Words of Worth

vanessa_christianBy Vanessa Christian, Associate Editor

For centuries composers have looked to great authors and poets for inspirational texts. Writers of the Baroque era often set stories of the Bible to music for their oratorios and operas. The tradition continued through later eras: Schubert had Goethe, Debussy had Baudelaire, Bernstein had Voltaire, and on and on.

Composers of today frequently find themselves setting the words of Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Louis Stevenson, just to name a few. But what is it about classic poetry that marries itself so readily with musical composition? Most likely, they are the same elements that create a popular song:

  • Using stressed syllables and cadences, poets create a rhythmic structure to support their words. Since both poets and musicians rely on a catchy rhythm, starting with an existing poem provides a natural framework for an added melody and harmonies.
  • Poets use imagery that composers can bring out in musical ways, such as an icy river rushing through the accompaniment, or hushed prairie winds lingering in the voices.
  • When a poem impacts its reader, it elicits an emotional response, possibly by being extremely relatable or telling a beautiful story. The meaningful words are enhanced and built upon by a skilled composer.

These elements combine to make the union of poetry and music a natural, timeless tradition.

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