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But Can You Sing It?

Writing for music

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Hearing one’s words set to music is akin to having them turned into fireworks: breathtaking, bewitching, and a bit scary. I’m by no means an expert but have been involved in several musical collaborations: an opera libretto, a song cycle, two choral works and a piece of music theatre.

The jury of neurocognitive scientists may be out on whether music or language came first in the evolution of human thought. There is, however, some evidence to suggest that song – or at least oral delivery – pre-dates written poetry and to this day the links between poetry and song hold fast. When literacy was the preserve of the privileged few, oral rather than written material was easier to put about. As well as their aesthetic appeal, patterning and repetition were useful as both mnemonic aids and structural tools but the words themselves were by no means fixed, and the dispersal of oral literature across time, space, culture and language resulted in a proliferation of variants.

Nevertheless, the sad fact is – at least for librettists – that an audience rarely catches all or even most of the words, which is why we have the libretto (‘little book’), the programme or, nowadays – if we’re lucky – surtitles. Librettists have not always had a good press. W. H. Auden’s libretto for Britten’s operetta, Paul Bunyan, was so slated that Auden sent an apology to the composer for causing his ‘very lovely music’ to go ‘down the drain’. Auden may have been exaggerating the librettist’s importance, though it’s hard to ignore the similarities between his ‘Lumberjacks’ Chorus’: ‘We rise at dawn of day/We’re handsome free and gay,/We’re lumberjacks,/With saw and axe/Who are melting the forests away’ and Monty Python’s intentionally silly ‘Lumberjack Song’: ‘I’m a lumberjack/ And I’m okay/I sleep all night/And I work all day// […] I cut down trees/I eat my lunch/I go to the lavatory’.

According to Robertson Davies, ‘A librettist is a mere drudge in the world of opera.’ As his own diverse literary output includes three librettos, we might take this with a pinch of salt. While still firmly relegating the librettist to the sidelines, George Lascelles, seventh Earl of Harewood, is more positive: ‘What one remembers is the music, what one forgets is the librettist’s skill in providing a situation which makes the music possible’. Something has to provide the spark but perhaps atmosphere and mood are as important as situation, and might the language itself not influence decisions about melody, pitch, tempo or instrumentation?

When words are spoken aloud, the sound(s) they make can reinforce meaning. Think of, say, ‘happiness’, ‘woe’, ‘sorrow’, ‘glory’ and ‘pleasure’ —but forget ‘pulchritude’, ‘crepuscular’, ‘fungible’ and ‘glaucous’. The additional advantage of words being sung is that meaning can be modulated by tempo, volume, pitch, tone. ‘Happiness’ can be jaunty or expansive, depending on delivery; ‘woe’ can prolong the misery and ‘glory’ amplify the exaltation until a singer’s breath gives out.

It’s probably no accident that the first operas were in Italian. Most Italian words – and by implication most sung lines in Italian – end with a vowel. The duration of such a line is more malleable than one ending with a consonant, and can be set to a musical figure without feeling forced. As with any language, English has its own challenges. To comment on particular attributes of, say, fricatives, plosives, laterals or rhotic consonants is beyond the scope of this piece – and, I freely admit, beyond me – but some words seem to resist being sung.

My first foray into music was a choral piece, based on a plague legend from Perthshire. I had written the words. In response, the composer had written the music. Only when rehearsals were underway did the problem present itself. The song was structured around a repeated phrase: ‘sickness in the air’, ‘bedlam in the air’, ‘horror in the air’, and so on. ‘Horror’, we discovered, was a problem. No matter how we tried it, ‘horror’ came out as a muddy grunt. ‘Terror’ was slightly better, due to the ‘T’ sound or, to give it its technical name, the ‘voiceless alveolar stop’ but it was still hard to discern. Eventually, and fairly contentedly, we agreed on ‘panic’; it was in the same emotional field, and had two crisp syllables.

Elsewhere in the same sequence, a different problem arose around the singing of the line: ‘they tie their charms to the sacred yew’. ‘Yew’ was perfectly audible but rather than sounding suitably hallowed, it came out like the creak of a rusty gate. Words conceded to music and ‘yew’ became – somewhat prosaically – ‘tree’.

Which comes first? In my limited experience, words have always come first but there are occasions when writers are asked to go to work after the music has been composed, or to create a text around pre-existing music. This seems back to front. In language, meaning – even in poetry, its most fluid and, at times, oblique form – is intrinsic. Music is often highly structured but its meaning can remain fluid, elusive. Perhaps this is due to music’s essential evanescence: no sooner do we hear a note than it is replaced or overlaid by another. The soundscape – and the mood it evokes – can be in more or less constant flux, and even if we can recall in detail what we’ve just heard, what does the sound of two cellos playing an A-minor arpeggio while a soprano trills on a high C mean?

Rhetorical repetition is beloved of poets and composers — not to say politicians, though I’d hazard a guess that politicians care less about its aesthetic possibilities than its powers of persuasion. I mentioned earlier how oral literature makes frequent use of repetition as a mnemonic aid. As popular song refrains make clear, repetition also reinforces a key theme. Where would Beatles’ songs like ‘Let it Be’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’ or ‘All You Need is Love’ be without their refrains — indeed, what would they be without them?

Exploiting the power of repetition is nothing new. In 2010, ‘Dido’s Lament’, from Henry Purcell’s late seventeenth-century opera Dido and Aeneas was voted the nation’s favourite aria. Of the aria’s four coupled lines, each pairing is repeated in its entirety, and Dido’s haunting entreaty, ‘Remember me, but ah! forget my fate’ is repeated four times in total, yet – at least in the hands of any decent singer – there is never a moment when the repetition palls. From the same period, Purcell’s air, ‘Music for a While’, written as incidental music for Dryden’s play Oedipus, A Tragedy, consists of eight lines of text, replete with recycled words and phrases, and sustained vowels. The articulation is smooth (legato) and the effect is soothing, lulling, until we reach the penultimate line: ‘Till the snakes drop from her head’. ‘Drop’ is repeated eight times, each short syllable sharply detached (staccato), creating the sonic impression of water drops rather more than of falling snakes, though it’s anybody guess what that might sound like.

Though singing styles like Sprechgesang (spoken singing) and Sprechstimme (spoken voice), closer to natural speech than to poetry, undoubtedly have a place in opera, I remain unconvinced by sung mundanities such as ‘There’s Evian in the refrigerator’, ‘Hope all the logistics get worked out’ or ‘I’ll put those peapods on to boil’. Incidentally, the scene containing these lines, from the prologue of John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, caused considerable controversy and, as it was perceived to have caused offence, was permanently cut.

Opera has shown that, rather than confine itself to historical or mythological subjects, it can tackle difficult, contemporary issues head on. And why not? If, deep down, all art concerns itself with human nature, that doesn’t change a great deal over the centuries. As reference points do change, for any art form to remain fresh and relevant, it has to reflect these changes. In principle, give or take a refractory word or phrase, anything can be sung — but the question is, should it be?

Dilys Rose is a novelist, short story writer and poet. She has published eight books of fiction and four of poetry, most recently the novel Unspeakable (2017), a fact-based fiction set in seventeenth-century Edinburgh. Her poetry pamphlet, Stone the Crows, is due out in 2020.

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