prose set in an entirely un-declamatory style. Parry and Stanford did not say the last word, but renewed the first word after generations of aridity. Though their personalities are apparent through their work, neither created an individual style in the sense that Holst or Stravinsky or Sibelius did. It was left to the Sea symphony to bring an even greater imaginative quality to the tradition which Vaughan Williams inherited from them. Their works may have lacked the incandescence and wonderful choral flexibility of Howell’s Hymnus Paradisi and Missa Sabriensis. But they were the first to return to setting English in a manner which showed how splendid the language could be, and to respond to words which were worthy of marriage. Others might consider their choice of great poetry a mistake, for there is a certain amount of dissention as to what is, and what is not, suitable for music.
A few years ago an experiment was made at the B.B.C. Six poets of some standing were commissioned to write a poem especially for musical setting. The authors were to remain temporarily anonymous, and the poems were sent to half a dozen British composers who were to set one that particularly appealed to them. At the same time the composers were asked what had attracted them to a particular poem, whether they were drawn to any of the others; whether any seemed quite unsuitable; how soon, after choosing the poem, did musical ideas come; whether a general impression or a precise musical concept came first, and so on. Indeed the questions, had it been possible to answer them, would have provided case-histories to throw some light on musicians’ approach to poetry, even possibly on musical inspiration. Here, indeed, were words for music. And what was the result?
Full of expectancy, several of the composers opened their envelopes with high hopes, only to be followed by utter despair. At least one was heard to mutter “what sort of people do they think we are”. As far as I know, only one of the poems was ever set to music, and nothing more was heard of the scheme. Whether or not his sad little story implies a criticism of the poets, it certainly implies a criticism of the theory that composers should set words especially written for music and leave untouched - or should I say “undefiled” - those written with no such purpose. No-one has expounded this theory better than Mr. V. C. Clinton-Baddeley, whose delightful book Words for Music, published in 1941, put forward the argument that at one time poets and composers understood each other’s art; that subsequently their paths diverged, with the poets failing to master the art of writing words for music, and composers distorting the words of the poets.
The argument was by no means new. Decade after decade writers, critics, and correspondents, few of them with Mr. Clinton-Baddeley’s authority, have said something on similar lines. For instance, the Rev. M. E. Browne, in a paper read before the Musical Association in 1874, with the same title as Mr. Clinton Baddeley’s book, pleaded “for recognition of the word writer as a specialist - of words for music, as a distinct line of work.” He, too, tells us that certain poems are unsuitable for setting, and names examples of suit able texts (including one of his own.) Like Mr. Clinton-Baddeley, some seventy years later, he trounces Sullivan for an outrageous setting of “Orpheus with his Lute”, though he fails to get as far as Mr. Clinton-Baddeley in commending the deftness and perfection of Sullivan’s setting of words in his light operas.
Even in the eighteenth century, Dr. Aikin, in his Essay on Song Writing, thought the term “song-writing” implied writing words just as much as music and considered that music had played the harlot in causing instrumental music “the luxury of artificial harmony” to bring about a separation, so that words had become unnecessary, or such as were used had become degraded and indecent. His anthology was thus intended to be a collection of suitable songs, pastoral, passionate, witty and so on, which, at the same time would not offend “that charming delicacy of the sex, which every man must admire and ought to respect.“
Practice was not far behind precept and the nineteenth century was strewn with attempts to beguile the composer. Even Ruskin wrote Rhymes for Music; Alaric Watts was a positive factory and so was Thomas Haynes Bayly. Mrs. Hemans wrote a whole collection of Songs to be Set to Music, and names the lucky composers. Alas, apart from John Lodge Esq., Miss Graves, Miss Corbett, the author’s sister, and a few others of whom one has never heard, composers seem to have avoided these especial lures of Mrs. Hemans. Some decades later we have the Wardour Street Cantatas and Oratorios with those contrivances for music by Joseph Bennett, Henry Chorley, and others. When, for instance, William Grist, wrote the book for Mackenzie’s romantic cantata Jason, he described himself as adapting the story for musical purposes. Then there was Elgar’s Caractacus with “the words written for music” by H. A. Acworth, C.I.E. All ‘words for music’ indeed; yet, oddly enough, Cardinal Newman does not seem to have written The Dream of Gerontius with a composer in mind. In almost every generation the argument is put forward that certain words, complete in themselves, need no music, and that the composer should confine himself to words intended to be set. He should turn, we suppose, to Acworth and avoid Newman. There is a curious concept behind this attitude; because one person does not feel the need of a musical setting for a poem, everyone else must agree. This argument is rarely put forward by composers themselves, least of all by those with an instinct for vocal writing.
A typical example occurs in a criticism passed upon Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music (The New Statesman & Nation, February 17th 1940), the critic being the poet W. J. Turner. It is legitimate and desirable that musicians should be inspired by poets and vice versa, but why is it that so many excellent musicians show such a strange lack of instinct in this matter. . . . Why is it, then, that such an able composer as the late Gustav Holst should have wasted so much time and talent in setting for chorus and orchestra Keats’s Ode to the Nightingale; a work which, rightly, has never been heard of since its first performance? And now Dr. Vaughan Williams has set to music Shakespeare’s incomparable blank verse (not his lyrics, intended as songs for music!) and has chosen such a passage as:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit, and let the sound of music Creep in our ears;
Such words are, emphatically, not to be set to music. They might inspire music, but it would be music pure, not music misusing the words and obtaining a mixed effect by dubious association. I know that many musicians do not hold this view, but it is my opinion and I believe it to be the opinion of the majority of poets who understand the art of music. Here our critic, who thought he understood the art of music well enough to chastise Holst and Vaughan Williams, makes a few minor slips. Holst never set the Ode to the Nightingale; and his Ode on a Grecian Urn (Choral Symphony) has fortunately been heard since. Apart from the fact that very few poets understand anything at all about the art of music, we can take this to be typical of the view so frequently put forward.
The process from the composer’s angle is this. He may read some lines. Instantly, with the reading, musical phrases will bind themselves to the words, like Pirandello’s ‘Six characters in search of an Author’ crying for birth; music may even be brought about by the sounds, irrespective of the sense. When Holst set Robert Bridges “Say who is this with silver hair,” he wrote “I did the first of the Bridges poems the moment I caught sight of the words. Since when I have been wondering what they mean.” Or the composer may be intensely moved by the subject-matter, wish to identify himself with it, and share the identification with listeners. Or - the springs of music having many sources - the words may simmer in his mind for years, gestate in the unconscious, before they reappear as a fused work of art.
Who, then, is the critic to tell him that such words as he has set cannot be set?
It may be the critic’s personal reaction, but a theory cannot be founded on personal prejudice. If the critic came from Timbuktu, musically knowledgeable but ignorant of English, would he still say “such words cannot be set to music“? Naturally not; he would be forced to judge the music on its musical value. A setting may be good, bad or indifferent, but it can hardly change its value according to whether the hearer approves or disapproves of the words. It is quite another matter that certain words are unsuitable for technical reasons. There may be an absence of open vowels where the music calls for a climax (“shop-balled” writers founded their trade on such words as God, Love and Heart, reserved for the last line and the top note.) It is impossible to sustain on consonants or to articulate on vowels. Again, it is likely (though no one dare say impossible) that poems too tightly packed with intellectual concepts are unsuitable. Their meaning demands thought of clarification which is not possible in the flow-past of the music. The vocal composer ignores such problems at his risk, but if he has a true instinct resolving them becomes part of his technique.
So when the critic asks “what is to keep the composer off the Shakespeare Sonnets, or the Hamlet Soliloquies?”, the answer is “nothing”. The success or failure of the composer’s achievement is another matter. Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens is a great setting of Milton’s Ode, but in William Horsley’s 1832 collection of Glees Vocal Harmony is another setting by John Stafford Smith, and judging by the result one might have said to Smith “such words are emphatically not to be set to music“; which would be ridiculous if applied to Parry.
Meanwhile Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music sails on, oblivious of a critic’s disapproval. There seems to me a simple answer to the problem. “Bright is the ring of words when the right man rings them.” Conversely, “dull is the ring of words when the wrong man rings them.” Now, although one asks that theoreticians and busybodies who have never experienced a creative excitement, should stop taking it upon themselves to instruct a composer what he may or may not set, not everything is fair game. Apart from the technical hurdles, in theory he can set almost anything. Was it not Milhaud who set extracts from a seedman’s catalogue? That was in the bright twenties, and plenty of people said “ha, ha”. But was there any impulse to communicate the catalogue with his hearers? With no particular need to communicate, no lyrical impulse, once a joke of that kind is over there is seldom much left of interest.
Musical lyricism is, of course, not confined to song writing. Chopin’s lyricism was not possessed by, say, Hummel; but if we keep to song-writing, can we define its quality? I think not, but it is something of which we are instantly aware. It springs from a surcharge of emotion, a passion, usually in the earlier years of life. As with poets, a few composers may carry this quality into their later years. More people than we realise have experienced some small measure of this divine madness, and we all know that a dead poet lives in many a live stockbroker. Many of these people, before they fade into the light of common day, have had an intuitive glimpse which neither age, nor experience, nor knowledge can ever give them, and which, if they but knew it in their self-satisfied middle age, had been their finest hour. If only one could collect all the beautiful single songs written by young people in this early up-rush of feeling; songs which, even if published, get overlaid when no work follows to substantiate them. Sometimes death may come instead, before enough has been written to show a composer’s true worth. An unknown setting of “Silent Noon“* by Ernest Farrar, published when he was 26 before being killed in the 1914-1918 war, can hold its own with the Vaughan Williams setting.
Was it not John Hamilton Reynolds, the friend of Keats, and a poet in his youth, who wrote:
I once thought to have embalm’d my name
With Poesy: - to have serv’d the gentle Muses
With high sincerity: - but Fate refuses,
And I am now become most strangely tame,
At twenty-two Reynolds was bracketed with Shelley and Keats, but he ended up as a solicitor. With Shelley and Keats we feel an incandescence burning too brightly to last, and containing self-destruction within itself. The lyrical impulse - a burning quality that cannot be analysed - is equally apparent in a few composers. They may not be among the greatest; the cerebral balance is too much in abeyance, and after all a balance between intellect and emotion is the foundation of the greatest works of art. Such a composer was Ivor Gurney. His creative life was short: a student period before the First World War, then, on active service, more poetry than music; a mental breakdown, then a burst of song and verse from 1918 ‘till 1922, when he collapsed into an asylum until his death in 1937. It is not being wise after the event to feel an incandescence in his songs that tells of something burning too brightly to last, as in the filament of an electric bulb before it burns out. There is not anything original in his actual idiom, but contact with words generated that ecstatic quality, so difficult to analyse. I don’t think he gave much thought to accentuation; he wrote at white heat, sometimes altering the texts which he carried in his memory. In this he differed from Hugo Wolf, another songwriter who burnt too brightly to last. Wolf, who could sustain bursts of fifteen songs in ten days, and wrote 116 songs in a single year, managed to combine his fever with a meticulous care for his texts. It has been said that if the German language was forgotten, its speech inflections could be restored from a study of Wolf’s songs. That in itself would have no musical significance if his melodic line were not so sensitive and beautiful.
Gurney might occasionally have lapses as, for instance, in Yeats’ “Down by the Sally Gardens” where a lovely tune compels him to repeat part of the last line; the sort of thing which made Yeats himself very angry, and for which Gurney was rightly trounced by Mr. Clinton-Baddeley; but such songs as “All night under the moon,” “Last hours,” “The folly of being comforted” and the early “Sleep” are amongst the best lyrical songs we have. Gurney’s response was to his fellow Georgian poets - the moderns of his day. He set, I think, only one of his own poems (Seven Meadows) and that has never struck me as one of his best. But the vocal line of “Sleep”, one of five Elizabethan settings written while he was a student, makes a series of waves rising to the climax and falling in an overall beauty of shape, which I believe was quite unconscious.
The best of Gurney’s art bears out the description of the lyrical mind which Middleton Murray gave when he wrote about John Clare: this unmistakeable core of pure emotion lies close to the surface throughout Clare. His breath is bated, and we seem to hear the very thumping of his heart. Washed by the magic tide of an overwhelming emotion, the object shines with a pure and lucid radiance. This mysterious faculty is not indeed the highest kind of poetic imagination in which the intellect plays a greater part in the creation of the symbol; this emotional creation leaps from particular to particular, it lacks the endorsement from a centre of disciplined experience which is the mark of the poetic imagination at its highest, but it is purely poetic and truly creative. All this is by no means farfetched. Sir Arthur Bliss, lecturing to The Royal Society, compared the heightened perception - the artist’s most precious possession - with the last few minutes in the trenches, in the 1914-1918 war, before “going over the top”, to face likely death. Every sight and sound became imbued with an unbearable intensity. Bird-song or butterfly held strange significance. If this heightened perception is possessed by a few throughout their lives, and by almost everyone at certain moments, to the more sustained artist with the “endorsement from a centre of disciplined experience” it is a constant inner flame, a part of his make-up, a reservoir of feeling to call on anytime; and in this words play an important part. Naturally, composers vary in their response. In the eighteenth century men like Avison and Felton devoted themselves almost entirely to concertos, harpsichord suites and trio sonatas, whilst Arne composed far more vocal than instrumental works. With our contemporaries we can see similar alignments; even with those who respond to words it is difficult to show a common procedure.
Delius, for instance, seems to have been more concerned with the general mood and ideas than with the sounds of the words. Though Fenby mentions two cases where Delius took more pains with what he considered to be the correct declamation of Henley’s and Dowson’s words, than with the melodic shape, it is clear there was no natural mating of voice and verse. Of English verse he knew surprisingly little. According to Fenby, the composer’s wife chose almost every word he set, copied out and left on his desk poems to match his philosophy. Delius shows little sympathy with the solo or choral medium, from the singer’s angle of from the point of view of word setting.
The overall sound is what mattered most. Something of Delius’s attitude, but not his technique, is to be found in Patrick Hadley’s interesting experiment The Hills, where he provided a text which, he says in his forward, “is for singing only; it must therefore not be quoted in print.” The intention is to evoke emotions not through association with the meaning of words, but through the actual sounds of the music welded to them. Thus for the wedding feast he used nonsense syllables to give a sound of gaiety; the chorus sings such things as “clatterpoo, billy bally hoo, with a lot of tittle tattle ootle-oo, callo callay well-a-day. Chitter chatter boo bally hoo, poodle-oo,”. Here is an original conception of words to music which could only be used for this one purpose; no other composer would be likely to set them, just as no-one has ever wanted to reset the “haw-yaw-thaw-haw-ya” and other nonsense which Wagner puts into the mouth of that ghastly creature Brunhilde and her Valkyries!
Such cases deviate from the normal conception of words for music, or music for words, in which the composer, stimulated by both the sense and the sound of the words, wishes to identify himself with them. This is not always understood by poets antagonistic to composers setting their words. Jules Renard, writer of the text of Ravel’s Histoires Naturelles, describes in his diary how “Monsieur Ravel invited me this evening to come and hear his songs. I told him I hadn’t the least understanding of such things, and asked him what he had been able to add to my Histoires. Ravel replied “It was not my aim to add anything to them, but only to interpret them.” Renard asked “and with what result?” To which Ravel replied, “to express in music what you say in words”. “I think and feel in music, and I should like to think the same things as you.” The composer expressed himself very modestly, and the conversation - whether true or not - brings to the fore this usual misapprehension that composers try to add something to words. What is perfectly clear is that, time after time, music can go beyond words. For example, in “Trotting to the Fair”, the Irish air “Will you take a flutter” given new words by Alfred Perceval Graves, the singer and his girl are seated on a pony. Nothing could be simpler than Stanford’s accompaniment suggesting the trotting pony, nothing could be subtler than the slight hold-up in tempo as they round the corners. The music carries words beyond themselves.
Or take a slight song, whose sentimentality seems at first to come straight out of a Victorian album; “She came to the village Church” from Somervell’s cycle Maud. Somervell truncated Tennyson’s poem, which shows how difficult it is to lay down rules for composers. Balfe, in his setting of Tennyson’s “Come into the garden, Maud” treated his text in a crude and stupid way and turned a would-be serious song into a joke. But Somervell’s treatment of the poem is deliberate artistry. He has left it in the air, so to speak, and by a change of key there comes a sudden illumination, and the last two bars, which leave the vocal phrase incomplete, tell us something beyond the words. Or, look with a fresh eye at a familiar old war-horse “Ethiopia saluting the colours”. Charles Wood’s idiom may sound pre-Brahmsian, but creates an almost physical sense of resolution when, after the road side halt, the ancient dusky slave woman tells how she was caught as a little child and brought by the cruel slaver across the sea: the liberating army seems to gird up its loins as it marches on with high purpose. And all this in three or four bars which are hardly significant at all when taken away from their content!
I have stressed that music can take words beyond themselves, but does not try to add to them, because this is the chief cause of conflict between poets who finds his words twisted out of recognition, before one resents this hostility; one must also understand the view of the composer who, as Benjamin Britten has claimed, should not be afraid of a high-handed treatment which prolongs words beyond their speech-length. It is these opposing views which have created the idea that words should be written for music, whereas the truth is the there exist composers who are moved to set whatever words excite them. Few Poets know anything about music, and their views are more often prejudices than judgements. Geothe, who had ideas about everything, was enthusiastic about Zelter’s settings of his poems, but he ignored those which Schubert sent him. I do not know Zelter’s songs, but I have read that they keep closely to the declamation; it may be this which Goethe understood, rather than the creative imagination of Schubert’s songs.
There is clearly no rule about the relation between the poetic and the musical ear. Tennyson had unfailing surety in musical declamation and in the fitness of music to its subjects, though he was no musician. There have been magnificent poets like Campion or Robert Bridges or Gerard Manley Hopkins who were sensitive to music, and there have been others equally fine, like A. E. Housman and Swinburne, who were dead to it. What composer could take A. E. Housman’s views with any seriousness? He cared nothing for music and “these musical people are more plague than profit” he said. He classed composers with illustrators as being entirely wrapped up in their precious selves, regarding the author as merely a peg on which to hang things, and having less than the ordinary human allowance of sense and feeling. A recording of Gervase Elwes singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge caused his face to flush with torment, in an extremity of controlling pain or anger. He was, most indignant with the composer for omitting two verses of “Is my team ploughing.” “I wonder how he would like me to cut two bars out of his music” he said. The composer, I think, would have replied “I should not mind at all, so long as they are the right bars“; and this, in effect, was Vaughan Williams’ reply. He felt that he had an artistic right to set any portion of a poem, provided he did not alter the sense; and in this case, he thought the omitted lines so bad that the poet ought to have been grateful for their excision!
Yet Housman, for all his acid words, wrote an account of the poetic creative process so applicable to the musical that one wonders at his lack of sympathy. To that fine craftsman the genesis of poetry appeared to be more physical than intellectual. He wrote of shivers down the spine, a constriction of the throat and precipitation of water to the eyes, of a sensation in the pit of the stomach and the skin bristling so that the razor ceased to act: and all this if a line of poetry strayed into his memory when he was shaving of a morning. He though that the first stage of creation was a passive and involuntary process, quoting Burns’ confession that he had two or three times composed from the wish rather than the impulse, but never to any purpose. Housman described how a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza, would flow into his mind. After having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon - beer being a sedative and afternoons the least intellectual time of day - he would go for a walk of two or three hours. When he got home he would write his involuntary ideas down, leaving gaps, and hoping that further inspiration might come another day. Sometimes, if he took his walks in a receptive frame of mind, all would be well; but at others the poem had to be completed by the brain, and often there was difficulty or failure.
Now, these are not the statements of a wiffly-waffly poet with straws in his hair. They come from a classical scholar, a man who thought with clarity and precision. The interesting point is the recognition of emotion as the germ of the creative impulse. The proportion of feeling combined with intellect varies with the individual. With Housman it seems to have been mainly feeling. The Brahms, if we are to believe him, it was five percent inspiration and ninety-five percent hard work. The important thing is the recognition of the original excitement, beer or no beer. Others find the excitement through the process of work. “Occasioned” works are not necessarily devoid of excitement: the very “occasion” may generate it. Milton turned over many subjects in his mind in his determination to write a great epic, before he decided on Paradise Lost. And Elgar, whatever ideas he may have received for his Introduction and Allegro from some distant singing in Wales, had already resolved to write “a brilliant piece for string orchestra”. In both cases the ends they envisaged stimulated them to their great achievements.
W. B. Yeats, if he did not possess Housman’s precision of mind, had the most passionate love of words of almost any poet. He loved even the rich rolling sound of the name of the disease which he knew was to kill him. But his theories about music were half-baked. We must make allowances for his sufferings, as for instance, when he heard a setting of his “Lake Isle of Innisfree” sung by a choir of a thousand boy scouts. He then demanded the right of censorship to settings of his poems, and his objection to the publication of Peter Warlock’s The Curlew, shows how incompetent he was to judge a good one from a bad. For at one time Yeats had written “a musician who would give me pleasure should not repeat a line or put more than one note to a syllable”. Warlock’s setting fulfilled these demands: it was almost entirely syllabic. That is not in itself a virtue, but in this case the singularly beautiful vocal line makes it one of the best syllabic settings in English. Yeats objected to The Curlew, yet approved of the most extraordinary rubbish, some of it published in appendices to his works; they include some of the most insensitive settings of English ever printed. It was only towards the end of Yeats’ life, in his attempts to revive the broadside ballad that he arrived at something practical. I cannot see, as Mr. Clinton-Baddeley suggested, that from his enthusiasm the growing revival of English song has received a powerful impetus. As far as I can see, it had not made the slightest difference.
In attempting to renew the life of the ballad Yeats wanted his words set to unaccompanied music, claiming that where words are the object, an accompaniment can but distract attention, and because the musician who claims to translate the emotion of the poet into another vehicle is a liar. We may sympathize with Yeats’ preference for the natural singer, and his antipathy to anything that distracted from his verse, but his inability to recognize the place of the composer, though it in no way lessens his stature as a poet, certainly lessens his competence to pass valid judgements. To hear him read his poetry was to hear a magical incantation, but when he was asked why he read like that, he replied that there was no other way. Yeats certainly had his blind spots!
It is a relief to turn to poets with better credentials for discussing music. Robert Bridges preached, but he also practised. Both Hymnology and Anglican Chant owe much to his reforming zeal. There was in his work an almost equal balance between intellect and feeling. His was a closely integrated art, avoiding ecstasy or excess. In this he resembled Parry, who set some of his shorter poems, and collaborated with him in four choral works. There exists, still unpublished, an interesting correspondence dealing with two of these major collaborations: the Invocation to Music, an Ode in honour of Henry Purcell, and A Song of Darkness and Light. Unfortunately the Parry letters have been lost, but the Bridges letters give an insight into the partnership between poet and composer. (Such records, as in the Strauss von Hofmannsthal letters, are extremely valuable.) Although Bridges was a proud and somewhat authoritarian character, he stressed that his part was subservient. “If a definite musical scheme presents itself to your imagination I could work my stuff to fit it” or, “please scribble down.....anything that occurs to you....make any suggestions - even as to time, rhythm or what not; or improve the scheme itself”, or again “I wish that I could think that my verses were likely to be at all worthy of your setting.” Synopsis, lines, verses, and individual words were discussed and worked on with intense detail. Even in the end Parry found it necessary to omit two or three lines of the finished text. But the remarkable thing is that Bridges, making structures for Parry to hang his music on, created permanent and magnificent poems. A generation later Holst took extracts from the text of The Ode to Music for his characteristic and austere Choral Fantasia. The result bore no relation to Bridges’ original conception, to which he and Parry had given so much thought, but that the poet was amenable is shown by Holst’s dedication “In homage, Robert Bridges”. It is interesting to compare Holst’s and Parry’s settings of the same words, “Rejoice, ye dead”.
One outcome of the Bridges-Parry collaboration was the separate publication of the poem, with its slight differences from the musical version, which Bridges prefaced with his views on setting poetry. Here he claims that he was not in every way responsible for the Ode and went on to attack the theory, apparently current at the time, that modern music, by virtue of a declamatory method, was able satisfactorily to interpret almost any kind of good poetry. He gave eight reasons for his disapproval of this idea. Since no-one today would disagree with Bridges - and it is hard to believe that such an idea was ever taken seriously - there is no need to recapitulate Bridges’ argument. But in the course of it he makes some acute observations on the differing effects of repetition in music and in poetry. “And when reiterations that can be compared occur in both, then the second occurrence will in music be generally the strongest, but in poetry the weakest.” Bridges’ essay calls for some concentrated thinking, but even in the end he feared that the many negations he had put forward might provoke the reader to look for some positive indication of the writer’s opinion as to what sort of words are best suited for music, and what sort of setting they should have. “The question,” he said, “is far too wide to be treated summarily, and if it has not been given to me to assist in solving it practically, I cannot venture to meddle with it further.” Wise words, which might well be followed by those who are always ready to leap into the fray on the subject of the union of words and music.
Collaboration between poets and composers has a long history, and contrary to statements periodically made, there has seldom been a time when it has not existed. In 1919 The Poetry Bookshop, such a stimulant on English letters around the second decade of this century, issued as one of its monthly chapbooks, Four Songs. A year later it issued, Three New Songs. In these collections first appeared Armstrong Gibbs’s “Nod” and Ivor Gurney’s “Desire in Spring”. Both were settings of contemporary poets (de la Mare and Francis Ledwidge) and the purpose behind the volumes was summed up by Professor E. J. Dent: poetry and song, springing from the same impulse, were once inseparable. As each art developed their course diverged; music fell under the domination of instruments, poetry lapsed more and more into the silence of the printed word. Only at rare moments have voice and verse been closely reunited, as they were in the Elizabethan age. In our own day poets and composers are strangers one to another. It is rare to find poets who desire a musical setting, rarer still to find musicians who appreciate poetry. The four songs here for the first time printed have been chosen to show that between contemporary poets and musicians a more intimate understanding is not impossible.
Now, the suggestion of disunity between composers and their contemporary poets was by no means a new one. Even Dr. Aiken, in the eighteenth century, complained that the “enchanting union” between the sister muses of poetry and melody were then in a great measure dissolved. Again in 1821, Dr. William Kitchener, in his Observations on Vocal Music, expressed a wish “to restore music to that harmonious union with poetry, the separation of which has so long been deplored”, just as Algarotti, in the eighteenth century, wrote that “in the earlier ages the poets were musicians” and complained that now the twin sisters, poetry and music, went no longer hand in hand. In 1945, a quarter of a century after Professor Dent’s note, we find a correspondent in The Musical Times writing: I venture to count on your help in publishing a question which needs discussion: why do few modern composers set the modern poet? Those who do - Alan Bush and Britten, Walton and a few others are decidedly a minority. Whereas in other ages musicians and poets played happily into each other’s hands, most of our composer’s seem attracted to every period and every literature save their own. Why does a composer elect to wed his music to words which proclaim themselves just as recognizably to be three hundred years older? I cannot believe that it is because he can find no modern words to set. So this is evidently one of those ideas repeated from decade to decade. It is a very short view which imagines that poets can only serve their generation. If they become part of a literary heritage their life lasts as long as they find a response, and it is fitting that composers should look as much to the past as to the present for contact with congenial minds.
The truth is that collaboration of some sort has nearly always existed, closer at some times than at others. A large proportion of Elizabethan lyrics were primarily written to be set; the authors expected this, if indeed they had not already composed the music themselves. As Sir Philip Sidney described the poet: he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with or prepared for the well enchanting skill of music. But although that was admittedly a period when the alliance was as close as it could be, composers have rarely failed to turn to their contemporaries, even where the partnership may have been unwilling, as with A. E. Housman, or before him, Dryden. The madrigalists and lutenists set the poets of their day, and so did Purcell. The ephemeral Vauxhall songs were mostly settings of contemporary scribblers. John Stanley collaborated with Sir John Hawkins, Henry Carey, Hawksworth and others. Even in a period of decline, Sir Henry Bishop, in addition to composing operettas and vaudeville operas, set Coleridge, Southey, Barry Cornwall and Thomas Moore amongst others; and Tennyson’s verse was eagerly sought after by many of the best and worst musicians of his day. Parry and Stanford worked with the modern poets of their time from Bridges to Swinburne and Mary Coleridge, and as the generations followed we find Holbrooke setting Herbert Trench, Vaughan Williams setting Housman, and Holst setting Humbert Wolfe. Warlock, Gurney, Howells, Armstrong Gibbs, Bliss, Britten, Walton - all have turned to contemporary poets.
In such times as the alliance has been unfruitful it is rarely because poets have lost the art of writing words for music. Many of the most “settable” poets have had neither knowledge of, nor liking for, music. To account for the alienation of the composer from his language we must look to environment, to the mores or climate of ideas. We are, thank heaven, far from that alienation today, but it is Important to be aware that it has existed in the past and might well return in the future.
Robert Bridges was humble in giving an opinion on words and music except where he was involved practically. Less wise men have been more opinionated, and only rarely has a composer himself given his views. There was, for instance, William Jackson (Jackson of Exeter, as he was known) who aired his theories in a preface to one of his song-collections in the middle of the eighteenth century. Jackson is best known through a rather dreary service, but he put more life into his secular than into his sacred music. He was, besides, a man of fine general intelligence, a cultivated man of letters and a competent painter and friend of Gainsborough. His own statement of the case has reason and clarity - there are two ways of setting words to music. One, when the words are merely considered as vehicles of sound; the other, is when music gives a plainer expression to the sentiment, or a more forcible excitement to the passion of the words. In the first method, the voice is considered as a musical instrument only, and the words of no other use than to prevent a sameness of articulation; in the last, the music is governed by the words, or, to speak more properly, they both unite to express sentiments and excite passion. No clearer statement could be made of two schools of thought, the one which assumes the voice to be a means to an end, the other which believes it an end in itself. Dr. Kitchener went further in his disapproval of the latter school when he declared that the warbling of sounds without the distinct articulation of Words - pronounced with proper Accent and Emphasis - does not deserve to be called singing: It is merely playing upon the voice - a concerto on the larynx.
We are not dealing merely with a musical problem; but with two aspects of human nature. For it would seem as if mankind can be divided into two types; those who care for the appearance of the thing and those who care for the thing itself; the old division of manner and matter. At their extremes both court disaster, of meretricious and superficial soap-bubble emptiness at one end, and of pedantry and a lack of creativeness at the other; whilst a fusion of the two in varying proportions seems to be the basis of the finest expression in any age. It would, however, be a mistake to assume that the use of the voice with a bias towards pure tone, rather than diction, is necessarily bad. When I condemned those who, from time to time, have advocated the return of English song to what Mr. Sackville-West described as “the long, sinuous, rhetorical Italian line” it was because that is an unnatural graft on to a language which is primarily consonantal, whereas for Italian, bel canto and coloratura are a natural outcome.
In recent years there have been examples of the voice being used as pure instrument, independent of words. Medner, for instance, wrote a Sonate Vocalise, and a Suite-Vocalise, sung entirely to vowels; and some years ago we were inflicted with a spate of part-songs, folk-song arrangements, and even large choral works, where, in an attempt to gain more colour than words alone could give, accompaniments were sung to “Ah” and other vowel sounds, or even to humming. The effects soon begin to pall, though occasional examples, such as Vaughan Williams’ “Ca the Yowes” have an undeniable beauty. The objection to coloratura singing, irrespective of words or sense, is another matter. At one time the composer wrote in full expectation of the singer’s embellishing his line. In such a case, words must take a secondary place; the thought is outward rather than inward. There is a parallel in instrumental music, where the virtuoso, or even the composer, cares more for the manner than the matter. Paganini was a remarkable artist; his Caprices alone show what virtuosity he brought to violin technique. Yet a contemporary account describes how: in one of Paganini’s wonderful exhibitions, the piece opens with a tremulous sound from the double drum, so faint as scarcely to be heard but sufficient to arouse the attention of the musician. In a few seconds the sound returns, upon which the violinist starts, and looks behind him, as if he apprehended the approach of something terrible. On the repetition of the tremulous, but less distant, sound, he seizes his violin, and with three or four miraculous and furious strokes of the bow, throws his audience into a frenzy of astonishment and delight. Now quite clearly, Paganini was putting on an act, which could not have been applied to, say, the Brahms Violin Concerto. A work of that sort produced its own interpreter in Joachim, and Joachim could no more have played Paganini’s act than Paganini could have sobered down into a Joachim. Hitler, Mussolini, and even Lloyd George, could rouse an audience to a frenzy with pauses, gestures and theatrical effects, but a complete lack of sense of logic, in a way which no unfortunate lecturer, though talking sound sense, could ever do. Thus it is only at the extremes that it is impossible to reconcile manner and matter, and it is no condemnation of virtuosity to say that in any age where the cadenza becomes more important than the song, the composer for whom words have any significance must find himself in a vacuum.
To turn to the opposite extreme: most music students are expected in their paper work to give the correct note values to a few lines of verse. This is no bad exercise, but there is no greater fallacy than to imagine that a detailed note-for-note accentuation, following the rise and fall of natural speech, can in itself make good song. Even ordinary recitative can be alive or dead, and so too with syllabic song. Here the composer may be full of respect for the poet, but nothing will redeem his setting if it has not got something beyond that. It may be heightened speech, but it is hardly song. Just as the arts of the actor and orator lead to a form of heightened speech, so the art of singing - winged words - carries the process still further. In our own day Dr. Daniel Jones has made, by means of recordings, detailed analyses of inflections of speech dialects, but as far back as 1832 Dr. William Gardiner, in his The Music of Nature, attempted to notate the speech lengths, the rise and fall and intonation, of some of the outstanding speakers and actors of his day. He gives the example of “Almighty and most merciful Father, in whom we live, move, and have our being” spoken by the spectacular Scotch divine, the Rev. Mr. Irving, where the voice rises in semitones from G to Bb. There the aeroplane is rushing along the runway, but not for one minute can we pretend that it has risen from the ground. Some of the great late Victorian preachers carried this heightened speech to a point which has to be heard to be believed. In an early phonograph record, one of these preachers recites “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, using a range which rivals the wildest leaps we expect to find in sprechgesang. But it remains oratory, not singing. Whether sprechgesang is heightened speech or depressed song, I do not know. The suggestion in The Grove V that it should be renamed “inflected speech” would seem to place it in the former category; but then all speech is inflect ed. Schoenberg gave his own definition in the preface to his ‘Pierrot Lunaire’:
The melody indicated for the speaking voice by notes is not meant to be sung. The reciter has the task of transforming this melody, always with a due regard to the prescribed intervals, into a speaking melody.
He directs that the rhythm is to be kept strictly in accordance with the note values. sprechgesang, or a modification of it, can be very effective, but hardly as a development beyond song; as a variation of recitative. From heightened speech to recitative is a short step, and from recitative to syllabic song a shorter one still. The syllabic song is more common in France than in England, and the French have an intense respect for their language. Faure tended to approximate more to the English nineteenth century ideal of song writing, but Debussy and Ravel attempted an even closer unity between words and music. It is rare to find a trace of melisma in Debussy, and to Ravel the syllabic song was equally natural. At its best, it is far more than words set to correct note-values. The magical ‘Le Martin - Pe cheur’* conveys the bated breath, the suspended moment, the wonder and delight of the solitary fisherman on whose line the kingfisher alights.
With melisma, the first step is taken towards bel canto, for melisma can only be sung on vowels; with it the boundaries of expression become enlarged. Nothing other than melisma could have expressed the word painting that Handel used in “O ruddier than the Cherry” or in that characteristic and marvellous frost scene from Purcell’s King Arthur, where Cupid sings “Stretch out thy lazy limbs”. Again, melisma, familiar for centuries in plain-song, can become the handmaid of a melodic line and enhance it in a way that syllabic treatment could never do, even though this may be is at the expense of the words. The composer writing a strophic song might need to modify the words to fit his melodic line. In an early Warlock song, “As ever I saw,” the first three verses are repeated to the same five-bar tune, and metrical deviations are managed by melisma. Another composer might adapt his tune to the words, as indeed did meticulous William Jackson, who frequently tabled slight melodic variants above the different verses of a strophic song. Yet Jackson thought nothing of altering a poem if he considered it unsuitable: it is proper to repeat that good Poetry is not always fit for Music; to make it so I have altered it, and not with the least thought of improving or correcting some of the most finished pieces in our language. To those who are acquainted with the originals, some of these alterations may appear bold, and others trifling; the reducing of the measure from lines of ten syllables to eight, will be considered as the most flagrant instance of the one; and the changing a few harmless particles, of the other. The purist in one sphere may be, in the eyes of others, less pure in another. There is no right or wrong in these matters; the directions taken by individuals are not in themselves gospel truths, but a contribution to a whole truth, or a whole art.
Stanford, in his Musical Composition, approached word-setting from rather a mechanical angle, first advising the study of declamation and an understanding of the difference between quantity and accent; then the adding of note values, and defining in music the natural inflections of the poem. It is difficult to conceive of a song, other than an exercise, growing out of this method. It seems to be a clear case of setting words, rather than being enflamed by them. Some composers have never written a song or a choral work without at least one line being instantaneously matched with a musical equivalent on the very first reading of the words. That does not make a work of art, but it is the initial excitement which brings the intellect into play to carry the emotion to its end. But who shall say that Stanford’s method was at fault when he composed such masterpieces as “The Blue Bird”, “Sailing at Dawn” and a score of others to show that intuition played more part in his creative life than a text-book analysis could ever show. Stanford, being of his generation, found absolute accuracy of declamation impossible to carry out in measured song: the bar line saw to that. Today, as indeed centuries before, this worries us less and if we really want such accuracy we can have it. To Stanford this could be nearly done both by the natural accent in each bar ‘and by the intelligence with which the good singer will insensibly vary the length or shortness of a note in order to bring the music in line with the poem.’ Even the cross-rhythms which are the stock-in trade of tin-pan alley - in such a song as ‘Accordion’ - continually demand asymmetrical groups of notes within the bar or over the bar lines.
Again, in the later choral works of Vaughan Williams, groups of notes are bracketed together over or within the bar-lines, to show that they are subservient to the word accents. Walton does just this sort of thing, with accents instead of brackets, in Belshazzar’s Feast. There have even been attempts to defend Stravinsky’s treatment of English, as exemplified in The Rake’s Progress, by putting the responsibility onto the singer and asking us to remember that emotion may distort inflection and that a bar-line does not inevitably imply a strong beat. The very first words of the opera are “the woods are green” and the singer is left to adjust this to “the woods are green”. It certainly can be done, although on paper the accentuation looks perverse. It is worth while hearing a few bars taken at random from “The Rakes Progress”, sung first with deference to the bar-line, and then again with the singer’s adjustment.
In Latin Stravinsky is capable of accentuating the same word in different ways. It seems that, even apart from accentuation, he fails to respond to the natural inflections of English, whether or not his independence of the bar line is deliberate. Now Stanford and Parry would never have crossed their bar-lines in the manner which is accepted today. As they rarely set words outside familiar metrical schemes, adjustments made by the singer rarely amounted to anything significant. The view held by the best of that generation, that words should be the first consideration and music co-ordinate or even sub-ordinate to them has led to a natural reaction today, when it is sometimes put forward that words should be subservient to music: not perhaps as in the days of florid vocal writing when words were a peg on which to exhibit virtuosity, but rather as Benjamin Britten expressed it in 1945, in his introduction to the libretto of Peter Grimes:
One of my chief aims is to try and restore to the musical setting of the English Language a brilliance, freedom, and vitality that have been curiously rare since the days of Purcell. In the past hundred years, English writing for the voice has been dominated by strict subservience to logical speech rhythms, despite the fact that accentuation according to sense often contradicts the accentuation demanded by emotional content. Good recitative should transform the natural inclinations and rhythms of everyday speech into memorable musical phrases (as with Purcell), but in more stylized music, the composer should not deliberately avoid unnatural stresses if the prosody of the poem and the emotional situation demand them, nor be afraid of a high-handed treatment of words which may need prolongation far beyond their common speech length, or a speed of delivery that would be impossible in conversation.
Now, though few would agree that English song was in such a poor state between Purcell and Britten, and though it would seem a mistake to condemn a different type of vocal writing for not doing what it was never intended to do, it is perfectly clear what Britten is implying. Comparison of his own beautiful canticle “Abraham and Isaac” with, say, Purcell’s “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation” shows a dramatic quality in common. In Purcell and others of the Restoration, such as Pelham Humfrey, this quality followed the lovely self-communing of the Lutenist composers. In just such a way Britten and others are following the less dramatic writing of the last hundred years. One style is not better than the other; their value is in their difference; neither are new conceptions and both will inevitably flower again and again, one after the other, for the continual refreshment of the spirit. These two schools of thought recur in different centuries. In a characteristic Lutenist song such as Dowland’s ‘Time Stands still’*, with the singer himself playing the lute, there is an intimate self-communing. Not all Lutenist songs were meditative, but their style is in extreme contrast to violence and dramatic expostulation. But a characteristic Purcell song, such as ‘Sweeter than Roses’*, with its word-painting, its range of mood, has an intensely dramatic quality. What would be today’s parallel to the mind of the Lutenists? The murmuring of Van Dieren? Perhaps a better example would be a little-known early Vaughan Williams song, - “The Sky above the Roof“*. And a parallel to Purcell? An extract from Tippett’s A Midsummer Marriage gives as good an idea as any of the brilliance, freedom, and vitality mentioned by Britten. Clearly Archbishop Cranmer’s maxim, that one should never use two notes to a syllable when one would do, cannot hold good here. Cranmer’s aim was to achieve clarity; Tippett’s an ecstatic, spring-like emotion. Who shall say that one is right and the other is wrong?
It must be admitted that clarity of words disappears immediately choral texture becomes contrapuntal. No-one can hear the words of a four or five-part chorus once it ceases to be homophonic, yet the sensitive composer will not be any the more careless in setting them. Indeed, he is well aware that the choral singer gets pleasure from singing well-placed words even if they cannot be heard by the audience. History is full of attempts to restore clarity to choral music, and of equal attempts to enlarge the bounds of emotional experience by means of complexity. What about the fitting of words to pre-existing music? Here, words play no part in the conception of the music, which already has a life of its own. Straightforward metrical words are often fitted to familiar tunes, in the way that Cecil Spring Rice’s “I vow to thee, my country” was fitted to Holst’s tune from Jupiter. And what else is The Beggar’s Opera but a collection of such fittings? Or again, in the eighteenth century, the Rev. William Felton, Prebendary of Hereford and composer of some thirty concertos, wrote a charming little theme and variation in his first Set of Concertos. The theme became popular. According to Chappell, it was played by Charles Stuart’s troops on quitting Manchester in 1745; also when the unfortunate Manchester youth, Jemmie Dawson, was led to the scaffold in 1746. About the same time the ‘The Song made on the Peace’ words were written to it, and printed with the music, which by this time was known as “Farewell Manchester”. Today young examinees still play the tune known as Felton’s Gavotte and the words are forgotten.
There are, however, times when it is impossible to feel the fitness of words applied to music, and it is without any disrespect to a great composer that one instances Elgar’s “In Moonlight“* as a really horrible example. Here was a tune from In the South which caught the popular fancy and was later fitted to Shelley’s words. “Fitted” is hardly accurate. “Unwillingly forced” would be nearer the mark. Lines are repeated, accents misplaced. When the words cannot be made to fit, as in “starlight of Heaven”, the com poser writes “Commodo” and the singer is supposed, in the immortal words of Percy Grainger, to “linger lots.” In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the under laying of words to music that was “apt for voice or viol” was part of the musician’s craft. In his tribute to Joquin Desprez, Coclico declares that his method of teaching included a grounding in singing, good enunciation and how to fit the text to music. Note that it was not music to the text. Underlaying was not a vague or random procedure, even though the composer might leave the copyist to fill in the words. Whether the words were Latin, or the more consonantal English, the principles employed were the same as in setting music to words. As R. O. Morris expounded, “a note which is either preceded or followed (and still more strongly, one that is both preceded and followed) by notes of smaller value than itself, tends to have the force of an accent.” In short, accentuated words were given to longer notes; and that is a principle a composer normally applies by instinct or reason, when setting words to music.
Later it was common for a composer to transfer his music from one text to another. J. S. Bach, perhaps pressed for time, thought nothing of taking a secular chorus (from BWV 215) and turning it into the ‘Hosanna’ of the B Minor Mass. Indeed, many movements of that work are adapted from earlier cantatas. The lovely ‘Agnus Dei’* had its origins in the aria ‘Ah, tarry yet, my dearest Saviour’* in Lobot Gott in seinin Reichen. In England no one indulged in this practice more than Handel. If he was not adapting his own movements, he was stealing someone else’s. The familiar case of Israel in Egypt, in which so many movements are adapted, or taken bodily, from Stradella, Erba, and his own works, is but one example. The double chorus “He led them through the deep” is his Dixit Dominus of thirty years earlier. But Handel, in spite of some miracles where perfect inflection produced perfect expression (‘Total eclipse’ in Sampson, is an example) was not particularly sensitive to English, which was, after all, not his native language. Even the devoted Burney does not hesitate to point out “Handel’s uncertainty in whatsoever concerned the accent and pronunciation of our language.“
Again, elsewhere Burney points out that Handel makes a monosyllable of cryeth, that he allows one note to the word Glory and treats surely as tri-syllable. In fact, says Burney, “this great master, with all his musical riches and fertility of invention, was frequently obliged to be economical in his compositions as well as in his affairs: and, when he was pressed for time he often applied words to music, instead of music to words; taking from its niche, or his portfolio, a movement already composed.” Burney might have added other people’s niches and portfolios as well. This procedure seems quite reasonable, a sort of craftsmanly carpentry which can be made to work, when done with skill and judgement, and with the listener’s imagination directed into the right channel. This part played by the listener may be illusion, but it is of tremendous importance. I was once walking on the Cornish cliffs on a warm Sunday summer’s day. A distant bell added to the peace. Suddenly I turned the edge of the cliff and realized that the bell came from a buoy marking one of the most dangerous rocks on our coast. Instantly it became a sinister sound. So the listener’s imagination accepts the illusion through the association of ideas.
Strictly speaking, translation has nothing to do with the subject of the composer and words, for the fitting of strange sounds to the composer’s music is done by someone else. There is no answer to this problem. Verbal language and musical language are closely paralleled; both use symbols and both are subject to changing idioms, and though music cannot express concrete images, it expresses generalized emotions, which are understood and felt by those who understand its language. But to say, as is so often repeated, that music knows no boundaries is soon exposed as a fallacy when we hear music which uses a vocabulary we do not understand, as for instance, in the case of Chinese music, of African native music. The listener may feel keen interest, but it cannot be with the same understanding as would be the case it he were Chinese or African. Now words only add to this difficulty. They are even more limited in their appeal than music. Interchange is essential, but who can say for one minute that he is hearing what the composer wrote. Even the most subtle translation of a song gives no idea of what the composer felt when the original words stimulated him. Imagine hearing one of our most familiar choral works Blest Pair of Sirens*, sung in German or Italian - both translation were printed during Parry’s lifetime. But could he have felt any relation between those noble phrases which so faultlessly arise out of the English words and the nonsense syllables to which they are there mated? No; there is no answer. Composer and poet are misused when they are translated and the listener is misused when he has to listen to words he does not understand. Even the most devoted and skilful translations fail to solve the problem. A study of the Fox-Strangways and Steuart Wilson translations of Schubert’s songs show a minute care for words, inflections and sense. Such things are a good compromise, but we must conveniently forget that had Schubert been given them as texts, there would have been no song.
And so, ‘in my end is my beginning’. At the start I said that few final conclusions could be drawn about anything. We may admire a composer whose songs are acutely responsive to language, and yet find that Brahms had plenty of lapses in his setting of words. We may smile at Yeats for his objection to accompaniment in song, and yet remember that Dr. Burney said “in a solo composed and performed by a great Master the less the accompaniment is heard the better.” We may be moved by lyrical intensity and at the same time realize how much is lost through a lack of dramatic intensity. Some consider that words are of no consequence and others believe them to be the mainspring of song. We have composers whose preference is for syllabic writing, and others who are happier with melismatic writing. We have endless polarities, in themselves neither right nor wrong. Above all, we have that change of idiom and fashion which make the delights of one generation the boredom of the next. All appreciation of art implies a widening of apprehension; the more we reduce our appreciation the more we narrow our boundaries. When Henry Vaughan wrote:
All creatures that were favourites of day
Are with the sun retired and gone away,
While feral birds send forth unpleasant notes,
And night, the nurse of thoughts, sad thoughts promotes.
He gave a good picture of those living with the idiom of their early days and finding discordance in all new things around them. Had it been possible to absorb new idioms, or at least to understand them, there would have been no feeling of night replacing day. In exactly the same way the new tends to reject the immediate past, forgetting that the new, like the old, has its mediocrities as well as its glories. It needs an understanding of style to be able to distinguish one from the other, the recognition that the idiom is secondary to the man who uses it - that men are great or small not according to their language, but according to their stature. We are all born into the language of our day, and to rediscover an old one, or to absorb a new one, may need mental effort and the discarding of prejudices. But whether forwards of backwards, every addition brings an enrichment.
In music, as in everything, the future is incalculable. Even to Burney, at the end of the eighteenth century, with his widely ranging mind, it was impossible to conceive of a Wagner, Sibelius, Elgar, Stravinsky of Bartok. The old assumption, from which the nineteenth century in particular suffered, that a composer who used four trumpets instead of three was the greater for it, and one who used six greater still, has, one hopes, been long exploded. Size is not related to progress, and the benefits of the violin and the piano forte do not entirely outweigh the loss of the viol and harpsichord. Economic and social conditions may yet displace the pianoforte as a domestic instrument, as they did the harp and the lute. Electronic instruments may displace the whole of our musical structure: it is not outside the bounds of possibility. Of one thing we can be certain; what Hanslick called “the morganatic marriage of words and music” is the least destructible of all musical elements. The marriages may be happy or unhappy, but, as surely as birds must sing, so long as words exist and man is capable of feeling, there will be song.