Paula Feldman has recently pushed discussions about the musicality of Romantic poetry into a consideration of the movement’s actual music. As I understand it, her project, Romantic-Era Lyrics, attempts to bring contemporary sheet music renderings of the period’s poetry to life, by making these accessible as a database and providing some actual recorded performances.
One of my students this semester, Molly Mohr, was very interested in the musicality of the poetry we had been reading. She was also a member of a talented group in Rice’s vibrant a capella scene. Molly used her final project to bring her artistic skills to bear on the material we had been working with. Choosing two poems by Percy Shelley and their 1903 arrangement by Colin McAlpin, she arranged these as a capella numbers and performed each twice: once solo, and once as a duet.
The performances are beautiful, but in my opinion the most important part of Molly’s project was her critical reflection on how the arrangement and singing of these poems productively interfered with her readings of them. Molly has been kind enough to share these recordings; I’ll present them below with her readings of each.
In another post, I said that experimental practical work is complementary to critical work when students feel empowered in relation to the cultural artifacts they’re working with. I think Molly’s work is a great example of this.
Everything below is from Molly’s artist statement! There is a link below each song to the pdf of the scored music.
1. “Widow Bird”
McAlpin’s composition really highlights the stressed and unstressed syllables of Shelley’s poem. In 4/4 music, the emphasis usually falls on the first and third beats of each measure, and the stressed syllables in Shelley’s poem mostly match up with these stressed musical beats. For example, in measures 1-2, the lyrics say “A widow bird sat” (the bold syllables are the ones stressed in Shelley’s poem). Accordingly, “wi” and “bird” fall on the first and third beats of the measure, which emphasizes those syllables just as Shelley does in his poem. McAlpin repeats this method throughout a lot of the song – for another example, look at measure 18: “flow’r upon the.” Similarly, McAlpin uses dotted quarter notes and eighth notes to further emphasize Shelley’s stressed syllables. For instance, in measure twelve, the notes in “stream below” emphasize “stream” because the word falls on a dotted quarter note, which is held longer than the quickly following eighth note. The eighth note with the first syllable of “below” has the effect of an unstressed syllable because of how quick it passes. McAlpin also utilizes pickup notes to imitate unstressed syllables from the poem, such as in measures 5-6. The fourth beat of measure 5 is the syllable “up,” which leads into – or gives weight to – the first beat of measure 6, which is both a stressed note and a stressed syllable (the “on” of “upon”). McAlpin’s various uses of musical rhythms and beats to emphasize Shelley’s stressed and unstressed syllables allowed me to understand exactly what Shelley wanted the readers to hear through the stresses of his poem.
I perceived Shelley’s poem to be dreary and serious. He writes of a widowed bird that is alone and mourning for her love, and he uses various cold adjectives, like wintry, freezing, and frozen, to metaphorically express the depressed mood of the poem. So, I composed the duet (alto) line to emphasize the sad, “mourning” tone of the song. First, while the first soloist (soprano) sings a lot of quarter notes, like in measure two, I wrote the duet line to hold long notes ranging from two to four beats underneath the soprano’s movement. For example, in measures 1-5, the alto line holds low notes to give the impression of a death march of sorts to accompany the mood of mourning. Then, in measures 8-10, the alto line sings half notes held to give the feeling of “creeping,” just as the lyrics state. I also wanted to emphasize the adjectives Shelley uses to add to the mood of the song. So, I turned “wintry” in measure six into two eighth notes so that the syllables are sung quickly. Through the quickness, the consonants of the word are brought out; for example, the “tr” of the word is more violent. The consonants in turn really make the word stand out to help establish the cold mood of the song. I also wanted to exacerbate Shelley’s depiction of frozen wind “above” and freezing stream “below,” so I had the soprano hold “above” for one beat longer than the alto because she sings the high note (measures 10-11), while I had the alto hold “below” for an extra beat since she sings the low note (measures 12-13). These small additions make Shelley’s scenery stand out to add to the wintery atmosphere.
I added depth to the songs through the two places I chose to remain solo-voiced: measures 17-19 and 25-29. In measures 17-19, the narrator seems to be reflecting on a thought because of the sudden quietness of the dynamic marketing (p means piano, or quiet) and the performance marking of “ad lib,” meaning to sing at your own pace and rhythm. To accentuate the narrator’s reflection, I excluded a duet voice because it seems as if the narrator is in her own head, alone. Then, in measures 25-29, I chose to not write a duet line because I wanted the ending of the song to have a “haunting” mood. While McAlpin repeats “A widow bird of mourning” at the end of his song, Shelley doesn’t repeat this line at the end of his poem. This addition makes me think that McAlpin wants to emphasize the dreary nature of the poem by repeating “widow” and “mourning.” I left the measures solo to create a haunting, eery effect, which is accentuated even more so because of the pp, or double-soft, dynamic marking McAlpin used. I also wanted to highlight the fact that the bird is alone, hence the solo voice.
PDF: Widow-Bird (Solo)
PDF: Widow-Bird (Duet)
2. “Music, When Soft Voices Die”
McAlpin’s version of Shelley’s poem definitely altered my perception of the song. When I first read Shelley’s “Music,” I simply thought the narrator of the poem was saying that love lives on even after death – a romantic thought. However, the very beginning of McAlpin’s song threw me for a loop because of the suggested performance marking of “Grave.” This means that the composer wants the mood of the song to be just that – grave. Confused, I re-examined the poem and found it to have underlying moments of dreariness, such as when Shelley writes “die,” “sicken,” and “dead,” which are not exactly cheery and supportive words. I then reviewed the song with a mindset of a mix of happiness and sadness.
Just as he did in “Widow Bird,” McAlpin uses beat stresses in his music to emphasize stressed and unstressed syllables in the poem. For example, in measure 1, the first and third beats of the measure emphasize the stressed syllables of the line: “Music, when soft.” Another example is in measure 11 with the stressed word “rose” falling on a dotted quarter note and its next word, “is,” quickly going by in an eighth note. My favorite example, however, is in measure 12 when McAlpin really emphasizes the three unstressed syllables in a row by using a triplet set of eighth notes: “Are heap’d for the beloved’s.”
When writing the duet, I wanted to highlight the feeling of “yes, this is supposed to be romantic, but something just doesn’t feel right.” I therefore wrote the alto line to mostly sound great with the soprano, but to have a few small clashes that throw things slightly off. This dissonance between notes occurs on “die” in measure 1, the last syllable of “sicken” in measure 7, the first syllable of “dead” in measure 11, and the first syllable of “slumber” in measure 18. In what is not a coincidence, these small note clashes occur on the words that stick out and give an ugly picture among an otherwise romantic poem. McAlpin adds to this feeling of uneasiness with his random sharps and naturals in measures 4, 6, and 13, so I took his lead and created even more uneasiness by adding in oddly sounding notes to the alto line in measures 4 and 13.
I chose to leave out the alto line in measure 16 because, like in “Widow Bird,” the extra “art gone” is not part of Shelley’s poem. This fact, coupled with the sudden growth and decline in volume and the performance marking of rit, or to slow down, creates a feeling of reflection. To highlight the narrator’s pondering within her own head, I removed the second voice.
Overall, McAlpin treats the two songs similarly by aligning his stressed beats with Shelley’s stressed syllables and by adding in random but meaningful moments of extra lyrics. I simply expanded on McAlpin’s work by trying to make “Widow Bird” even more mournful and “Music” more uneasy by adding in a duet line.
PDF: Soft Voices (Solo)
PDF: Soft Voices (Duet)