Abbott Without Costello

Abbott Without Costello

What with all the recent hubbub on these pages over the importance of text in music, I imagine that many of you are desperately curious to know my thoughts on the matter. Today is your lucky Wednesday.

In the discussion of popular music with classical musicians, I often find myself confronted with the argument that the socially progressive message of groups like the Clash is undercut by the musical conservatism that characterizes its presentation. In other words, if one were to remove the lyrics from “Police and Thieves”—the Clash version or the Junior Murvin version, take your pick—one would have eliminated all or most of its progressive persuasiveness.

What if we excised the libretto from W. A. Mozart’s collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte? Doesn’t Leporello’s aria “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” trade on the somewhat perverse relationship between words and music? What if we bowdlerized the lyrics of “Se vuol ballare” such that the central “dance” conceit vanished? Suddenly Mozart seems a lot less witty. It goes without saying that we would have no idea what’s happening in the opera’s narrative, but more importantly, we would lose the perspectives that the music and text offer on one another. The very melody of “Come scoglio” means less without the text.

This is truer yet of texted chamber music. Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte is a personal favorite. Writing a twelve-tone piece with a tonic is one thing, but writing a twelve-tone piece with a tonic about authoritarianism is quite another. If Schoenberg hadn’t made the piece’s anti-fascist thesis explicit through Byron’s poetry and then conditioned both the text and music mutually, would Nono have written his seminal Variazioni Canoniche?

Text is an inseparable part of music. It is an information-carrying medium like any other musical parameter, albeit with the richness of an entire language (sometimes several) and literature within it. It doesn’t matter whether I like to pay attention to the text or not: If a composer decides to include words in his or her piece, it is my responsibility as a listener to interpret them just as I interpret the “music” part of the music, the harmony and rhythm and timbre. Two dimensions of meaning—the text itself and its role in the argument of the piece relative to its context—lie in the balance.

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10 thoughts on “Abbott Without Costello

  1. kmanlove

    One of the things that blows my mind as periodically prod people about music is when they say things like, “Oh, I’ve never paid attention to the words; I just really like the song” or “These lyrics are so beautiful, but the song’s kind of stupid.” Since my investigation is usually lame and lacks follow-through, I’m left to wonder if people are inexperienced at getting into a piece of music and its complex interactions or if people just storm a piece, take what they like, and leave it. People obviously do both and a lot more, but thinking about these brings up an interesting problem with presenting music.

    Either way, text and music should intermingle, interact, and infect each other. The most interesting for me is obviously when each becomes more than the sum of their parts because of each other. I think a decent example is Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The music’s pretty boring without the lyrics, and the lyrics wouldn’t be as intense and moving without that clunky music. TV on the Radio’s “Dry Drunk Emperor” does some interesting interaction as well. In the same way that Deleuze sees cinema as breaking down experience into irrational singularities that disengage us from the world that we see through our experience, I think that text and music are able to do something of the same. Love poem ‘A’ can become something different with each musical setting. With a good setting, a boring love poem may begin to play with the some of the most inarticulable parts of human experience.

  2. jbunch

    1.) JKG-ian non-sequitorial (?) remarks about academic composers’ “obvious” lack of chops.

    2.) Delueze (any mention of)

    3.) Any conversation centering around cortizone and/or muscle relaxers in the context of performance enhancement.

  3. RT

    story time
    As long as we’re treading water on this thread: it’s too good to be true and probably has been discounted by musicologists, but I’ve always liked the story that Mozart wrote those nasty leaps in “Come scoglio” because he didn’t like the singer who first sang Fiordiligi.

  4. RT

    …true, but didn’t Beethoven find Cosi “frivolous” and “repugnant”?

    I was hoping the next poster would point out that if Mozart were nicer to his performers, he might be played more frequently.

  5. Colin Holter

    Somehow the fearsome difficulty and thorny complexity of Mozart’s music hasn’t affected its programming too adversely. Maybe his brand of “new virtuosity” offers just the right challenge for today’s intrepid performers.

  6. jbunch

    Indeed, I’ve been really interested in the “old simplicity” school composers for a long time. I think what they wrote was a reaction against all of their composition teachers in grad school that forced them to write in fortspinnung.


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