Words and Music

When I began in the early 1920s to compose music for texts by Gertrude Stein, my main purpose was musical. Or let us say musical and linguistic. For the tonal art is forever bound up with language, even though a brief separation does sometimes take place in the higher civilizations, rather in the way that the visual arts will occasionally abandon, or pretend to abandon, illustration. The musical art, moreover, in its more ambitious efforts toward linguistic union, has regularly entwined itself with liturgical texts and dramatic continuities.

Now the liturgical connection has been operating successfully ever since medieval times and even earlier; but in Western Europe it regularly had bypassed the local dialects and the budding languages, remaining attached for administrative reasons to the formalistic, the far less vivid Latin. The first modern tongues to take on music liturgically (the first gesture after their doctrinal breakaways from Rome) were English and German, both in the sixteenth century. The Latin-based local idioms had made no great effort toward entering the Catholic liturgy until today’s ecumenical trend got them involved. But toward the end of that same sixteenth century, which was producing liturgically such remarkable results for English and for German, Italian musicians in Florence had begun to perfect for secular purposes (for the stage) a blending of music with language so miraculously homogenized that a new word had to be found for it. They called it opera, or “work”; and work was actually what it did, invigorating the theater internationally in a manner most remarkable. For the English poetic theater, after the times of Elizabeth I and James I, began to lose vigor at home and never seemed able to travel much abroad. But the Italian Iyric theater in less than a century had begun to implant itself in one country after another and in one language after another. It took on French with Lully in the middle seventeenth century, German in the late eighteenth with Mozart, Russian in the nineteenth, beginning in the 1840s with Glinka.*

Serious opera seems never to have felt quite comfortable, however, in English or in Spanish, languages of which the poetic style, highly florid, made music for the tragic theater almost unnecessary. Comedies with added song and dance numbers existed of course everywhere; but music rarely served in them for much more than sentiment, being too slow, hence too clumsy a medium for putting over either sight gags or verbal jokes, except in the patter songs that are specific to the genius of English.

Nevertheless, English-language composers have never stopped making passes at the opera. It is as if we bore it, all of us, an unrequited love. My own hope toward its capture was to bypass wherever possible the congealments of Italian, French, German, and Russian acting styles, all those ways and gestures so brilliantly based on the very prosody and sound of their poetry. For an American to aspire toward avoiding these may have seemed over-ambitious. But for one living…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.