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How does music and text relate?

Like many connections between music and others art forms, the relationship between music and text has evolved through the influence of social and cultural changes in society.


The use of text in a composition can easily be altered through the stylistic flairs of the composer. They can obscure the semantic meaning of the original text, using techniques such as melisma, polyphony and musical accents in unnatural places within the text. In contrast, the composer can create more emphasis on the semantic meaning through the use of syllabic writing, monody and musical accents placed naturally in the text.


One of the most significant song cycles is No.7 ‘Auf dam Flusse’ from Schubert’s Wintereise. Schubert’s Lied writing sets the ‘foundation of its modern tradition. That tradition flourished throughout the nineteenth century and helped foster the proliferation of popular as well as art song traditions in the twentieth.’ (Lawrance, 2007,111) The Lieder was at the heart of romanticism as we know it today. ‘The term can be seen to embrace a number of philosophical and aesthetic concerns that are not necessarily confined to music’. (Beard and Kenneth,2005,121) Being one of the most significant and pioneering examples of Lieder, Schubert uses a clear foundation of techniques to create emphasis on the semantic meaning of the poems of Wilhelm Müller.


From the beginning of the song, Schubert demonstrates a desire to reflect the meaning of the text in his musical setting, The first stanza Müller describes ‘His wanderer is struck more by the present glacial metamorphosis, by the stillness and silence.’(Youens,1991,179) This is introduced with ‘minimal harmonic motion’ (Youens,1991,179) coextending with syllabic writing seen in the last bar of figure 1. The simplistic step like phrasing pays homage to the early evolutions of the genre as the ‘composition of Lieder was principally amateur pursuit.’ (Gibbs, 1997,121) Schubert introduces the song in E minor which is also seen in figure 1. There is a clear relationship between the chosen key and the related emotions of ‘declaration of love, lament’. (Schubart,1806)



Schubert continues word setting after the first four measures of the vocal line with a sudden modulation to B minor at the phrase “Wie still bist du geworden” which can be seen in figure 2. This modulation portrays the image of ‘as if the transformation of the river to its frozen state takes place in the instant.’ (Youens,1991,179) This is the start of numerous dramatic modulations Schubert uses to reflect changes in emotions and state of the wanderer.



Within stanza three and four, Schubert demonstrates clear word setting that elevates the traditional themes of German Romantic poetry. Müller appreciated what music could add to his poetry, ‘For indeed my songs lead but half a life…until music breathes life into them’(Youens,1991,3)


Schubert’s part writing within the piano part in these two stanzas demonstrates an understanding for the deeper understanding of the semantic meaning of the rushing stream lying silent under the ice. A metaphor for the wanderer’s heart swelling full of emotion under the frozen exterior represented by the ice. This is demonstrated at mm.23 with the modulation to E major, the tonic major which establishes a bittersweet tone for stanza three and four where the wanderer recollects memories ‘Den Tag des ersten Gtusses’. This can be seen in figure 3.



At this point Schubert resounds to the text in which the ‘wanderers’s vocal line becomes more lyrical, less cautious and hushed reaching past the D-sharp apex in stanza 1 and 2 to high E.’ (Youens,1991,180) This conflicts with the piano writing where ‘the accompaniment quickens markedly.’ (Youens,1991,180)


Schubert’s desire to reflect the meaning of the text continues through to stanza five. At this point in the music, Schubert’s musical setting seems ‘doubly significant’ (Youens,1991,180) From point onwards, Schuberts writing portrays a deeper semantic meaning ‘The submergence of the previous melodic line from stanza 1 and 2’ (Youens,1991,180-181) as seen in Figure 4.


It is clear to see through the analysis why Schubert became the most influential composer in the history of the Lied. His awareness to the introverted behaviour of German poetry, paired with his understanding that nature was used as a metaphor for love and emotion, it can be viewed that Schubert pioneered a new style of composition of Lieder which was originally a ‘principally amateur pursuit.’ (Gibbs,1997,121)


Throughout the 20th century, new techniques in the approach to text setting started to develop, the ever increasing awareness of non-western cultures and traditions such as Gamelan were slowly influencing composers style and approach. Stravinsky was widely acknowledged as a pioneer in 20th century vocal music. This was based on ‘Stravinsky’s most frequent complaint about the state of vocal music in the Western tradition was that composers too often try to marry the text to the music’ (Zakresky,2009,9)


The twelve tone composition, ’The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ by Stravinsky leans more to being a “nonsense poem for voice and a one-voice piano line doubled at the octave” (Oden,2015,1) Stravinsky’s word setting is all about denaturing the semantic meaning of this poem and making the music “present the text , not represent it”. (Zakresky,2009,9)


The composition has no time signature as seen in figure 5. The piece feels unstable from the start, something that obscures the meaning of the text making it feel artificial. From the beginning of the song, Stravinsky demonstrates a desire to obscure the meaning of the text in his musical setting in a ‘sung rhythm that denaturalizes the normal declamation and makes the words seem artificial' (Straus, 2001: 46) This seems to standard compositional technique for Stravinsky and ‘reinforces his anti-expressive aesthetic’ (Straus, 2001: 46) The Owl and the Pussy-Cat is an example of Stravinsky wanting ‘the texts to serve more as independent phonemes to be manipulated in formal schemes than as semantic bearers of meaning.’(Straus, 2001: 46)




The Owl and the Pussy-Cat is an example of twelve tone writing and how he “developed a particular style of text setting where “the accents of spoken language were merely there to be manipulated like any other parameter” (Taruskin,1987,196). Stravinsky uses clever retrogrades and inversions of the prime twelve tone to represent the semantic meaning of the text. “Stravinsky aligns I2 and its retrograde with the words of the Owl, P2 with the words of the Pussy-Cat, and I8 with the entrance of Piggy-wig.” (Oden,2015,1) This could be further evidenced that “Stravinsky is said to have told Balanchine that the song ‘should be impersonated: a little hooted, a little meowed, a little grunted for the pig’.” (White,1984,543) further evidence of the previous point is found in Chelsea Oden’s report “It’s also noteworthy that nowhere else does I8 show up except for the entrance of Piggy-wig, strongly suggesting a character association” (Oden,2015,5)


Stravinsky continues to demonstrate a desire to obscure the meaning of the text in his musical setting with the composition of the piano accompaniment. Stravinsky uses the piano to “off-set those of the singer. Turning our attention to this rhythmic interaction between the voice and piano” (Oden,2015,10) Figure 6 demonstrates the disjunct relationship between the voice and piano.



Schubert and Stravinsky where both influential composers in the development of music and text. Their works demonstrate how the relationships between text and music have developed upon social and cultural shifts between the end of the 18th Century and the 20th Century.


Schubert displays much more consideration to the semantic meaning of the original text source. Where as Stravinsky, influenced by the ever increasing awareness of non-Western cultures, obscures the semantic meaning by separating the ‘musical meaning from the textual meaning’.(Zakresky,2009,9)


It can be seen in figure that Schubert uses text setting to further enhance the deeper semantic meaning. Schubert also demonstrates his understanding of new compositional techniques such as dramatic modulations which is evidently carried through to the 20th century. Whereas, Stravinsky uses even more ambitious melodic choices with the use of twelve tone to off set textual meanings.


One major difference in compositional techniques is part writing, Stravinsky uses ambitious rhythmical concepts obscuring the semantic meaning in figure 6 with ‘awkward, angular lines.’ (Oden,2015,7) whereas Schubert takes a much more conservative approach using step like phrasing putting more emphasis on the textual meaning which can be seen in figure 1.


One thing that has remained at the centre of all vocal music is how composers have manipulated the meaning of ‘text setting’ to match their “compositional procedure”. (Zakresky,2009,9). Despite social and cultural influences playing a huge parts into how the relationship between text and music has been portrayed between the 18th and 20th century, text plays a crucial role in setting composers “musical saliva…in motion by the sounds and rhythms of syllables”. (Zakresky,2009,9)




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