Obviously, I’m not the only person to have strong feelings about the relationship between words and music! So I thought that it would be nice to hear from other people throughout the festival about their own ideas and experiences. I’ve asked some singers to write down their ideas, as well as some conductor colleagues; over the next few weeks, I’ll share their thoughts with you.
I’m kicking off this series with Martha Hollander, an alto in Dessoff, who is uniquely positioned to talk about the both words and music. She is a poet (as is her father, John Hollander), and has been singing for most of her life. Martha is also an art historian who specializes in 17th century Dutch art; you can read more about her in her biography from Hofstra University, where she teaches: http://www.hofstra.edu/Faculty/fac_profiles.cfm?id=681. I can attest to her expertise; when we were in Mexico City last June, she provided outstanding advice on my purchase of a Mexican landscape painting!
What I HADN’T known is that Martha is descending from musical theater ‘royalty’! What a cool connection. Here it is, in Martha’s words… enjoy!
I can’t remember a time when I haven’t either sung or listened to singing. When I was a kid, my parents sang me to sleep with Renaissance duets, folk songs, protest songs, and silly parodies from their childhoods. They taught me to sightsing, and we’d read through madrigal books. On long car trips, we’d run through everything we knew. (My sister and I had our specialty: we’d sing the entire first two sides of the Beatles’ White Album from the back seat.)
When my great-uncle Frank Loesser died, we inherited a box of sheet music, mostly show tunes and old parlor-songs. My father and I would muddle through them: he played, I sang. What we lacked in skill we made up for in enthusiasm.
Being immersed in this stuff, and as a reader and writer of poems, I feel that singing can’t help being a kind of conversation – not just with other performers, or an audience, but also between the words and music. Singing wordsis doing them justice. And isn’t that what setting a text is – to do it justice, to interpret it in some way beyond just reading it to yourself, or aloud? Not just an analogy to the text, but a reinvention?
I often try to imagine what a setting of a poem would be like. How do composers do it? I’m fascinated by the way they take ideas, chunks of texts, rhythms and sounds, and remake them. What prompts them to set the poem in the first place? Do they follow or ignore the line breaks? Rhymes, if any? How do they “translate” mood and atmosphere?
I especially like settings that veer away from the obvious, but find other parallels. For example, achingly sad texts are often set in major keys. Having sung Ricky Ian Gordon’s subtle setting of Langston Hughes’ ”Luck,” I’m especially struck by the ending: “To some people/Love is given,/To others,/Only heaven.” For all its gentleness, Gordon’s music keeps very tight and tense, on slightly “off” unresolved chords that invite us to hear the ambiguity of the text: is love better than heaven? Here’s a sensual version for three singers, performed by Sherry Boone, Theresa Hamm Smith and Michael Lofton.
Then there’s the reverse, in a totally different character: Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. In “Dirge,” the repetitive stanzas of a medieval poem are set to an identical melody each time, as in a traditional ballad, but the accompaniment constantly shifts––feverish strings; horn suddenly roaring in at Stanza 6––reinventing the melody into a new harmonic, and emotional, entity. Fittingly, the piece begins and ends a cappella: practically a textbook example of what to do with a repetitive text. (This is the superb 1964 recording I grew up with, sung by Peter Pears, with Barry Tuckwell on the horn.)
Sometimes words can rhyme on the page, but sound entirely different when sung. Frank’s setting of his own lyrics for “My Time of Day,” from Guys and Dolls, sounds almost like a through-composed, single utterance, flowing naturally from the dialogue just preceding it. Here’s Peter Gallagher, from the 1992 revival, singing, and speaking, to Josie de Guzman.
This isn’t strictly poetry…but I couldn’t resist.