Striking a Balance

Striking a Balance

Matthew Van Brink
Matthew Van Brink

[Ed Note: Composer/pianist/accordionist Matthew Van Brink is one of the participants in this year’s Essentially Choral reading sessions by the St. Paul MN-based VocalEssence (May 29-31). For the rest of the week, Matt will send along a daily dispatch of his thoughts about the nature of setting text to music. Among the issues he hopes to gain greater compositional clarity on are: Which texts lend themselves to the best settings? Will a famous poem work better than a lesser-known evocative one? Can the strength of the text overshadow any musical setting of it? Do particular texts speak better in choral settings than in ones for a single voice? Feel free to chime in as well. —FJO]

I find it increasingly easy to make my own head spin. One of my ongoing obsessions concerns the basic nature of setting text to music. How do composers and songwriters make certain that the notes and the words balance one another?

The answer is, of course, different for every song and for every composition. And the equation is more complicated when the musical and textual elements are themselves more convoluted. But striking this balance is extremely interesting to me. How can one synthesize music and text, without creating perceptual distractions?

Those who already know well Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” might find Kurt Weill’s tuneful setting curious. John Corigliano’s settings of Bob Dylan lyrics present perceptual barbs on multiple levels at once. Similarly, the experience of watching an opera while reading supertitles strongly differs from the experience of watching one in your own language without supertitles. Even instrumental music can carry associative baggage: my cellist girlfriend had a funky experience listening to a transcription for flute and piano of Debussy’s Cello Sonata.

With these meandering thoughts in mind, I am excited to workshop a new piece, A Thousand Tender Passages, with the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, a 32-voice virtuoso choir. The text, excerpts from two flirtatious letters of George Washington to Sally Fairfax, is one which I believed might actually benefit from a musical setting. When the piece is in the hands of conductor Philip Brunelle, I’m going to find out! Either consciously or unconsciously, composers and songwriters have a sense of how exactly words will interact with music, from local syllable-setting to overall perception. I suppose I’m the conscious sort. Head-spinningly conscious.

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6 thoughts on “Striking a Balance

  1. bvlasak

    The problem of setting text to music is compounded even further when dealing with the poetry of William Blake. I cannot count to number of times I have heard poor text setting of his poem “The Tyger”; if one even bothered to look at the illumination, one would see that the tiger has no teeth and a meek expression on it’s face. And yet, composer after composer will set this poem as if the animal in question is a ferocious beast. Lame.

  2. philmusic

    As long as we are on that subject. Would you rhyme or not? That is, would the word symmetry be rendered as sim-i-tri, or sim-i-tree? Sorry I forgot my IPA!

    Phil Fried, skidroe U when nothing but lowered expectations will do!

  3. Garth Trinkl

    “Will a famous poem work better than a lesser-known evocative one? Can the strength of the text overshadow any musical setting of it?”


    As for the first question, evocative lyric poetry of the second order is often better for song setting than first order lyric poetry. For longer choral text settings, both first and second order poetry are equally usable.

    W. H. Auden was of two minds on this first question. He wrote his long oratorio, “For The Time Being”, in 1941-42, hoping that Britten would set it (and he dedicated the long poem to his mother). However, Britten only set two lyrics from the long work, one of which Auden had taken out of the oratorio. With Auden’s approval, composer Martin David Levy set the long poem in 1961, but the oratorio is rarely revived. (This was a few years before Levy’s setting of O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Elecktra” for the MET Opera, in 1967.)

    Consider, for example, the lack of artistically outstanding settings of Yeats’s “Easter, 1916” or Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”
    Also consider the lack of musical masterpieces based upon passages from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” or “Four Quartets”, while there are several wonderful settings of Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” (Also, Penderecki’s “Paradise Lost” is not now a best-seller.)

    The answer to the second question is, yes. Probably the most relevant reference is George Steiner’s ‘On Difficulty’.

    (I am presently setting for solo voice a selection of Albrecht Haushofer’s Moabit Sonnets, which are certainly not first rate poetry, though they are very evocative.)


  4. philmusic

    The question you ask, about the balance between words and music, is an artistic one so the answers are unlimited.

    One could generalize about approaches; the songwriter is more interested in the words and a style, the composer is not chained to the song form or the use of rhymes. Then again generalization are invariable wrong as exceptions abound.

    What is I think a much more difficult issue for all composers, and one that crosses all music is good scansion.

    Phil Fried Skid-Roe U -Free Beer!

  5. mdwcomposer

    I find a few things that don’t “set” well – “squirrel” comes to mind [a squirrel on a redwood burl. . .]. But some unlikely things fit just fine: paring of paradisaical fruit [G. M. Hopkins].

    But text seems like only one component of what the chorus does. There’s a continuum from completely textless / chorus as sound to simple declamation where the words are everything. And anything inbetween [Gaburo’s Lingua II: Maledetto fits somewhere too, even though it’s spoken rather than sung].

    How much spoken sound can you weave into a sung choral piece? What about multiple languages? Elliott Gyger has a fantastic multi-lingual piece for treble choir & mixed choir. Trebles are in Spanish, mixed in English. They kind of comment on each other and mix in a very interesting way. Is the concept more important than the moment-to-moment intelligibility in this case?

    I once used a poem that was ok, if a little overwrought (Bravig Imbs), but the way the beginning and end were related thematically with a kind of “development” in the middle suggested a sort-of sonata/allegro feel. That was the main attraction of the poem for me. In another case, using a poem about spring and it’s intense renewal, I set a lot of the text in fast, aperiodic rhythms and frequently set phrases on top of one another or closely elided. I was trying to capture the feeling and movement of the poem rather than its words. It’s also fun to go the other way around: start with musical / formal ideas, then get a poet to supply some words that work with the music.

    Which is to question how words and music balance, or whether they even need to. I don’t believe they should the same way in every piece. Perceptual distractions are not necessarily a bad thing, as long as one’s intentions are clear.

        – Mark Winges

  6. hieshbre

    I don’t comment much on the subject of composing…my compositional techniques are still in formation and I highly respect the esteemed composers in this magazine. But this article peeked my interest and I decided it was a good one to comment on.

    I recently finished a number of settings of poems by Louise Gluck. I had in mind to write a choral piece for awhile and it was the matter of finding the right text. What I found was her “Collected Poetry” and in it, a poem entitled “The Pond”. It is a very quick poem and it begged to be set. So I set it.

    My technique in this regards is very much akin to the ‘word painting’ of the pre-Baroque period, but to the next level. I think of each musical phrase as a sentence, and color each word the way it feels to me and let the color of the words strung together form the ‘musical sentence’. I do not often subscribe to the conscious act of writing in a set form or with a set melody, but the music tends to take on its own harmonic structure.

    I don’t know if this helps the discussion much, but for me the key to balance between text and music is a very tight line. I am nowhere close to an expert, but my output lately has been choral, and I hope that my two cents helps.

    As to the suggestion of spoken word. It is always neat to hear that in any choral setting, it often heightens the emotional climax (to me). Just listen to some of Eric Whitacre’s ethereal works and you’ll know the beauty that comes from them. I don’t often use them, I normally have them sing on one pitch long strains of text, but I have not yet found a need for it.

    Thanks for listening to my rambling.



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