On Music and Language

Music’s love affair with language is an intense one – or rather, it ought to be. The old adages about the perfect marriage between music and text – “the words must serve the music,” “prima la musica, poi le parole,” etc. – reek of a certain outdated marital attitude. The relationship, at its best, has never been master-and-servant. It is a dynamic bond. The words and the music must put pressure on one another – they must be a little wary of one another,
and each recognize the other’s power, before they embrace.

"The words and the music must put pressure on one another – they must be a little wary of one another, and each recognize the other’s power, before they embrace."

The tricky thing about writing both music and text for a piece is that you have to treat yourself separately as a writer and as a composer. You have to hone the two crafts such that your voice pours with equal facility through both media because – inseparable as they are in the piece’s final form – they are distinct tasks, and writing words cannot be merely preparatory. I think some people find some Wagner monotonous and bloated because of the very quality he bragged most about: his operas are Total Works of Art, and the music and words Totally Pour From The Same Mouth. Great as the music is, there’s no productive tension between music and text – it’s one big Song of Himself.

My musicopoetic dream team is Stravinsky and Auden, the co-creators of the opera The Rake’s Progress (Chester Kallman worked on the libretto too, but the rhythms are unmistakably Auden’s). Auden’s rhythmic power is bedrock-deep, and Stravinsky’s music has a quip-like precision: the chemical admixture of their voices sparkles with such compound eloquence that Rake, of all operas I know, seems to be in its own medium.

Because Auden is a great, musically-aware poet whose work has an inescapable rhythm, and because Stravinsky’s music has its own sympathetic yet distinct rhythm, each sung phrase consists of an organic polyrhythm. That is, we hear Auden’s characteristic motion, which is inherent in the words, but we hear it filtered through Stravinskian motion. Auden serves up jewel-like verbal miniatures, usually in standard verse forms, and Stravinsky pours light through them at astonishing angles. It’s like looking at a Picasso portrait: the impact of his colorings and shapings depends on our mental library of classical portraiture. When we see a Picasso, we unconsciously see what he did not do, and so perceive the accuracy with which he extended depictive techniques. The “classical” rhythms of Auden’s poetry serve this function in Rake: they are occluded but fundamental, like downbeats that no one happens to play on but which the conductor must show to keep the orchestra in place. If it’s sung right, we hear a thrilling double undulation in every line, a constructive rhythmic interference. It’s the sound of two great voices, each working in his medium, fused in the composite art of sung speech.

“If it’s sung right” – that’s a huge “if.” According to a colleague who worked with Stravinsky late in his life, the composer begged singers not to let Rake’s rhythmic leaps and landings lead them to mispronounce the text. The temptation is to pronounce the text as the music seems to demand, rather than as the poetry does demand, and this has led many opera buffs, and no less a musical theater master than Stephen Sondheim, to call Rake awkward, obscurantist, unwieldy. Far from it: Stravinsky’s English-setting has an uncanny, Nabokovian clarity. Let’s take the opening scene, a pastoral love duet. Auden’s text for the virginal Anne Trulove (who, according to Auden, “would be a terrible bore to have to sit next to at dinner, but to whom onstage all is forgiven”) is in plainspoken iambic pentameter:

The woods are green, and bird and beast at play
For all things keep this festival of May

If you let the music’s basic gestures dictate the pronunciation, the line sounds clunky and garbled: “THE woods ARE green, AND bird and BEASTatplay…”. But try having it both ways. Sing Stravinsky’s rhythms as written, but make an effort to subtly emphasize the text as you would were you simply reading the poetry aloud. That is, use the words to put a little reciprocal pressure on the music. Suddenly the line is airborne. The mutual internal tension yields a shy glimmer, a just-restrained eagerness – and a subtle sense that Anne is blushing at her own joy at spring’s lascivious greenness. Those few drops of sweet musical sap, and the sense that the line fluently navigates a running river, can be achieved only if the performer is negatively capable: the rhythm and shape of the whole is neither Auden’s nor Stravinsky’s, but an organic compound.

Once you’re aware of the Rake effect, you notice that it isn’t actually the result of Stravinsky’s gestural angularity – sure, it’s more obvious in Stravinsky than in most other music, but it’s just as present in, say, Verdi, another master of musicolinguistic thermodynamics. Unlike Wagner, his contemporary, Verdi always demanded the counterpoint of another voice to write his libretti. He ordered his librettists around mercilessly and often practically sculpted the text himself – but, at the final stage, he required a voice not his own to crystallize the words into a form not his own. He needed a rhythm he could push back against.

And Verdi’s pressure sets his usually-just-serviceable words alight. What is that pressure? For one thing, in Verdi, the music and the text are rarely in the same time signature. (An aside: poems have time signatures. I think that musical notation is a far fuller, freer and more accurate way of discussing poetic motion than the impoverished standard vocabulary of meter is – but that’s a subject for another essay.) To pick an example at random, the beginning of La Traviata features a verse form with the rhythm of the Mexican hat dance:

Dell’invito trascorsa è già l’ora:
Voi tardaste!
Giocammo da Flora
E giocando quell’ore volar’…

The words are in 12/8, a triplet-based meter, but Verdi’s music is in 2/4. The words’ circular motion subtly counteracts the music’s rapid-fire oom-pahs, and the lines skip giddily along.

It is possible for a single artist to achieve the enticing dissonance of words and music whose desires don’t quite align. But it’s very rare. The best recent example might be Thom Yorke of Radiohead, whose lyrics, on the page, have the Cummings-esque quality of thoughts shyly inscribed into silence. They’re fragmentary transmissions, little clarities within a huge static. You can hear how fragile the radio signal is that brings us these lines – you sense that the tiniest nudge of the dial would scatter them back into space:

i might be wrong
i could have sworn i saw a light
coming on

i used to think
there was no future left at all
i used to think

But set them to music, and they leap up and stretch across the sky. These dense little lines erupt into the most memorable bel canto melodies of our time: “Airbag,” “No Surprises,” “Pyramid Song,” “There There” – this is long-breathing lyricism at its finest. The music makes palpable the whirring, burning, staticky space out of which the lyrics seem to have come, the space which surrounds and swallows up the words on the page. The cognitive dissonance one feels at a Radiohead concert – how can such vast musical spaces feel so intimate? – stems from the relationship between the lyrics’ reluctant eloquence and the music’s interstellar span.