words

In Jessi's recent post, she explains that she never liked classical music because "it doesn't have words." Oh dear, oh dear. Now of course I understand why she or anyone else who doesn't like classical music would say that. When you say "classical music," what pieces come to mind? Those greatest hits CDs usually have a lot of orchestral works like the 1812 Overture and Swan Lake and Beethoven's 5th (or 3rd or 9th) and the slow movement from Mozart's clarinet concerto - all great music, to be sure, but for a person who connects to music through words, I can see why the typical greatest hits don't cut it.

As a trained professional musician, I feel it is my duty, my obligation to change her mind, or at least try. There is a very sizable chunk of classical music in which words - we call it text - are the most important element. There's opera, of course. Opera is supposedly the ultimate art, the combination of music, drama, words and visual spectacle. But I'm not the biggest fan of opera (shhh! if I ever want to work as a vocal coach, I can't admit that out loud), so I'm going to start with art song.

I wrote my dissertation on text setting, so bear with me here. And know that I am capable of going on (and on and on) about this subject, so trust me when I say that what I've written below is very condensed.

Art song - lied in German, mélodie in French - is my absolute favorite genre. To me, a recital of song with a good singer is the most satisfying kind of performance I can give. To play vocal music well, you have to know both your part and the voice part so well you're living inside the music, inside the voice and inside the text. Unlike any other genre in classical music, art song is all about the words. Now, we could debate indefinitely about the relationship between text and music: does the music enhance the poetry? detract from it? Is there poetry so good and pure to begin with that setting it to music only dilutes it? Or does it make it stronger? The answers to these questions depend largely on the particular songs in question. Johannes Brahms, for example, purposefully chose what he considered inferior poetry to set so that the music could only improve it. Robert Schumann, a gifted writer as well as composer, was extremely particular about the poems he set. The texts in Schubert's lieder (he wrote about 600 total) run the gamut from mediocre to exquisite.

I know, I know. Those are all dead German guys who had syphilis (well, maybe Brahms didn't.)

So how about this: I had the great honor of meeting and working with Ricky Ian Gordon a couple of years ago at Songfest. During one master class, Mr. Gordon (we called him "Ricky," actually) told us that when he finds a poem he likes, he commits it to memory, reciting it over and over, and lives with it in his head until he's figured out how to turn it into a song. Ricky is a composer of musical theatre, and all his music, even the art songs, have that music theatre sound. I have to admit I had to grow into his songs a little bit and learn to appreciate the intention behind his style. It's easy to listen to, not so easy to perform. Just because music isn't difficult to listen to doesn't make it any less artistic, if that makes sense.

All this brings me to a list. When I read about Jessi's love for words in a song, even a three-chord punk song, I asked myself what songs or song-cycles make the best use of their text? More importantly, what songs or song-cycles do so in a way that would be immediately accessible to a relatively non-musical person? I mean, one of my favorite all-time lied composers is Hugo Wolf, but a lot of his music would take some getting used to (with the one exception listed below). Now, Jessi is no slouch. Her college degree is in English literature (right, J?) so it's not like I'm dumbing this down intellectually. I'm just imagining what examples I would use in, say, a class called "Music Appreciation 101: Art Song."

1. Auch kleine Dinge by Hugo Wolf. I wrote about this song a few months ago, so I won't elaborate further.

2. Schubert's two most famous songs: Erlkönig and Gretchen am Spinnrade. Erlkönig is the quintessential German romantic song, with drama, nature and death. It's the story of a father racing through the snow with his sick child, the grim reaper biting at his heels; death wins, of course. Plenty of composers set the poem, but Schubert did it best with a devilish, hair-raising accompaniment full of octave triplets. Gretchen am Spinnrade is from Goethe's Faust. Gretchen, young, pregnant and abandoned by her lover, sits at her spinning wheel, mourning her loss and remembering his kiss. These two pieces are dramatic, effective text settings, and not at all subtle. Schubert was subtle, but not when he wrote these.

3. Fraueliebe und Leben by Robert Schumann. In English, the title is "A woman's life and love," and it's caused some problems in the feminist musical community. The songs tell the story of a woman falling in love, marrying the guy, having his child, then later in life, grieving his death. She gives herself to him. She is defined by him. You see the problem here. Now, I've got a whole 'nuther post about this cycle that has been brewing for a long time now (in fact, it's something I'd like to write more formally about), but I'll save it for later and say only this: give the cycle a chance. But first, get yourself a copy of the Hyperion recording of Graham Johnson (piano) and Juliane Banse (soprano) and before you listen to a single note, read Johnson's liner notes on the cycle. I heard him speak in person on the subject before he coached me and a singer on one of the songs, and it totally changed my thinking. Maybe this is a little too much work for someone trying to listen to this kind of thing for the first time, but if you appreciate literature, you'll be glad you went to the trouble.

Wow, that's a lot of German. How about something in English? If it's really the words you're after, you can always pick a poet and find text settings of his or her work. You'll find scads of settings of Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Walt Whitman, to mention a few. I'll just throw some out there.

4. Summer in Knoxville, by Samuel Barber. The text is from a James Agee novel, A Death in the Family. Barber actually set this for soprano and orchestra, but I've played the piano reduction. It's just good music. Listen to Dawn Upshaw sing it if you can.

5. Aaron Copland's songs to twelve poems by Emily Dickinson. There are gobs of Emily Dickinson settings out there, some good, some not. These are considered among the best.

6. Anything by Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer I mentioned above. His music is very accessible, very emotional, not at all esoteric. He sets good poetry, too.

7. The AIDS Quilt Songbook. That's a link to Amazon because I can't believe there's not a Wikipedia entry on this! Anyway, the book is a compilation from different composers. If you think classical music isn't relevant, listen to this collection and see if it changes your mind.

I can't believe I don't have anything French on this list! French songs are among my favorite to play, too. Maybe it's because French mélodies aren't as easy to grasp immediately and emotionally...though there's plenty of love and sex to be found. Some of those guys were downright dirty. I may have to think about that a little more, and this post is getting long enough, so perhaps I'll add some Required French Listening in a later post.

Now, here's the part where I beg (ha) for comments. I know musicians read this blog, including composers, singers, and other pianists. So I want your input! If you were teaching "Music Appreciation 101: Art Song" for people who don't like classical music (or think they don't), what would be on your list of listening assignments? Leave a comment!

Comments

Don't know if it counts as "Art Song" or not - in fact, it probably doesn't. But I love O, fortuna from Carmina Burana (sp?) by Carl Orff. Then again, I love all classical music - from the dark and creepy to the light and relaxing. When I was in college, I used to drive around campus with all windows and the sunroof open, blasting classical music. It was especially funny when I'd pull up next to the football players who happened to be blasting rap or hip hop out of their cars. The looks on their faces were priceless!
Andre said…
Great post, Suze. Just a couple thoughts.

Schubert's Winterreise. . the original emo music, comes immediately to mind. Songs by Britten (his setting of "The water is wide" for instance), Poulenc, and Messiaen are also great in the with the right musicians. Upshaw has a great recording called Voices of Light with a lot of wonderful French work. And I'm a big fan of composers Logan Skelton and Bill Bolcom as well.

And what about Sufjan Stevens, Rufus Wainwright, Tori Amos, Cohen, Ani DiFranco, even Radiohead or Gnarls Barkley? Art song probes the evanescence of being. . the highs and lows. . so I put them in as well. I'm weird like that. . =)

When working with a more traditional frame for art song, you may find that folks aren't so much into composers as they are into certain performers. Listeners to vernacular music often bond with performers, not composers, so if you're able to focus the teaching narrative around them- Upshaw, Quastoff, etc., folks often will more easily bond with them. They are the salespeople, not composers. . especially not in art song. That's my two cents. =)
Animal said…
Ditto Andre: great post! And, I'm glad that RIG was fun to work with; between you, me, and the fencepost, he's the chief composer we have our eyes on for our new music festival in Spring '10.

I just last week finished discussing Art Song, with the obligatory example of Erlkonig prominently featured in their book. I actually quite like a lot of Fanny Mendelssohn's songs: they're good because 1) well, tons of them are GOOD, and 2) I can help balance the male/female composer scales. We talk about Winterreise, which lets me get into song *cycles,* which I can then bring forward to the idea of the concept album, something that hits a little closer to home for them and makes the songs seem not quite so…artsy. We start with "Sgt. Peppers" (which John always claimed wasn't a concept album anyway), then move forward to ELO's "Eldorado," Pink Floyd's "The Wall," even Kiss' "Music from The Elder."

Shoot. I keep forgetting: I need to send you *my* song cycle for piano/mezzo. Hmm. I'll add that to my list. ;-)
Jessi said…
Wow, Suze, I really appreciate all this. I'm very excited to get started with my new adventure. I'm heading to the library tonight in search of some of this. I think I'll start with the English speakers just because I'm lazy like that.

I had no idea that this kind of thing existed. Which just goes to show... I'm not sure what it goes to show, but it does.

Andre - as pretty uneducated, here, I'm not sure what I have to say is relevant, but I totally agree with the performer vs. composer thing. For a lot of us, who aren't experienced, we're used to the concept of following a performer, but not so much a composer, or even songwriter. In the world of popular music (ooh, how I hate that term, but I don't know how else to differentiate.) songwriters have a limited bearing on the final product.
Steph said…
Ditto Dawn Upshaw. If you want a classical music performer to follow, she's the one.
Mrs. Allroro said…
Jessi, don't forget the Orff. It's latin, but mine came with translations for all the songs. That's one of my all time favorite CD's, Jenn!!
Pam said…
Yay for classical music with words! Some of my favorite music in the whole world. Actually, most of the music I like best in the world and through time is music for voice and small ensemble or one instrument. I like to draw a line from "Amarilli, mia bella" (Caccini) to "If Music Be the Food of Love" (Purcell) to "Du bist die Ruhe" (Schubert) to "Phydile" (Duparc) to "Heart, we will forget him" (Copland) to "Love will come to you" (Indigo Girls) to "You Were Meant For Me" (Jewel) to "Fix You" (Coldplay)... Notice the constant theme.
Pam said…
To clarify, I mean, I like to show my students (or anyone who is interested) how similar love songs are through the ages, not necessarily those particular songs.
Andre said…
Thanks for your words Jessi! Your wisdom and experience are worth *a great deal.* All my best with your new adventure!

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