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(Up)Setting Whitman

(Up)Setting Whitman - Jeremy Siskind(Up)Setting Whitman I...

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Jeremy Siskind May 13, 2009 (Up)Setting Whitman I. Unbeaten Paths Setting the poetry of Walt Whitman challenges composers in different ways than working with the verse of his predecessors because Whitman’s poetry resists the metrical and formal structures that organize earlier poets’ work. How does a composer approach a poem in which the number of accents and syllables in each line are constantly in flux? Before approaching this question, one must consider how a composer sets a regularly- metered poem to music. Surprisingly few treatises, however, detail how a composer translates the rhythms of words into musical rhythms. This portion of the paper will briefly examine why writers have produced such a dearth of theory with regard to setting metrical poetry. The tension between the structures of music and poetry reveals several reasons why theorists don’t create generalized models for combining them. Hart Crane refers to art song as “transmemberment,” in his Voyages III, a coinage joining “transformation” and “dismemberment,” which captures the violence done to both arts when attempting combination (Kramer, 125). Two main areas of conflict make the relationship between music and poetry uncomfortable: practical differences and differences in how they create meaning. In functional terms, the two forms have dissimilar tendencies in declamation of accents, location of climax, utilization of repetition, speed of declamation, and types of phrasing. Many composers complain that the two are inevitably at odds: in order to synthesize a logical musical product, one must violate the poetry, while in order to retain
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the beauty of the poetry, one must sacrifice the logic of the music. Particularly relevant to this discussion, the rhythms of speech native to poetry differ greatly from the rhythms that lend themselves to music. Richard Wagner, who wrote his own text rather than collaborating with a librettist, bemoans an unavoidable choice between “declaiming the text in strict accordance with the accent of daily speech and common sense” and “subjecting the words to certain dance-rhythms, giving free rein to melodic invention” (Wagner, 118). Other composers tend to agree; Ned Rorem, for example, complains that a poem must be destroyed and reincarnated to become a song and composer Gustav Mahler claims that “a good song is of necessity a badly declaimed one” (Coronotti, 4, Brown, 12). Poets, such as Robert Bridges, have bemoaned the arts’ awkward relation; Bridges believes that “declamation can only make [his poems] ugly.” (Bridges, 3). These types of conflicts are reflected in the history of Goethe settings. Austrian composer Franz Schubert, widely recognized as the great master of German art song, famously set Goethe’s poetry in Der Wintereisse , which has become one of the most beloved song cycles in musical history. Goethe, however, disliked Schubert’s compositions because he alters the poetry’s form in order to create a musically satisfying product. Goethe preferred the declamation of Karl Friederich Zelter, which places
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(Up)Setting Whitman - Jeremy Siskind(Up)Setting Whitman I...

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