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Classical Notes

Notes on words

Posted at 1:48 PM on February 28, 2006 by Don Lee

Over the past few days I've been mulling the subject of words and music. At church choir rehearsal last Thursday, the director prodded us to be more mindful of the text we were singing. That's not unusual. But I did find it remarkable that several fellow choir members felt moved to share their interpretations of the text. I had barely given the words a passing thought. My first reaction was a slight sense of shame; no wonder the director stopped us. But then I thought, no, I am paying attention. To me, so much of the meaning comes through the notes that they almost always overshadow the text. I was a college English major and this happens even with Shakespeare. I'm sure I heard Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music several times before I realized it's a setting of the exquisite passage from Merchant of Venice that begins, "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon the banks...."

My point is not to argue that music is superior to verse as a form of artistic expression. I'm simply observing that that when they're married, the partners aren't necessarily equal. Or totally compatible. I think of another famous English piece: Hubert Parry's anthem "Jerusalem." The music is a noble and sentimental hymn to an England of the mythic past. William Blake's text, nimbler than the music, veers for a moment through the country's "dark, satanic mills." Parry can manage only a wide turn in that direction. That's always struck me as an awkward moment in the piece.

Then there was a piece I heard Sunday afternoon when the stunning six-member group Nordic Voices gave a concert in St. Paul. "Schwirren" (Whirr) by Cecilie Ore sets an essay by Austrian writer Robert Musil describing the slow death of a fly stuck on flypaper. "Thus they lie there. Like fallen airplanes, which rise up with a wing into the air. Or as slaughtered horses. With the infinite bearing of despair." I can barely begin to describe the virtuosity of the work, from its opening, impossibly discordant screech to desperate, vocalized flailing to overlapping recitation. I can say this: In my auditory memory it became a marriage of music and text not to be put asunder.