Musicality of a Literary Work

by Andrzej Hejmej (Author)
©2018 Monographs 244 Pages
Open Access
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 57


This book represents an attempt to capture different links between modern literature and music. The author examines strict intertextual correlations, the phenomena of musicality and musicality of literary works, the musical structure in literature, so-called musical literary texts. He focuses on the novel Le Cœur absolu by Philippe Sollers, the poem Todesfuge by Paul Celan, the Preludio e Fughe by Umberto Saba and the drama Judasz z Kariothu [Judas Iscariot] by Karol Hubert Rostworowski. The analysis also includes Stanisław Barańczak’s cycle of poems Podróż zimowa: Wiersze do muzyki Franza Schuberta [Winter Journey: Poems to the Music of Franz Schubert] and a fragment of Scène from Hérodiade by Stéphane Mallarmé in Paul Hindemith’s composition «Hérodiade» de Stéphane Mallarmé.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • From the author
  • Contents
  • Series Information
  • Introduction
  • The perspective of research into music in literature
  • Musicality – musicality of a literary work – musical literary text
  • Musical-literary research. Comparative literature
  • Part I
  • 1 Around Tadeusz Szulc’s[[I27]] Muzyka w dziele literackim [Music in a Literary Work]
  • Conditionings of criticism
  • Szulc’s[[I32]] strategy
  • The genesis of “musicality”
  • Criticism of the research
  • Perspectives
  • 2 Musicality – musicality of a literary work
  • The characteristics and the concept of musicality
  • The paradigms of “musicality” (an attempt at a survey)
  • Three musicalities of a literary work
  • Musicality I
  • Musicality II
  • Musicality III
  • Part II
  • 3 Description of music (between the poetic variant and the interdisciplinary variant)
  • Defining a literary description of music
  • Description of music: between the interdisciplinary and the poetic variants
  • 4 Literary fugues (Umberto Saba’s[[I93]] Preludio e Fughe and Paul Celan’s[[I93]] Todesfuge)
  • Negative research perspective
  • Umberto Saba’s[[I97]] Preludio e Fughe
  • Paul Celan’s[[I102]] Todesfuge
  • The effect of rhetorical strategies
  • 5 Listen and read: two sources of one interpretation strategy: (Stanisław Barańczak’s[[I119]] Podróż zimowa [Winter Journey])
  • Podróż zimowa as a literary text and a virtual vocal text
  • Musical matrix (context of Schubert’s[[I125]] text)
  • Semantic shift (context of Müller’s text)
  • Situational inspirations
  • Thematic inspirations
  • Phonetic inspirations
  • Consequences of listening and reading – musical literary text
  • Part III
  • 6 Score – Judasz z Kariothu [Judas Iscariot] by Karol Hubert Rostworowski[[I159]]
  • Between dramatic text and stage text
  • Rostworowski’s musical experiences – Judas
  • Towards the Theatre of the Absurd: “The words disappear…”
  • Rhythmical worldview
  • Conclusions
  • 7 Literature beyond literature: Hérodiade – “Hérodiade” de Stéphane Mallarmé[[I181]] by Paul Hindemith[[I181]]
  • A literary work in a musical work
  • Paratextual construction
  • Delimiting construction
  • Linear construction
  • Conclusions
  • Summary
  • Musicality of a Literary Work
  • Bibliography
  • Index of names


General Editor: Wojciech H. Kalaga

Volume 57


The possibility to represent music in literature is very limited – representation as an intersemiotic form of mimesis. This problem is extremely complex and quite unusual among historically sanctioned cases of music-literary relations, while it remains one of the most marginal in literature and undoubtedly the least developed to date. Contemporary literary and theoretical-literary studies – focused around issues that remain either in the common or peripheral circles of interest – relatively rarely signal the filiations of a musical phenomenon to a literary work. The reason for this state of affairs is to be found mainly in methodological fears, conditioned by competences and the choice of narrow specialisation, and in – eliminating the problem – research skepticism with regard to adequate literary means of presenting music, more precisely: literary assimilation of musical conventions, techniques, construction schemes. However, the diagnosis that would eliminate the issue, outlined for lack of a clearly defined research object and at the same time a suitable methodology, would prove to be not completely justified or even far wrong.

First of all, this is the reason, that “intersemiotic translation”1 and “intermedial transposition”2, the artistic efforts of transposing a musical composition into a literary work, constitute a separate tradition in the history of general literature3 (they function like a kind of topos). At the same time, some literary experiments, especially in the literature of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, on account of their form have become overly provocative, so that without any interpretative consequences we could avoid and not take into consideration the problem of their intersemiotic (intermedial) roots. Secondly, at the time of equal treatment or democratisation of various methodologies of literary research, the “paradigmatic ←11 | 12→‘interregnum’”4, in principle, all kinds of research activities are supported by a similar circumstance of non-procedural, one-off actions. Naturally, the specifics of the solutions on the border of two disciplines largely determine the restraint in the study of the musical entanglements of a literary work. In a certain unique way it is necessary to confront various kinds and irreducible phenomena, to prepare one’s own situation of methodological merging, which Steven Paul Scher laconically defines in the title of the article “Theory in Literature, Analysis in Music: What Next?”5 Interdisciplinary progress is undoubtedly paralysed by the awareness of the lack of universal research tools and the many dangers this brings, including the inability to directly transfer concepts or the minimal scope of simultaneously applying identical terminology in literary research and music research. But the question of methodology, I think, is a secondary complication, indirectly determining the state and (un)attractiveness of music-literary research – the basic difficulty causes, however, a less closely defined form of research model and the conditions of its singular identification. Initially concluding, the incidental nature of music-literary research does not seem to be a result of the complete lack of interest of today’s historian or literary theorist with musical-literary associations; paradoxically it results from general disorientation concerning the formula for defining the subject of research and determining its belonging to a given sphere of research6.

The perspective of research into music in literature

The source of the problem of musical filiations to a literary work, clearly exposed in the light of semiological research, is well known in its general form: the inevitable radical difference of the material of both fields of art hangs over the whole matter of musical-literary connections. A limited range of artistic solutions in the more detailed diagnosis is presented as the result of non-existence in language ←12 | 13→material – as Jean-Louis Pautrot accurately reflects the situation in terrain of literature in two fundamental postulates – of neither “musical notation”, nor also “musical structures”7. From the perspective of semiology it is not possible to talk about any adequate correspondence between the linguistic system and the music system for the reason primarily, to use the appropriate language, of the absence of trans-system signs (the principle of non-redundancy)8. Hence the study of musical phenomena in literature should be located in a slightly different region, in which even perfunctory reflection allows us to assert that some elements or aspects of a musical work appear in a literary work, that they undergo certain artistic interpretations, and often function in the rhetorical sense as constructive pendant. In the context of these dialectical conditions, the most general and fundamental opening thesis, despite apparent restrictions, sounds very cautious – potential intersemiotic relationships may extend not between literature and music, not even between literary works and musical compositions, but between a literary work and an artistic interpretation of a musical work9.

The manner in which the dialectical relationships work10, through which the existence of elements or structural schemes proper to music are feigned in literature, something fundamentally alien to it, is only possible to indicate in the situation of taking a single point perspective of the study and with a detailed analysis of some literary texts.

Designated research optics does not mean departing from semiological conditioning or attempting to avoid them by taking up some kind of hermeneutic discourse, not to be understood as “hermeneutic method”11 (which in fact, does not exist, as constatated by Hans-Georg Gadamer), but as a type of attitude of ←13 | 14→a person who wants to understand someone else12. The source of literary creation, situated outside of literature, implies to a greater or lesser degree research eclecticism and the method of dialectical process. Eclecticism in an interdisciplinary variant means the imposition of two different research perspectives, a kind of “comparative poetics”13 of the borderland; dialectics, on the other hand, is a consequence of this, and it leads to a way of thinking that makes it possible to explain the conditions of the non-translatability of a musical piece into a literary work. At the moment of analysing the experimental construction of literary texts, obligatorily demanding interdisciplinary diagnosis and reference to the musical genre or technique, there is an inevitable necessity of negative action in the field of comparative literature or more broadly: interdisciplinary practices. Analytical-interpretative action takes the form of dialectical argument, in order to establish at the beginning, whether in a given case there is any intersemiotic connection at all, while in the next turn to fully disclose its form and, above all, its semantic function in literature.

The intersemiotic and intermedial entanglements of literary work, in spite of many obstacles in their perception and effective analysis, with increasing frequency form the subject of separate reflection among contemporary literary studies. Calvin S. Brown characterised the problem in such an optic in a modern way in Music and Literature: A Comparison of the Arts (1948)14, placing it in a wider plane of music-literary research. Particular variants of relationships of literature with music are organised there in four issue spheres, concerning in turn: common elements (chapters 3–4), cases of coexistence (vocal music; chapters 5–8), influences of music on literature (chapters 9–17) and – analogously – influences of literature on music (chapters 18–21). The question ←14 | 15→of musical filiations to literary works (third variant) in a logically depicted arrangement of chapters of typology is presented clearly as a separate issue. This is indeed how Brown presented it many times, among other things in the relation between literature and music on the basis of the binary division scheme and assumptions that either there is a relationship between the two arts or not; in the first case, poetry may, on the one hand, “imitate” musical effects, interpret a musical work, while programme music, on the other hand, creates a “narration or description without verbal aid”15.

Similar solutions in effect cause the crystallisation of the narrow theoretical context among the many stranded aesthetic-philosophical reflections developed since antiquity, frequently and according to the various criteria ordered in the studies of historical links between literature and music. In the perspective of interest there remain relatively conceptually coherent working outs in recent decades, situated directly or indirectly in the field of music-literary research16.

Musicality – musicality of a literary work – musical literary text

The general confrontation of elements of literature and music in the light of today’s state of scholarship seems ineffective analytically, unconvincingly theoretically or even impossible17. In the broad field of music-literary studies, where it is difficult to occupy the neutral position of a conciliator, and all the more the position of an all-encompassing and all-powerful strategist, at most it may be possible to episodically describe perspectives in overview, some sort of strategic invariant closer to the character – depending on the form of the item being analysed – of either a musicological research model, or a literary research model. Consideration of musical-literary relationships is never neutral and for another reason, namely the manner of formulating the problemics. Reflection concerning the existence of a fragment of Herodiade by Stéphane Mallarmé in ←15 | 16→Paul Hindemith’s composition (“Hérodiade” de Stéphane Mallarmé), according to the subject criterion remains primarily in the field of musicology but can also be placed in the perspective of literary research by asking for a specific interpretation of the literary text or the condition of the literature outside the literature. This concerns the issue of categorisation – the arrangements concerning musical entanglements with a literary work can be localised in general at the beginning and end on operating with the secure concept of “musical-literary studies” (even just for the sake of the name itself, which defines the intersemiotic and intermedial qualities of the investigated phenomena and the specificity of the action). The problem, however, of literary research, of literary-theory optics, ultimately requires a more precise location among multi-faceted studies spanning a range of spheres and methodological issues18. Taking a closer look at the many potential ways of speaking about literature and music and about music and literature in a scholarly manner it is worth pointing out the orientation of literary research, their primordial perspective, exposed through a schematic view.

The following is Steven Paul Scher’s schematic diagram, considered to be a universal model for music-literary research19, which first and foremost shows the polar possibilities of considering the connections and the parallels arrangements of phenomena (“literature in music” analogically corresponding to cases of “music in literature”). Indeed, its importance in the context of the later proposed distinctions is double – it turns out to be valuable both in general, as it sketches the constellation of potential situations in three complementary planes (music and literature, literature in music, music in literature)20, and in particular, as it ←16 | 17→makes the most important problem here visible, which Scher includes in the name “music in literature”.

This extensive problematic appears directly in the perspective of literary research and refers to three different spheres: the sound layer of the literary text consciously formed through the prism of music (“music of words”), thematisation of music (“verbal music”) and the specific use of musical patterns and techniques in the creation of literary works. The planes presented in Scher’s diagram as separate not only have a slightly different status and are distinguished by individual manifestations, but because of the coexistence of these manifestations in a given literary work, they remain interdependent and will require simultaneous examination.

Generally speaking: this concept of ordering relations does not cause any objections, however, there is a fundamental problem related to the proposed terminology. Divergent propositions of researchers lead in fact to one fundamental and essential change – the category “music in literature” will be renamed to become “musicality of a literary work”. The danger of such a ←17 | 18→terminological resolution is enormous, because the musical filiations with a literary work considered in this way fit expressis verbis in the more complicated aesthetic problem of “musicality” and, consequently, must be situated among many – also those understood interdisciplinarily – variants of the phenomenon. However, they are decided by two basic arguments, ontological and terminological. First of all, it is necessary to point out the complex relationship of literary issues with distinct and divergently defined paradigms of “musicality” (it would indeed be hard to miss the extensive research tradition), secondly – paradoxically, it is impossible to avoid redefining particular categories and subsequent terminological shifts, which otherwise in music-literary studies represent a serious problem in the metatheory plane. Achieving a sort of terminological compromise becomes necessary: the term “music in literature”, in Scher encompasses the whole musical problematic in literature, in Ewa Wiegandt’s typology defines the level of thematisation is the defining factor; and at the same time, the meaning proposed here “musicality of a literary work” refers there to musical construction22 (!). Ultimately, it is worth accepting “musicality of a literary work”, because it immediately emphasises the status of filiation and exposes the singularity of the literary realisations. And perhaps the most important conclusion is that there are no literary conventions for presenting music – only a somewhat individual, one-time effect in a particular literary work is achieved.

In the adopted optics, “musicality” in literature is not an apparent question23, although it must arouse the most far-reaching objections through the prism of the functioning of the concept, one of the most ambiguous in historical and theoretical literary studies to date. It is well-known that simple generalisations regarding this matter do not reflect the real picture of complex reflection in the context of literature, where there is a fusion of several parallel types of discourse. Gross misunderstandings result from the impossible sorting of postulated artistic proposals, essay deliberations, the multi-channelled tradition of ←18 | 19→analytical-interpretative studies, purely theoretical, and especially the episodic findings of literary criticism24. As a result, the widespread abuse of the term may from time to time be subjected to criticism (Scher’s25 article for example), in circumstances of particular intensification of the tendency to metaphorise the language of the description of literary issues – radical polemics (Tadeusz Szulc’s26 essay deserves attention). These conclusions appear in the initial parts of Musicality of a Literary Work, where I attempt to show the dangers of individual use of the term in literary research, and at the same time its potential theoretical value. However, the problem of the parallel coexistence of the manifestations of “musicality” and the ways of categorising the phenomenon in contemporary culture is not the most important issue. Initial arrangements are only important, as long as they make it possible to determine multiple perspectives of research into the musicality of a literary work and construct a broader problem context for one of the three dimensions. Finally, in the centre of interest there will be a case concerning musical constructions in literature, referred to for a number of reasons as musical literary text. A literary work of this kind becomes an artistic interpretation of a musical schema, a deeply subjective interpretation, and not always exclusively verbal because of the presence of “non-literary” elements, such as fragments of musical notation. In such circumstances, the question of how to define a generally used methodology is moot (comparative or interdisciplinary), but the related question, namely: in what field should the study of musical literary text take place? seems to be key. Also if we accept on top of that, that all types of intersemiotic penetration of relationships in a literary work (of a character which is either analytical-interpretative, or just theoretical) are placed in the field of music-literary problematics, then where should we place musical-literary studies in relation to this?

Musical-literary research. Comparative literature

There are fundamental discrepancies in locating musical-literary studies (taken from the side of literature) within literary research, with the emphases in different traditions of research turning out to be very uneven. While the problems of musical-literary connections have been at the appropriate level in American comparative studies for at least a few decades, primarily due to the work Calvin S. Brown (numerous articles, two aforementioned books: Music and Literature; Tones into Words) and Steven Paul Scher (Verbal Music in German Literature, New Haven 1968)27 and with increasing frequency appears in the circle of interest of Western European comparatists (amongst others: Jean-Louis Cupers, Isabelle Piette, Françoise Escal, Jean-Louis Backès, Pierre Brunel, Aude Locatelli)28, it seems that in the Polish research tradition it appears – at least due to insufficient distinction within the framework of scholarly disciplines – something of a terra incognita. In our academic projects, the consideration of musical entanglements with a literary work is pushed to an undefined area (with perhaps full awareness of this), which is frequently difficult to combine on the one hand with broadly understood interdisciplinary studies, on the other however – with comparative literature studies. Undoubtedly, the basic complication has a more general background, and boils down to the theoretical definition of boundaries and to defining the formula of comparative literature; in short, to the question, of whether a wide status is granted to comparative literature studies, a discipline that also includes musical-literary studies, or are understood in the most traditional form29, at most ←20 | 21→broadened by the penetration of literature connections with the visual arts. The last case, to supplement the earlier conclusion, characterises Polish comparative literature30, which not only undertakes, but even – if we can think this – separates itself from musical-literary reflection. This is evidenced by the symptomatic lack of any text about the relationship between literature with music in the relatively recently published Antologia zagranicznej komparatystyki literackiej [Anthology of Foreign Comparative Literature]31, although Ulrich Weisstein in the included article (in the chapter Literatura i inne sztuki [Literature and Other Arts]) clearly signals a “division of labour”32 with Steven Paul Scher.

Central to this essay, the question of musical literary text becomes primarily the subject belonging to one of two branches of comparative research. Musical-literary studies however, in broad terms, should be regarded as interdisciplinary research33, which – taken from the perspective of primary literature review – shows partial affiliation to comparative literature34. The conclusion deals with the present state of scholarship, for a few decades ago the situation presented itself very ←21 | 22→differently in the field of comparative studies, and in the field of musical-literary studies. In the early nineteen sixties Henry H. H. Remak pushed for the concept of coexistence within the discipline of two complementary spheres of reflection following the American version of comparative literature (differentiating at that time from the French appropriation of the problem of intersemioticness)35, and further, nearly ten years later, Calvin S. Brown confirmed the lack of research organised and precisely oriented towards music-literary questions36. In the last five decades interdisciplinary studies (defined as being on the border between literature and music) have been associated with comparative literature37 and in its womb have acquired the status of an independent, clearly distinct branch of research. The fundamental duality of comparative activities is emphasised in some contemporary comparative literature definitions, formulated especially in the vein of Remak’s well-known proposal of 1961 (“it is the comparison of one literature with another or others, and the comparison of literature with other spheres of human expression”38). The dependence and at the same time distinction of intersemiotic issues was emphasised later by Remak during the 8th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association in a detailed typology, in which interdisciplinary studies occupy the last of the five problem areas of the discipline39.

Due to broadening of the scope of the subject and current research specifics, we speak of interdisciplinary comparative literature40 as a subdiscipline, equal in relation to “traditional” comparative literature. The term appropriately reflects the nature of the annexation, that is, the autonomy of interdisciplinary problematics within the sphere of general comparative studies (discipline level), at the same time, the conditions of overlapping different research perspectives and eclectic behaviour (methodology level). In other words, it defines both the ←22 | 23→type of activity and its place among the various literary studies within modern comparative literature. The interdisciplinary variant of comparative studies is not obviously uniformly homogenous and is generally reduced, as emphasised by Daniel-Henri Pageaux, to the intention of preparation which is either “intersemiotic” (potentially capable of describing two different systems simultaneously), or “transsemiotic41 (allowing analysis of common elements). It would be worthwhile to supplement the observations of the French comparatist, that the formulae of these studies in problematic (methodological) terms require visible modifications, and that these two possibilities should be treated today not so much in the sense of coexistence but in logical consequence. Attempts at “intersemiotic” examination of music-literary relations (of which undoubtedly the best example is Nicolas Ruwet’s42 proposal) replace “transsemiotic” projects; in other words, consideration of potential relationships – initially placed in the field of music and linguistics – is moved into the area of music and literature43.

Most of the reflections on musical inspiration in literature are fairly easy to classify in the general frame because they suit – or fit into the theoretical distinctions given by Jean-Louis Cupers – four essential possible orientations: biographical, traditional musical-literary, analogical and architectonic44. In reality individual strategies in isolation or in a shape, if it could be said, which is methodologically pure, appear extremely rarely, as witnessed by the form of the book by Cupers (Aldous Huxley et la musique) about the formal relationships of Huxley’s prose and essay writing with music. Hence the ordering of musical-literary studies according to individual variants makes it possible to see just basic differences between the existing studies. Here however, there are few conclusions: undoubtedly the most frequently selected option is the biographical (model approaches: X and Y45, X and ←23 | 24→music46), often also traditional musical-literary (music in work X47), much less frequently encountered is analogical (study of musical terms and quotations in literary works or analogies suggested by thematisation of music), and especially architectonic (analysing musical constructions interpreted in literature). In this light, the proposed theoretical outcomes concerning the musicality of a literary work and the analytical-interpretative conclusions of the musical literary text should be situated, in principle, in the last or in the last two problem spheres, with awareness, that this kind of approach still tends to simplification. In the case of a particular literary work, almost every attempt at analytical encompassing of musical-literary relationships in the aspect of analogy or musical structure requires a verifying reference to the biographical plan (commented or not). All argument is in essence sought in a not particularly procedural way, from a variety of perspectives, which in the case of studies of musical literary text leads to the final conclusion – it is only possible to formulate complementary theories concerning the union of a literary work with music.

1R. Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspect of Translation,” in: On Translation, ed. R. A. Brower, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959, p. 233.

2W. Wolf, “Intermediality Revisited: Reflections on Word and Music Relations in the Context of a General Typology of Intermediality,” in: Word and Music Studies: Essays in Honor of Steven Paul Scher and on Cultural Identity and the Musical Stage, ed. S. M. Lodato, S. Aspden, W. Bernhart, Amsterdam–New York: GA Rodopi, 2002, p. 27 ff.

3More broadly speaking: they belong to the context of all literary relationships with music as one of the historical manifestations, which is well shown by Jean-Louis Backès in a review of the material from antiquity to the present. See J.-L. Backès, Musique et littérature: Essai de poétique comparée, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1994, pp. 139–248 (chapters 5–9).

4R. Nycz, “Dziedziny zainteresowań współczesnej teorii literatury,” in: Ruch Literacki, 1 (1996): p. 2. See also idem, Język modernizmu: Prolegomena historycznoliterackie, Wrocław: Fundacja na Rzecz Nauki Polskiej, 1997, p. 192.

5See S. P. Scher, “Theory in Literature, Analysis in Music: What Next?,” in: Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, 32 (1983): pp. 50–60.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (May)
literature music music in literature musicality intertextuality Comparative Literature
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 240 pp., 4 graphs, 8 scores

Biographical notes

Andrzej Hejmej (Author)

Andrzej Hejmej is Professor at the Faculty of Polish Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. His recent publications focus on comparative literature and cultural studies and he authored numerous papers on comparative literature, literary theory and modern Polish literature.


Title: Musicality of a Literary Work
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