For centuries, poets and composers have been practically joined at the hip. In their pure forms, poems and musical compositions are entirely self-sufficient. Emily Dickinson can say “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and readers don’t need a C-sharp or an E-flat to help them grasp the line. Of course, that hasn’t kept composers from providing exactly that; among the 20 or so art-song settings of that little poem, we find entries by such notables as Vincent Persichetti and Augusta Read Thomas. On the flip side, the instrumental pieces of the masters — sonatas, symphonies, chamber music — get by perfectly well outside the verbal realm, although we may be grateful nonetheless for the music appreciationist Sigmund Spaeth, who fitted mnemonic rhymes to the themes of such otherwise textless musical monuments (“Beethoven still is great/In the symphony he numbered eight …”).
Indeed, Beethoven himself crossed the verbal divide, if not in the symphony he numbered eight then at least in the symphony he numbered nine, with its famous choral finale based on Schiller’s ode “An die Freude” (To Joy). Certainly Schiller’s hopeful verses clarify that Beethoven’s concluding symphony was conceived as an outcry in support of brotherhood and humanitarianism, a point that four soloists and a chorus can make more unambiguously than can a conglomeration of violins, clarinets, and trombones. Still, not everyone agreed unreservedly on this count. Consider Giuseppe Verdi’s remark, “The alpha and omega is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, marvelous in the first three movements, very badly set in the last.”
You must login to view the full content on this page.
Or, use your linked account: