Translated by Kenneth Chalmers
Principles of Vocal Composition
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In chemistry, the term amalgam is used to signify the solution of bronze with mercury in order to obtain gold and silver. Amalgam can also be used in discussion of problems of vocal composition, of setting of language to music. For when music and poetry are joined together the “end product” is always more than the sum of the constituent parts. Something qualitatively new – a synthesis would be another term – comes into being.
Since at least the 19th century, theoreticians and composers have examined in depth the significance, possibilities and requirements of the symbiosis of music and poetry, art song and music drama providing them with much of the material for their deliberations. Not surprisingly, contrary positions were regularly expressed. While some saw the quality of a poem as a criterion for its suitability for setting to music, others took the element of musicality into consideration.
The view that a poem is less suited to musical setting the more finished it is might seem curious to us nowadays but had its advocates nonetheless. Brahms himself felt that Goethe’s poems could hardly be enhanced by music because of their finished quality. “They are all so perfect,” he once stated, “you can’t do anything to them with music.”1 This explains why Brahms set relatively few Goethe poems. Mahler too admitted that it always seemed to him barbaric when musicians “undertake to set beautiful, finished poetry to music”. “It is,” writes Ida Dehmel, recording Mahler’s own words, “as...
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