Poetry in Song

The marriage of poetry and song has a history that goes to the very origin of poetry, when traveling entertainers recited epic poems in song and often set the news and tales of events of the day to music. Although melody originally was meant to assist in memorization and the enhancement of details of an event, there are many poets since that time who have confided that their words have lived only “half a life” until set to music. Some types of poetry demonstrate especially well a lyrical and musical quality to the sound and rhythm of particular words, and many poets strive for an over-arching melodic cadence to their literary endeavors. Such efforts are thus natural sources for musical settings.

During the 19 th century the focus of musical treatment of poetry was to help delve into the psychological implications of the text and to provide another dimension to aid understanding of that text. Then in the late 20 th and now 21 st centuries many composers began to represent in music not only the literal meaning of the word, but also the flow and feel of the word’s sound in addition to its meaning. There has developed an increased awareness that music is able to express far more than is possible through speech and text alone.

This evening’s “Poetry in Song” program presents several different approaches to the wedding of poetry and song. In Randall Thompson’s Frostiana Suite we have the very simple and straightforward text of Robert Frost, one of America’s leading poets, set in a likewise simple and straightforward musical manner by one of America’s leading composers of choral music. In juxtaposition to that example we have the poetry of Dylan Thomas, rich in imagery and musical qualities, set by the more harmonically adventuresome composer John Corigliano.

Frostiana is a suite of Seven Country Songs on poems of Robert Frost and was first performed in 1958 for the 200 th Anniversary of the incorporation of the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. Randall Thompson (1896-1984)took an academic and eclectic approach to his composition. Born in New York City, he studied at Harvard University and the American Academy in Rome. He held numerous university teaching positions, including Princeton, Wellesley College, Curtis Institute, Harvard, and University of Virginia. His style is deliberate and straightforward. All his major works are very different from one another, but most do incorporate American idioms. Thompson’s success as a choral writer resulted in many commissions from schools, churches, and communities. Perhaps his most familiar works are Symphony #2, Frostiana Suite, and The Peaceable Kingdom.

Fern Hill‘s composer, John Corigliano, was winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Symphony No. 2and continues to be internationally celebrated as one of the leading composers of his generation. He was born into a musical family in New York on 16 February, 1938. His father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic from 1943 to 1966 and his mother an accomplished pianist. John Corigliano presently holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York, and in 1991 was named to the faculty of the Juilliard School. Also in 1991 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, an organization of 250 of America’s most prominent artists, sculptors, architects, writers, and composers. In 1992 Musical America named him their first “Composer of the Year.”

In 1959 Corigliano was introduced to the poems of Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet whose mastery of imagery in both meaning and sound of the word is unchallenged. The musical qualities of Dylan’s poetry are readily apparent, and Thomas’ own words reinforce this fact:

“What the words stood for, symbolized, or meant was of very secondary importance;

what matters was the sound of them…and these words,,,were as the notes of bells, the

sounds of musical instruments.”

Corigliano was irresistibly drawn to try to translate Thomas’ words into the musician’s composition. He was captivated by Fern Hill, about the poet’s “young and easy” summers at his family’s farm of the same name.

Corigliano writes: “Fern Hill is a blithe poem, yet touched by darkness; time rules over

all, finally holding the poet ‘green and dying.’ But the poem itself, formally just an

ABA song extended into a wide arch, sings of the joy of youth and its keen perceptions.

I set it for mezzo-soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra, aiming in the music to match the

forthright lyricism of the text. (The direction ‘with simplicity’ is often to be found in the

printed score.) This was the first time that I set a poem of Dylan Thomas’ when I was,

emotionally at least, the same age as its creator.”

The Shakespeare selections demonstrate the wit, satire, and romance of the poet in varied musical settings ranging from the Romanian Gyorgy Orban and his contemporary, Swedish composer Nils Lindberg to the well-known Briton John Rutter. It is intriguing to consider how such a disparate group of composers with varied cultural backgrounds and harmonic styles all approach the works of the ‘immortal bard’ with similar purpose. For example, the two selections from Twelfth Night—the 1964 setting by the American Arthur Frackenpohl and the treatment in 2002 by the Romanian Gyorgy Orban—both focus on rhythmic interaction and frivolity to reflect the text.

Contemporary Settings, the final musical selections to be heard tonight, present some of America’s composers whose music is in greatest demand by choirs throughout the world today. The compositions of Z. Randall Stroope, Eric Whitacre, and David Brunner are sought after both for commissioning and for performance. Their works and others included this evening demonstrate a new and highly developed sensitivity to the marriage of word and sound with great beauty and subtlety in harmonic language and vocal color. The words of one of these last songs echo the passion and commitment of the vocalists on stage: “I Am In Need of Music”—and in “Awakening”: LET MUSIC LIVE!