Cohabitations, Credits and Debts
The Gerald Finzi Poetry Lecture delivered
at the University of Reading in March 2012
MANY YEARS AGO when I was still teaching in schools but publishing books of poetry I would sometimes-in fact annually-be asked by whichever music teacher or other teacher it happened to be to write words for music, not specifically for individual songs but for a longer dramatic piece that required a story and a stage presentation that would contain songs. Sometimes the piece was what you might call serious, at other times light. Sometimes the music was complex and ambitious, sometimes it was set in the realm of the musical. I enjoyed writing all this, producing it on stage, and, occasionally even acting in it. I liked the music. I only noted that when the parts that were songs were actually sung most of the words were inaudible. Whatever my craft was it counted for little. Naturally, I thought. That's what happens.
Then one day, quite late on in this succession of a dozen or so libretti, settings and productions, there was a new teacher of music in a new school who asked me to write something. Any idea what you would like of me? I wondered.
Vowels, he answered.
It had never been put quite so bluntly to me but I could see what he meant. One sings with an open mouth. You can't sing consonants. Consonants appear but essentially as the, sometimes, comical lower orders, as in Pa-pa-pa pa-pa-pa-Papageno or maybe a nice stagy Grrrrrowl. You can do fa-lal-las or doo-wops, or even the odd Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom but it's the vowel that does the singing, springing from the embrace of the consonant, free at one bound.
Simply writing a series of vowels wouldn't do of course. There had to be more. It is the area of more I want to explore here. What, after all, do composers want of poets? Or, to put it another way, what is it about poetry that composers desire? While we're at it, since I am more conversant with visual art than with music, what is it that those famous sister arts, painting and poetry, have in common? What do they give, what do they take, where do they meet most productively and why there?
It is at this thankfully early point that I can take a cue from Gerard Finzi, that extraordinarily setter to music of poetry by people such as Thomas Hardy, Thomas Traherne, A. E. Housman, Walter de la Mare, Shakespeare and many others. In his own Crees lectures of 1955, where he discusses the relationship of music to words, Finzi tells us how:
A few years ago an experiment was made at the BBC. Six poets of some standing were commissioned to write a poem especially for musical setting. The authors were to remain temporarily anonymous, and the poems were sent to half a dozen British composers who were to set one that particularly appealed to them. At the same time the composers were asked what had attracted them to a particular poem, whether they were drawn to any of the others; whether any seemed quite unsuitable; how soon, after choosing the poem, did musical ideas come; whether a general impression or a precise musical concept came first, and so on. Indeed the questions, had it been possible to answer them, would have provided case-histories to throw some light on musicians' approach to poetry, even possibly on musical inspiration. Here, indeed, were words for music. And what was the result?
Full of expectancy, several of the composers opened their envelopes with high hopes, only to be followed by utter despair. At least one was heard to mutter "what sort of people do they think we are." As far as I know, only one of the poems was ever set to music, and nothing more was heard of the scheme.
"What sort of people do they think we are?" is a good question. Finzi doesn't tell us what it was that caused such cries of despair. Let's then think what it might have been.
Perhaps there weren't enough vowels for a start. But there must have been some. Not quite as many maybe as in Keats who learned his open vowels from Spenser, nevertheless enough to build a tune on.
Perhaps there was too much use of devices like enjambment that make for phrases of irregular length. But don't composers make free with individual lines of poetry in any case? Their idea of time is rarely metric in the iambic pentameter sense. A vowel in their hands lasts as long as they want, never mind the consonants.
Perhaps it was something else. Perhaps it was ideas. Ideas are hard to set to music: there are few settings of Pope's Windsor Forest. But you do have Britten's settings of Donne's Holy Sonnets. Ideas fuelled by passion and declaring themselves through images are open enough to musical interpretation.
Perhaps it was pace. Thoughts switch rapidly, as do images. Maybe music requires an implied unity of mood that offers a clear sustainable base.
It might have been any combination of these things: we cannot tell. Certainly Gerard Finzi's own songs tend to be in elegiac, pastoral mood, the poems he chose clear, wistful, regretful, and generally full, tending to the delicately ripe. Hardy's visitings of the dead in Finzi's By Footpath and Stile cycle being a reasonable demonstration of that.