Serenade in music. . . Concert life returns

As we celebrate the return of Tanglewood and the many other performing arts groups in our region, it is fitting that this column joins us, as poetry and music have maintained a warm and inspiring relationship over the years. centuries.

Today we will discuss three ways in which poetry and music interact: through poets who wrote vividly and expressively about music; poets who are themselves musicians; and particularly in our time, poets-musicians who are also performers.
Unsurprisingly, we start and end with Shakespeare. He placed some 70 songs in his pieces and referred to the music frequently and eloquently. His perhaps most famous comedy, “Twelfth Night”, opens with these memorable lines.

If music is the food of love, keep going.
Give me the excess, that, overdone,
The appetite can become sick and die.
This strain again. He took a fatal fall.
Oh it came to my ear like the sweet sound
Who breathes on a bench of violets,
Steal and give odors.

Among other poets, Robert Browning had extensive knowledge of the music that surfaced in “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” and a number of his works. Percy Shelley believed that music was related to the beauty of the universe and universal truths. He loved Mozart and the conventions of opera influenced his greatest poems. He wrote the oft-quoted lines:

Music, when the sweet voices die,
Vibrate in memory.

And then there’s John Dryden (1631-1700), who involved music in his poems and 23 of his 28 pieces.

John Dryden. Portrait by John Michael Wright, 1668

Dryden, England’s first poet laureate, wrote masterfully about the effect of music in a tribute to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians. Handel then put this poem for soloists, choir and orchestra. (Extract)

What passion can music not arouse and stifle!

The great sound of the trumpet
excites us to arms,
With high notes of anger
And deadly alarms.
The double double double beating
Of the thunder drum
Cries, listen to the enemies coming;
Charge, charge, it’s too late to retreat!

The soft and plaintive flute,
In the dying notes discovers
The misfortunes of desperate lovers,
Whose funeral song is whispered by the chirping lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pains and their despair,
Fury, frenzied indignation,
Depth of pains and height of passion,
For the fair and disdainful lady.

But ah! what art can teach,
What the human voice can achieve
In praise of the sacred organ?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that fly from their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

His ode concludes:

As from the power of the sacred laity
The spheres began to move,
And sang the praises of the great Creator
To all the blessed above;
So when the last terrible hour
This ruined spectacle will devour,
The trumpet will be heard aloud,
The dead will live, the living will die,
And the music will disharmonize the sky.

* * *
Some composers and musicians were also versed in poetry. The great German composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) aspired to become a poet and playwright early on, but discovered that he could express himself more fully in opera, creating a fusion of theater and music. But his booklets, which he wrote himself, have always been called poems.

Wagner’s “Ring” poetry translated by George Theodore Dippold

In recent years, the great American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) studied and planned to become a composer, but instead became a poet, winning a Pulitzer Prize. His dedication to music accompanied him throughout his life and produced such remarkable pieces as this one:

I need flowing music
On my restless and throbbing fingers,
On my bitter and trembling lips,
With a deep, clear and slow melody.
Oh, for the healing swing, old and low,
Of a song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And on the quivering limbs, the dream blushes to shine!

There is a magic made by the melody:
A period of rest, calm breathing and freshness
Heart, which sinks through the fading colors
In the underwater calm of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and sleep.

* * *
However, when we consider the poets who are musicians but also performers, we can go back to the troubadours of the 12th century when Bernart de Ventadorn (1135-1194) followed Eleanor of Aquitaine to England and regaled the Court with his poetry, his words and his his songs. (here translated from Provencal)

When I see the lark
Spread its wings of joy and fly to the sun,
Forget and fall
In the bliss that rushes to his heart
Alas! How do I envy then
All the creatures I see happy.
I am amazed that my heart
Do not melt there and then with nostalgia.

Alas! how much love i thought i knew
And how little I know
Cause I can’t stop loving
She of whom I may have nothing.
All my heart, and all of herself,
And all of myself and all that I have
She took me and left me nothing
But nostalgia and a searching heart.

Over the following centuries, traveling minstrels performed and sang, but their verses often did not reach the level of poetry.
In fact, the golden age of the also performing poet-composer began in the last century and is still present today. Consider Leonard Cohen, a poet who became a popular singer and about whom the Boston Globe wrote: “James Joyce is not dead. He lives in Canada as Cohen.

Then there’s John Lennon and, in fact, all of the Beatles. Can anyone question the quality of:

Eleanor Rigby picks up rice in the church where a wedding was
Lives in a dream
Wait at the window, wearing the face she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the people alone
Where do they all come from?
All the people alone
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie writes the words of a sermon that no one will hear
Nobody comes near
Watch him work, mend his socks at night when no one is around
What does he care?

All the people alone
Where do they all come from?
All the people alone
Where do they all belong?

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt off his hands as he came out of the grave
No one was saved

All the people alone
Where do they all come from?
All the people alone
Where do they all belong?

And above all, there is Bob Dylan, who received the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature with the quote: “He is a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. The NY Times said it is “redefining the boundaries of literature.” His prose / poetry book titled “Tarentula” is always fascinating read. And his verse continues to live.

How it feels
How it feels
Be alone
Without direction at home
Like a complete stranger
Like a rolling stone

Photo by Bob Dylan

* * *
Now, as promised, I would like to come back to Shakespeare and his finest musical passage: Lorenzo’s speech from Act V, scene 1 of “The Merchant of Venice”. It was beautifully set to music by the famous British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. He titled the piece “Serenade to Music”.

How moonlight sleeps on this shore!
Here we will sit and let the sounds of music
Crawling in our ears: the sweet silence and the night
Become the keys of a sweet harmony.
Look at how the sky floor
Is thick inlaid with shiny gold patinas:
There isn’t the smallest orb you see
But in his movement like an angel sings,
Always questioning to cherubim with young eyes;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But while this rotting muddy garment
Doth shuts him roughly, we can’t hear him.
Come on, eh! and wake up Diana with a hymn!
With the softest touches, pierce the ear of your mistress,
And lure her home with some music.

* * *

VIDEO. And here is the setting to music of this passage as it was performed at the Royal Albert Hall at the London Proms in 2019, under the direction of Martyn Brabbins.