Words for music, perhaps

Chris Kettle

Words for music, perhaps - Chris Kettle Words for music perhaps is the title which Yeats gave to a group of poems which appeared in The Winding Stair, published in 1933. This collection also included Byzantium, one of Yeats’ greatest and most complex poems, written in 1930. Recently I have been listening to Tippett’s extraordinary setting of the poem for solo voice and large orchestra; and at the same time I have been listening again to the 1976 performance of Brian’s fifth symphony, Wine of summer.

It would be pointless to take a comparison of these two works beyond a few superficial correspondences (the contrast between the elaborate pyrotechnics of Tippett’s vocal writing and the relatively spare directness of Brian’s, for example, is almost comic): but their juxtaposition has set me thinking again about the relationship between words and music.

Prima la musica, dopo le parole is the argument which Brian’s idol, Richard Strauss, discussed elegantly and inconclusively in his last opera Capriccio (written in 1942, four years after Wine of summer). Compare Mahler, reported by Natalie Bauer-Lechner: ‘Have you noticed that, with me, the melody always grows out of the words? The words, so to speak, generate the melody - never vice-versa. It is the same with Beethoven and Wagner. And this is the only way to achieve an indissoluble unity of words and notes.

The opposite process, by which some words or other have to fit arbitrarily to a melody, is the conventional relationship, but not an organic fusion of both elements’. Or Michael Hurd, on some songs of Ivor Gurney: ‘The inspiration… seems not to be a musical one, but a direct response to the lyrical innocence and freedom of the poetry: the musician, as it were, drawing out the music that the poet could only find words for, and the two marching hand-in-hand to produce something that is neither words nor music, but a new art form in which each mirrors the other. Such moments of candid unity are rare in the history of word setting.’

We doubtless all have our favourite pieces where this emphatically does not happen: cherished examples of mismatches, and of pieces in which words and music deserve each other. Of course, this is largely a matter of personal taste. It still seems irreverent to say so, but Elgar gives me a lot of trouble in this respect. He chose some minor poetry for Sea pictures - which hasn’t prevented a famous recording of it becoming a national monument, almost a musical equivalent of the Queen’s Christmas Message.

Even Gerontius makes me uneasy in several places, though I recognise that the critic who called it ‘a combination of Newman at his most piously emetic and Elgar at his most sanctimoniously vulgar’ was perhaps being a little unkind. [Or dead right – Kevin Mandry.] The absolute nadir, in my experience, was the final chorus of Caractacus, which I once heard in the suitably hearty ambience of a Sports Hall in Gloucester (was it Sacheverell Sitwell who made a remark along the lines of Elgar’s music exhaling the odour of compulsory games?). Even this Imperialist drivel, however, has recently been soundly beaten into second place by Prokofiev’s setting of excerpts from Stalin’s speeches in the October cantata, deafeningly exhumed by Neeme Järvi at the Festival Hall last June [1992].

Tippett’s own choice of words, of course, has caused difficulties of its own to many listeners, whether through the complexity of works like The vision of Saint Augustine or the embarrassment factor in some of his own texts. Yet one always senses that words and music are inseparable elements in his personal creative drive. Songs for Dov shows this synthesis at its most indissoluble and daring; and I am always moved by the images of renewal in Part 3 of A child of our time which Tippett substitutes for the religious consolation of the work’s models.

But in Byzantium_he has chosen one of Yeats’ most complex and wonderful poems - a ‘glittering intense traffic-jam of brilliant ideas’, as one critic has called it - and one can readily sense the exuberance with which this composer of Brianic vitality and longevity responds to it, so that the ceaselessly self-regenerating energies of the poem seem to be summoning Tippett’s creativity and begetting from it fresh images in musical form. Depending on your point of view, the result can seem a (perhaps irritating) compendium of Tippett mannerisms, or a remarkable fusion in which Tippett seems to be sucked into the poem, becoming part of its creative process, rather like the carved Chinese musician in _Lapis lazuli, that other great Yeats poem about Art and the Artist. Of course, the piece is also quintessential Tippett; as Auden mused on this very matter in In Memoriam WB Yeats,

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

It is clear from the above that I view Byzantium as an example of the primacy of the poem; it is not the vehicle of Tippett’s inspiration, but its source. Nor is this simply because Tippett has chosen to set great poetry; while I am listening to Britten’s Serenade, for example, I am conscious of a miraculous imaginative independence and interdependence of words and music, a phenomenon for which words like ‘balance’ and ‘correspondence’ are simply not adequate.

There is a two-way traffic of inspiration (to use an ungainly adaptation of the critical metaphor for Byzantium cited above). Michael Hurd’s words about Gurney are equally appropriate, here and in other works, to Britten. Perhaps others feel this is true of Tippett in Byzantium too; but Tippett has a way of appearing to invent categories of his own, and the interplay here seems to me to be an exhilarating intellectual and imaginative game.

But what about works like Wine of summer, in which the words are manifestly inferior? Perhaps that sounds arrogant; tastes change. For Reginald Nettel, Douglas’ poem was one of ‘singular beauty’; and there seems no trace of the Master Ironist in Brian’s comment to Simpson, quoted by Eastaugh: ‘The Douglas poem is a lovely inspiration and completely reflected in my music’. Most of us, however, probably enjoy Malcolm MacDonald’s temperate assessment of it as ‘a loose rhapsodic effusion, its imagery distinguished by a fluent mixture of metaphors already half-dead’.

So how could the man who had recently written Das Siegeslied with such total command of the relationship between text and music, such corrosive exploitation of the ironies created by his chosen mode of treating the Psalm (recent encounters with Reger’s 100th psalm and Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, both of which feature climactic incursions of Ein’ feste Burg or something very like it, have underlined for me the uniquely devastating effectiveness of Brian’s use of the same device in Das Siegeslied) have been inspired by Douglas’ rambling and wilting hot-house plant?

Was it simply the poem’s nostalgic sense - too mellow and semi-comfortable for tragedy - of time passing and irrecoverable (a feeling which, despite the eleven year gap and the huge missing-link of Prometheus unbound, seems to align Wine of summer with the emotional temperature and mood of the 6th and 7th symphonies, to say nothing of the clarity and radiance of their sound worlds)?

Whatever the reason, Brian does not seem to have been very interested in mere illustration of the text (thank goodness; finding musical equivalents for verbal images would have been a lot less fun than it evidently was for Tippett).

So what did Brian mean when he said that the Douglas poem was ‘completely reflected in my music’? To my ears the music is constantly leaving the words behind, exploring beyond and behind them into things not apprehended in the poem at all. Vague, I know, but I’m not going to be tricked into trying to provide my own ‘translation’ of the music. The vocal line is beautiful, but it is just that: a line. As in the less successful parts of The Tigers there is always something to draw the ear into what is going on in the orchestra; and the total compulsion which the piece exerts for me has nothing to do with the poem at all.

The music’s lean clarity and sense of purpose and movement at all times steers well clear of the morass of listless enervation from which the poem never even attempts to pull free. The mysterious oscillation of the very opening casts an immediate spell; and when the voice enters, it is coolly upstaged by the quietly striking accompanying figure (‘clucking’ as MacDonald aptly describes it).

The poem comes briefly into focus for the scarlet spider, affording Brian a moment for the fusion of words and music into something memorable; but then the poem blurs again. Brian has to make his own events and images: ‘fierce red kings’ sparks a splendid passage, irrelevant to the image in its context, but taking on a life of its own - a Brianically militaristic equivalent, almost, of the irruption of youths on horseback into the dreamlike restrained eroticism of Von der Schönheit, the fourth song of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. (Douglas wrote the poem in his late twenties, but its insipid languor and its affectation of faded passion are worlds away from the stirrings of sensuous longings in Li Tai Po’s young girls.)

Then there is the mounting power of Brian’s ending, as the sea wind blows in, the temperature falls ominously, and we find ourselves exposed on the edge of an imaginative vision only weakly gestured towards in Douglas’ final line, fully evoked in Brian’s music. Long before Tippett’s bravura setting, these closing lines conjured up for me the final line in Byzantium - in which Yeats, having striven to construct an escape from the flux, the ‘mire’ of life, the agony of sexuality, the fruitless struggle against time, closes the poem with an image which looks back to these very things: ‘That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea’.

Douglas, five years Yeats’ junior, and light years his inferior as a poet, ended his poem on the same potent image: ‘sea’. Both Brian and Tippett, in their respective settings, leave the vocal soloist hanging onto the word - its drawn-out vowel-sound opening onto an unknown and measureless infinity - while the orchestra tolls and crashes around them.

There is probably no way of penetrating the processes, understanding the alchemy which converted Wine of Summer into the fifth symphony: and of course it doesn’t much matter. By whatever means, Douglas’ unremarkable poem sparked off a piece of music of remarkable beauty and poetry - a piece which, we sense, Brian was driven to compose, in a way which Douglas would probably not have understood (nor Brian himself, consciously, perhaps).

I have an odd picture in my mind of the poem as a somewhat dilapidated building around which Brian throws up gaunt, gleaming structures of scaffolding - which then seem stronger, more tensile, more substantial, more durable, more beautiful than the building they support and enclose; so that the eye rests on them rather than on the crumbling edifice dimly discernible within. Make of that what you will. It is only a way of visualising the curious phenomenon of music as powerful as this apparently riding on the back of a poem lacking in any kind of internal energy.

I have much less difficulty, though, in accepting that the musical mind which conceived and wrote Das Siegeslied, so extraordinary in its furnace heat that it is tempting to see it as an isolated outburst of raw genius, was also at work in its slimmer successor. Certainly the two works are not ‘brothers’ in the sense that Brian used for symphonies 8-10, but their kinship is clear enough in other ways. Both bear witness to an integrity, a clarity of mind, and a force at least as remarkable to me as the humane brilliance and chameleon energy of Tippett (whose amazingly diverse output - including five operas, like Brian - needs no fusillade of late symphonies).

It may be that the discovery of Prometheus unbound will make Brian’s intentions in the fifth symphony clearer, as MacDonald believes (describing it meanwhile as ‘rather eccentric to Brian’s current symphonic concerns’): but until that hoped-for day, it deserves the attention of all who enjoy Brian’s music, and it needs no explanation or justification as a ‘problem’ work simply because it is difficult to classify. It is a noble piece, whose clean, supple, unified style is deceptively flexible, accommodating an ebb and flow of remembered richness and prophetic spareness, flecked with ripe romantic warmth and Finzi-like ‘Englishness’, encompassing precisely-achieved moments of rapture and disquieting bleakness - all this within a firm control and economy of gesture which consistently tautens the rambling rhetoric of the poem. I hope it will not be long before its recorded performance, with Brian Rayner Cook’s fine interpretation of the vocal part, becomes available to us and to a wider audience.

NL103 / © 1992 by Chris Kettle


Newsletter, NL 103, 1992