Poems to Music

Music and Poetry by Paul Hartal
"Music and Poetry" by Paul Hartal

Music and poetry are two different art forms that share an undeniable bond. In both of these mediums, some form of story is being told, but, in the best examples of each, never in an obvious or unoriginal way. In poetry, words are used to give some kind of impression to readers. The connotations of the words chosen, the images described, and the sounds of the language all combine to create not only a logical sense of what a poem is saying, but also a general “feeling” of what kind of emotion that poem is trying to convey. In classical instrumental music, sound – it’s tone, volume, and intensity – is used in a similar way as poetry to invoke some kind of impression on listeners. Of course vocal music takes this all a step further, in that it contains both music and lyrics, which can be considered to be a type of poetry.

Lately, I’ve been listening to a few different songs that are a unique hybrid in music and poetry.  These songs take poems that were originally written simply to be read and put them to music.  Here is a short list of a few of these songs that I’ve found and think are particularly interesting:

I’m intrigued by this mixing of artistic forms and what it does to both mediums. When the poetry and the music complement each other well, the result is a beautiful and unique reinterpretation of the boundaries between music and poetry. Loreena McKennitt’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Cherish the Ladies’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” both achieve this delicate balance in matching the tone of the music and the poetry. Ochs’ “The Bells” and Copeland’s “12 Poems of Emily Dickinson” however are, in my opinion, less successful at achieving this balance. “The Bells” is done to a kind of happy, countryish tune which fits well with the first two stanzas of the poem, but then at the end of the song, Ochs’ combines a few lines from the last two stanzas, which are much darker and don’t really match with the happy sounding tune. “12 Poems of Emily Dickinson” sounds completely wrong. The vocals are sung in opera style, and the music is mostly nondescript. When I imagine a musical version of Dickinson’s poems, I hear music that is mysterious and playful, like the writing style in many of her poems, and I do not imagine operatic vocals.  I love opera, but Dickinson’s poems just don’t sound natural sung that way.

I can’t help  but wonder why these musicians have chosen to take the work of poets and put it to music. Are they trying to promote good poetry, did they just like the words in the poems they chose, or is there some other reason? Whatever their reasons, I love listening to these poems put to music. Even the ones that make me cringe mentally are enjoyable in the sense that they are an interesting, if somewhat dubiously successful, experiment in the combination of two of my favorite things – music and poetry.  Happy listening!

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