Monday, May 21, 2012

Thoughts on Text Setting (Current Composition Projects)

Thoughts on Text Setting (Current Composition Projects)

Part One: Shakespeare's “Full Fathom Five”

I thought I might give some insight into how I choose and set texts. Some people might be really interested in this, and some may find it a bore. But here we go:

The first text I will share with you is one you may know from HS literature classes- Ariel's Song “Full Fathom Five” from “The Tempest” by Shakespeare. I have never set a Shakespeare text until now- I think I have been put off by how many Shakespeare settings there already are out there, plus the language issues- the Elizabethan syntax sometimes is a bit elusive for modern readers. I was actually looking at some SATB settings of this text as part of a lesson on text-setting, and I finally knew it well enough that I began to like it as a possible text to set myself, this time for a women's choir commission through Iris Levine and ACDA. So my setting is different than the ones I was studying- SATB a cappella settings by Ralph Vaughn Williams, Jakko Mantyjarvi, Reginald Unterseher, and Matthew Harris.

Here is the text (with text line numbers added for study):

1. Full fathom five thy father lies;
2. Of his bones are coral made;
3. Those are pearls that were his eyes;
4. Nothing of him that doth fade,
5. But doth suffer a sea-change
6. Into something rich and strange.
7. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
8. Ding-dong.
9. Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.

The poem's meaning needs to be discovered first, and a reading of the Tempest will supply it. Prospero has ordered Ariel to sing this song to Fernando, in hopes of fooling him into believing that Alonso, his father, has died when their ship broke apart. Thus the sprite Ariel is singing a song of death and strangeness which actually isn't true at all- yet its goal is to create confusion in the minds of the characters Prospero attempts to control.

To set the poem one of the first things to do is to determine how the length of the poem will guide the length of the setting (how much repetition will be used, any harkening back to earlier lines, etc). In addition the form of the poem may very well shape the form of the music, but not always- quite often I take texts which are free-form and still create an ABA musical setting, which is usually quite successful since musical ABA forms satisfy the psyche of the listener quite thoroughly.

Assuming we are setting the piece in some sort of tonal manner, what key and mode shall we choose? If the piece is about death or a dead man, does this mean we have to use minor? Could there be some conflict in keys, and use of polytonalty and/or dissonance in order to express the strangeness?

Another thing to try to get a handle on is how to handle heavily weighted images or words. Lines one through three are full of rich visual imagery and the text of line 4 and especially lines 5 and 6 which follow, “a sea-change into something rich and strange”, have to be set with conviction. Will the composer strive for a strange effect or harmony in line six, or is that simply too obvious and hokey? There is no totally right or wrong way to do all this- it's just important that the composer make his/her choices in melding text and music and know why they are making them. If one indeed chooses to mirror or even “Mickey Mouse” the words quite directly, success can occur if the music is strong, unique, and yet still seems very “natural”, and not something totally expected or even worse, an outright cliché.

This poem also presents another point at which a very important decision needs to be made- shall the composer mimic the sound of bells in lines eight and nine in some way, either in the voices or a ccompaniment if there is one? If the decision is to create bell sounds, how overtly or how subtly will this be handled?

So let's look at some examples, especially the Vaughn Williams SATB a cappella setting, which is easily the most famous. Here is a recording by the Sonitus Chamber Choir directed by Matthew Jeff:

As you heard, RVW (Ralph Vaughn Williams) makes a firm decision to imitate bells and sets up the sound world of the whole piece up by using the final words of the poem to do so. But these are no ordinary bells- their tonality and rhythms are quite odd! The lower male voices begin to sing (over the women) the text starting from line one in a major key and in a fairly plain fashion- setting up a psychological clash with the oddness and complexity of the women's bells. Musically, the men's major third and perfect fifth clash strongly with the bells in the women's voices, particularly their flatted sixth degree. When line 4 arrives the piece changes, the bells disappear for awhile, and all the voices and text wander in search of the meaning of lines 4, 5, and 6. Also, I think it is interesting to note, that despite the fact that lines 1 and 3 rhyme, as also do lines 2 and 4- line 4 is much more important for its own ideas and the extension of thought into the succeeding lines. Thus the simple rhyme and message of lines 2 and 4 is not limited to its seemingly stodgy position as part of the first four lines. RVW understands that line 4 flows over in a wonderful way and I also observe this as well in my setting (see below for details). Overall RVW created a small gem of a piece here. It has its own rich soundworld and its own piquant tonality/polytonality to it. He also does a masterful job of taking advantage of the possibilities of layering voices in an SATB setting, starting with the women, adding the men, then later uniting their voices, etc.

The Mantyjarvi setting is not much to my liking. It's quite slow, and generally homophonic. While there are interesting moments, the text is not set in an imaginative way, plus my biggest objection- some (probably unintended) barbershop chromaticism. Perhaps as a non-American he wouldn't understand this, but the barbershop harmonies (at about the halfway point of the piece) jump out to my ears and seem really out of place and odd-and not odd in a good way. Mantyjarvi chooses to not “ring” the bells- he touches them for a moment but hardly uses any bell sound devices (that's a choice, and I only comment on it, not judge it).

My own setting:

My setting for SSA (with often more divisi) and piano unfolds in the following way. A half note block chordal piano introduction in E flat minor (also at times E flat hanging suspended fourths)is used to imply the weight or expanse of the sea-- some of the chords stray away from E flat minor, in order to unsettle the listener a bit (hinting at strange things). The singers enter and sing weaving lines covering text lines 1,2,3- and then 1,2 repeated with some added layers of weaving lines. I actually disassociate line four from its rhyme of line 2 and start a slightly unexpected key change and an oscillation of A major and f # minor chords, thus A naturals and A sharps clash for supremacy, also a smorzando melodic leap from low e to high F natural (over an A major chord- a minor sixth over a major chord being purposely reminiscent of Vaughn Williams) on the words “doth suffer”, also bringing tension. Line six is the highest dynamic of the piece, and is given a lot of repetition with oddly shifting harmonies. Things settle a bit and then a long, hypnotic, gradually building and dramatic setting of lines 7 and 8. As that finishes the piece has settled back into E flat minor, but there are still some unsettling harmonies draped over that. Finally, I use the singers to somewhat imitate bells over a piano part that still wants to wander from the gravity of E flat minor at times. I decided it was appropriate for me to suggest bells and in this instance I felt it was not Micky Mouse to do this, and certainly more subtle to use the voices for this than clang away with the piano doing some kind of hokey bell tones. The piece actually ends with a Jean-Luc Picardy third, which also seems “strange” since we haven't really heard too many major chords during the piece. The major ending also lessens the darkness of the mostly minor key setting - this really does not clash with the text, since we should remember that Alonso is not actually dead!

All in all I think the piece is powerful- its somewhat odd dissonances and rich harmonies, its weaving voices reminiscent of the underwater world of strange vegetative and animal life, plus the long hypnotic ending, which includes some short lines in fairly extreme high range soaring above in two soloists) give it an otherworldy “rich and strange” feeling, in my opinion. Out of all the settings I know of this text, mine is the longest, and I think the time I allow for the story development and unfolding of the music is a nice plus for the piece.

As the piece is not yet finished and will first need to be delivered to the numerous consortium choirs premiering it in 2012-13, I can't share any files or specific examples of it yet. But I hope that you will check in again later when I can do so. Thanks for reading!

I hope you have enjoyed this small foray into how a composer views a text- looking for its meaning, pacing, and drama- and how we try our best to transform great poetry into great music.


Up next: Part Two- setting a war poem by Amy Lowell

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