April is National Poetry Month! The website poets.org says, "in this time of uncertainty and great concern, we can rely on poems to offer wisdom, uplifting ideas, and language that prompts reflection that can help us slow down and center mentally, emotionally, spiritually."
The same is true for music, which has always partnered well with poetry. But is one more important than the other? This very question has been explored in music.
Richard Strauss — ‘String Sextet from “Capriccio’”” — Artemis Quartet
In the opera "Capriccio" by Richard Strauss, a poet and composer both court a countess who is asked to decide which she prefers, music or poetry. She cannot decide because each is important and, when paired, they are equally interdependent and magical. This is the Sextet that opens "Capriccio," serving not only as the opera Overture but itself as a central part of the story. It's the fictional composer's new work that, after it plays and the curtain of "Capriccio" rises, inspires debate among the onstage characters.
Claude Debussy — “L'Après-midi d’un faune” — Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado
Earlier, Claude Debussy faced the question of music and poetry with one of his most famous works, the "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" ("L’Aprés-midi d’un faune") after the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé.
The poet held a weekly salon where artists discussed the nature of art, including the value of the then current "Symbolist" movement which rejected realism in favor of dreamy evocations. Debussy attended these gatherings and the discussions may have influenced him to compose his piece as equally dreamy and imaginative as the Mallarmé poem. Despite his reluctance for any composer to translate his poetry into a narrative work, Mallarmé wrote to Debussy after hearing the piece to say that he was very pleased.
Faun, illusion escapes from the blue eye,
Cold, like a fount of tears, of the most chaste…
Ralph Vaughan Williams — “Serenade to Music” — London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote two of classical music's most beautiful pieces inspired by poetry: "Serenade to Music" and "The Lark Ascending.” The first was inspired by a scene from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" in which lovers Jessica and Lorenzo sit along the riverbank under the moonlight and discuss the nature of music. Lorenzo declares that any man who is not moved by the beauty of music must not be trusted:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stategems, and spoils…
Ralph Vaughan Williams — “The Lark Ascending” — New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult; Hugh Bean, violin
"The Lark Ascending" was also inspired by a poem, written in 1881 by English poet George Meredith. The poem and the music evoke the bucolic English countryside that in both the poet's and the composer's times was disappearing. In Meredith’s day it was being lost to environmental damage of the industrial revolution and Vaughan Williams was aware that its peace was about to be lost to World War I.
Each work suggests a sad nostalgia for a simpler time uncomplicated by the troubles of man. Vaughan WIlliams wrote the music originally for piano and violin in 1914. After the war in 1920, he orchestrated it into the beloved work that more than once was voted Britain's favorite piece of music.
For singing till his heaven fills,
'Tis love of earth that he instils…
George Butterworth - “A Shropshire Lad (Rhapsody for Orchestra)” - English Sinfonia/Neville Dilkes
In a similar vein, a friend of Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, composed music inspired by the poems of English poet A.E. Houseman from his collection "A Shropshire Lad."
These 63 poems feature what some say is a pessimistic view of unhappy love, fleeting youth and premature death that George Orwell observed appealed to the sentimental emotions of youthful readers. Houseman's collection became a bestseller and composers set many of his poems to music.
Butterworth set 11 of Houseman's "Shropshire" poems in two suites. Later, he composed an instrumental epilogue to the series called "A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody for Orchestra" which quotes his earlier setting of two of the poems, "With Rue My Heart is Laden" and "Loveliest of Trees." The latter points to the brevity of life by marking how few opportunities in life one has to view springtime cherry blossoms.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Ernest Farrar - “Song of the Open Road” - Philharmonia Orchestra/Alasdair Mitchell
Another friend of Vaughan Williams (and a casualty of WWI), English composer Ernest Farrar created many choral settings of poetry, including poems by Shakespeare. In 1909 he composed the instrumental "Song of the Open Road," inspired by the Walt Whitman poem of the same name. While Whitman's poem depicts an American landscape, Englishman Farrar's music has a distinct Celtic feel, yet both convey a robust and pastoral sense of the great outdoors and the adventure and opportunity to be found there.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose...
Paul Dukas - “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” - Orchestre du Capitole De Toulouse/Michel Plasson
In 1940 Walt Disney created an animated sequence set to the music of Paul Dukas which itself was an interpretation of a poem by Goethe. In "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence of the movie "Fantasia," Mickey Mouse attempts some of the Sorcerer's magic with disastrous results. The 1897 symphonic poem by the French composer was inspired by the 1797 poem "Der Zauberlehrling" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Gone's for once the old magician
With his countenance forbidding;
I'm now master,
All his ghosts must do my bidding.
Valerie Coleman — “Danse africaine” — McGill/McHale Trio
By age 14, Louisville, Kentucky native Valerie Coleman had already composed three symphonies and as a performer won several major competitions. She is the founder of the quintet Imani Winds, from which she has recently retired as flutist, and was recently named MPR's Classical Woman of the Year. Each of the six-movements of her suite “Portraits of Langston” is the musical contemplation of a poem by Langston Hughes. And with this suite we have yet a different method of combining poetry and music: a reading of the poem is intended to precede performance of the corresponding movement.
The low beating of the tom-toms,
The slow beating of the tom-toms,
Low . . . slow
Slow . . . low —
Stirs your blood.
For her recording with the McGill/McHale Trio, Coleman enlisted actor Mahershala Ali as the reader.
Here’s her setting of “Danse africaine:”
So as the website poets.org says of poetry so it is also true that music "prompts reflection that can help us slow down and center mentally, emotionally, spiritually." And we’re here for you with music to help you do just that.
Looking for more music from CapRadio? Listen to our full Classical Favorites playlist here: