Words and music is becoming a hot topic

Words and music is becoming a hot topic. Will Self wrote about it in The Guardian last Friday, comparing the development of the symphony and the novel. In his article ‘The symphony and the novel – a harmonious couple?’, he claims that when a novel tries to write about music, or when a symphony tries to tell a story, neither can be successful. He blames “the essentialist fallacy that expects words-about-music to do the same thing as music alone, and music-about-words to do the same thing as words alone”. Largely, I agee with Self, but I think his argument is limited because it only looks at the novel and the symphony, instead of taking into account the broader spectrum of word/music relations. He briefly mentions the German Lied and high opera as being forms in which (in the best examples) “words and music appear utterly and indissolubly comingled”. My research into French song, however, shows that the idea of words and music being “indissolubly comingled”, even in the best examples of French song, is fundamentally problematic. What we have is a far less stable or secure relationship between words and music, whether in song, opera, novel or symphony. What attracts us to the instable relationship, however, is the possibility that they might be “indissolubly comingled”; but they never can be. To use Lawrence Kramer’s terms, the relationship is always “agonic”.[1] Words tip over into music, and music tips over into words – but just when you think words have become music(al), or music has taken on verbal meaning, they suddenly slip away from your grasp. This is what the great poets, and critics, of the 19th-century in France discovered – read Baudelaire on music, read Mallarmé on music and letters, read Debussy on literature, and Wagner on poetry…

But the very fact that the relationship between words and music is being discussed – cogently, and in depth – in the national press is heartening. Self’s article comes in the context of a Notes & Letters Festival which ran from 7-9 October at London’s newest major arts venue, Kings Place. The festival asked the question “Words & music, can they be friends?” and “combined the wit and wisdom of poets, writers, musicians, translators, historians and children’s authors.” It’s a fabulous idea to bring all these people together – and I hope to see more events like it in the future (ones that I can hopefully find time to attend…)

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to attending a public research event at the Royal Academy of Music this Fri 14 October. Dr Emily Kilpatrick (with whom I gave a joint research seminar back in May, together with Dr Roy Howat, on song settings of Baudelaire by Fauré and Duparc) is joined by Ross Ramgobin (a fabulous young baritone). They are looking at ‘Performing Ravel’s Histoires naturelles. I’m especially interested in what they will have to say about the relationship between the singer and the pianist, but also the challenges of the unconventional text-setting. The event is of particular relevance to me because I’ll be giving a pre-concert talk at the Oxford Lieder Festival next week (Thurs 20 October) in which I will also be exploring the Histoires naturelles, so I shall be intrigued to see how much my own ideas relate to what Emily and Ross will uncover in their session.

It’s so heartening to see that there is such a diveristy of recent events looking at word/music relations. I love being part of this burgeoning area of academic and professional study – in the way that both researchers and performers / practitioners / writers are taking a sustained interest in what is fundamentally a slippery, elusive and problematic relationship between two major art forms.


[1] Lawrence Kramer, Music and Poetry: The Nineteenth Century and After (Berkley: University of California Press, 1984), p.129

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