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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The sabbatical continues

Lorca: The Musical Imagination belongs to a select genre of studies of the musical legacies of major literary figures. Books of this type are few in number, in part because most writers—even canonical ones—have not inspired enough music to justify an entire monograph. What is more, apart from a few older works on Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller, the genre is of relatively recent vintage, arising out of the interdisciplinary field of “word and music studies” beginning in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Typically, such books will be categorized in the Library of Congress system under subject headings like “Baudelaire, Charles—musical settings—history and criticism.” 
Recent books—some monographs and others edited collections—have been devoted to the musical afterlives of Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Paul Celan, and Samuel Beckett—a group including only writers of great literary prestige. Samuel Beckett and Music (1998), edited by Mary Bryden, includes treatment of various aspects of Beckett’s involvement in music and collaboration with composers. Walt Whitman and Modern Music: War, Desire, and the Trials of Nationhood (2000) edited by Lawrence Kramer, is oriented toward issues of national formation. In Still Sounds: In and Around the Poetry of Paul Celan, Axel Englund focuses on Celan’s deep ambivalence toward “musicality,” examining the complex metaphorical relations between music and poet). In Baudelaire in Song (2018), Helen Abbott is more interested in prosody and the technical details of text setting. She includes, for example, charts about how composers have treated the mute vowel sound e
These volumes do not all employ the same methodologies, nor do they address identical issues. I take this variety of approaches to mean that the critical problems at issue in musical adaptations will depend upon who the writer being studied, how he or she has been set to music, and the proclivities of the interpreters. My own approach to musical settings of the work of Lorca is not directed to musicologists, but to readers of literature with an interest in music. To this end, I will pay close attention to the music itself, but without the sort of technical details that might alienate a large proportion of my potential readers. Since I am an amateur jazz pianist and songwriter rather than a trained musicologist, I am not tempted by such an approach anyway. My main concern, rather, is with the various meanings this music has acquired in its creation, performance, and reception.
In this book I will treat the meaning of a piece of music as contextual. In simplistic terms, I will assume that a piece of music means exactly what the listener thinks it does. Musical meaning is not the province of professional interpreters, but of all listeners. In this respect, at least, musical meaning is somewhat analogous to the concept meaning in literary theory. In vocal music, musical meanings will be closely tied to verbal ones.  Just as the title of a purely abstract painting might strongly condition our interpretation it, the lyrics of a song provide the context for interpreting the song as a whole. There is certain asymmetry, then, between musical and verbal meanings: music is emotionally powerful but semantically diffuse; words have more definite meanings, even when language itself is considered a less artistically expressive medium music.
Discussions of the meaning of music tend to be literary in nature, in part because they take place in a verbal medium. The remark sometimes falsely attributed to Frank Zappa that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” ignores the fact that language is capable of discoursing about anything at all. From this perspective, the idea that music is ineffable—untranslatable by verbal means—is an unpromising point of departure. This does not mean that a verbal description or interpretation can stand in for a piece of music, or that music is paraphrasable. What is does mean is that we use language to discuss our interpretations of music. This effect is even stronger, of course, when the music in question is already explicitly linked to a work of literature: in interpreting musical meaning, we tend to turn first to the words of the song or to the narrative structure of the opera. The process, then, involves the interpretation, in language, of the musical interpretation of another verbal object, such as a poem or play.    
A focus on the interactions between musical and poetic meanings can shed light on the cultural reception of a poet, like Lorca, who has inspired music in a wide variety of contexts. In cases where a poet has not inspired very much music, the insight gained into his or her reception might be relatively meager. With Lorca, however, there is a large enough corpus to allow for generalizations about the larger patterns of resonance in his musical afterlife—broader tendencies that reveal why Lorca is such a pivotal figure, not just in Spanish literature, but also in other cultural contexts. What, then, are the issues at stake in Lorca’s musical legacy? Lorca, I will argue, is an object of desire for musicians precisely because of his relation to forms of Spanish vernacular music that have long been enveloped in a mystique. 

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