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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Words and Music

Here are three relations between words and music:

1) In a folksong, one simply accepts that that melody goes with those words. In other words, we don't think of someone finding a poem called "London Bridge is Falling Down" and then setting it to music.

2) In collaborative ventures, we think of the composer and lyricist working together. The words or music could come first; it doesn't really matter. Take "Stardust." It was an instrumental first, and then someone wrote a lyric for it. But our reception of it doesn't depend on whether the melody or lyrics came first. Sometimes the composer and lyricist is the same person.  Once again, it doesn't matter whether we think of music or words as prior, since in practice we often don't even know or care. As in (1) we don't think of the music as a setting of a text already existing on its own.

3) But in settings of poetry that already exists apart from music, we do think of the words as having an absolute priority, not just in time, factually, but at a deeper level. We think of a composer approaching a text and giving it a new dimension that it didn't have before, transforming it from poem to song. This seems fundamentally different from (1) and (2).

The difference is in the kind of questions we ought to be asking.  I would contend that the sort of questions we ask when considering how Faur√© treats Baudelaire are rather different than those we might ask when discussing the collaboration between R. Rodgers and L. Hart in the process that produced "My Funny Valentine." We don't think about what musical treatment RR gave to an existing poem written by LH, or even vice-versa. We could still analyze how the music works with the words, etc...

This is not a judgment about quality in the least.  Many art songs in the classical tradition might be dull, and not up to the standards of Richard Rodgers. Hart wrote brilliant lyrics that are better than most so-called poetry of the same period.

So the problem of Lorca: he comes out of tradition (1), but we must approach musical treatments of his work using analytical tools based on (3).

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