by Divina Bajpai
Founder/CEO, Singer-Songwriter, Musician, Pianist, HR Professional
The corresponding changes in and similarities between the Structure of Poetry and Western Classical Music from the 1700s to the 1900s
Poetry is perhaps one of the oldest forms of art, communication and catharsis. Defining it or putting the boundaries of a particular structure to it would be defeating the whole purpose of poetry. Writing poetry as such has always been a very intellectual exercise which is beautified by words and driven by the utilization of the finer senses. The form, structure, theme and nature of poetry may have, and has changed over centuries but at the heart of it, the idea remains a constant- it lends solace and attaches a piece of itself within the soul of the reader and sharpens their finer senses. Poetry has been through various stages and civilizations. From the renaissance times of Shakespeare, Marlow and Bacon, to the Elizabethan poetry evolved with society as did society from poetry with the Jacobean, Caroline, Commonwealth, Neoclassical, Augustan times when Sidney, Donne, Spenser and Milton had come to explore and exercise this intellectual art. The Romantics followed and were perhaps one of the most interesting and innovative. Coleridge, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Keats came into the picture and changed the face of poetry. They cultivated individualism, reverence for the natural world, idealism, physical and emotional passion, and an interest in the mystic and supernatural. They set themselves in opposition to the order and rationality of classical and neoclassical artistic precepts to embrace freedom and revolution in their art and politics. Romantic ideals never specifically died out in poetry, but were largely absorbed into the precepts of many other movements.
Western Classical Music
Western Classical Music, like, poetry, is another form of art, communication and catharsis that has stood the wear of time and continues to carry with it the weight of history. It is easier than poetry, however to define but uses an equal amount or more of the intellect which is driven by the same finer senses that are used in poetry. Music, like poetry has also been through many stages over the decades. From the Renaissance, music took a turn into the Baroque Era which was mainly dominated by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi where like post renaissance literature, even the structure of music turned reason oriented and logic driven. One of the most famous compositions of Bach were the Preludes and Fugues that were published in the set of books called the Well Tempered Clavier. Post the Baroque came the Classical era dominated by Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Clementi, Couperin and Schubert. Sonatas and Sonatinas were the highlights of this period. The Classical Era in Music was followed by the Romantic Era with Chopin, Liszt, Brahms with the Waltzes, Mazurkas and Nocturnes. The Modern Period followed. 1400-1600 was the Renaissance period, 1600-1750 the Baroque, 1750-1820 was the Classical Era, 1820-1900 is called the Romantic Period and post that, the Modern.
The purpose of this essay is to link these two aspects of human civilization (where the civilization encompasses art, science, religion, philosophy and intellect).
How it all started
Much of the power that poetry so strongly radiates comes from the fact that poetry began as a song. A melody can be found in its sounds, whether hard or soft, vowel or consonant, whisper or wail. Poetry began as something that went with music, words that were read to the accompaniment of the lyre (those Greeks!), thus the word “lyric.” A great number of his finest pieces of music, like poetry are undeniably infused with a constant searching and investigation of the self. Poetry and music have always been closely related. Perhaps the most basic element shared by the two is rhythm. Langston Hughes, for example, has talked about how fundamental rhythm is to human culture. Poetry can contain many different kinds of rhythm at the same time: Individual lines may be composed in the regular patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables that we call meter, but there is also a rhythm between lines, as metric patterns are repeated or varied. Repeated sounds, whether of end-rhyme, or internal rhyme, or the subtler echoes of half-rhyme, to say nothing of other devices such as assonance and alliteration, all combine to create a complex rhythmic fabric. T. S. Eliot once wrote that poetry begins with a drum being beaten in a jungle, retaining “that essential of percussion and rhythm.” The idea that the rhythm of poetry holds a kind of archaic appeal for its listeners is common, and it is often paired with another notion: that such elements as rhyme and rhythm are rooted in childhood pleasures. Sometimes the relation between poetry and music is very close indeed, as in the case of song lyrics or ballads. Sometimes music is only an analogy or a metaphor, a ghost we are invited to imagine we hear. Langston Hughes’s poem “The Weary Blues” contains a small sample of the blues form, but more importantly it receives its inspiration and many of its conventions from the blues. The setting of the poem, its subject matter and mood, and even its diction owe something to the blues. Poets have been invoking song for centuries, from Virgil’s “Arms and the man I sing,” which begins his epic The Aeneid, to T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Music may also be present as an echo or a memory in a poem that is not otherwise a song.
Before doing a detailed comparative analysis between a piece of poetry by the Romantics and a corresponding pieces by Western Classical Composers of the time, there are a few highly useful terms and concepts – some used in critically analyzing and understanding poetry and some for music- which are actually interchangeable- as in the terms for poetry can make sense in music and those for music, in poetry. Some of those terms are familiar but frequently misinterpreted. A few of those are – form or structure, tone or tonality, theme, imagery, cadence, counterpoint and an Alberti bass. These are the basis upon which the analogies and comparative analysis will be drawn. Poems come in a variety of forms for example, the Abecedarian, Anaphora, Ballad, Ballade, Blues poem, the Bop, Cento, Chance operations, Cinquain, Dramatic Monologue, Ekphrasis, Elegy, Epic, Epigram, Epistle, Found poem, Ghazal, Haibun, Haiku. Similarly, music also comes in a variety of forms such as the Prelude, Fugue, Sonata, Sonatina, Nocturne, Mazurka, Waltz, March, Toccata.
The tone of a poem or a piece of music is one of the most important things that are brought out when read. The word ‘tone’ describes the overall sort of atmosphere and feeling that the poem seems to have. Most of the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth emphasized intuition over reason and the pastoral over the urban. Wordsworth himself in the Preface to his and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads defined good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” though in the same sentence he goes on to clarify this statement by asserting that nonetheless any poem of value must still be composed by a man “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility [who has] also thought long and deeply”. In music, a great variety of tone colour; woodwind and brass sections of the orchestra was increased; many special orchestral effects were introduced and there was rich and colourful orchestration.
Themes and Images
The themes and images brought about by a poem and a piece of music depend highly upon the form, structure and tone and can be either intellectual, or romantic or even religious. Rene Wellek, one of the great modern critics of Romantic poetry believed that the Romantics substituted imagination for the view of poetry, nature for the view of the world, and symbol and myth for poetic style. Romantic poetry marked a significant departure from Neoclassical poetry both in terms of its characteristic preoccupations (the supremacy of the Imagination, nature and its relation to humans) and its style (the use, especially, of symbol and myth). In music, especially Beethoven’s Sonatas, for example his Moonlight Sonata, and all of its three movements are based on nature and are inspired by the moonlight. Similarly his Pathetique Sonata can be compared to Wordswoth’s Elegy. For Beethoven through looks back at his life, reminiscing with a lot of pastoral influences. Another example is the Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, is a piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was named Pastoral or Pastorale by Beethoven’s publisher at the time, A. Cranz. While not as widely recognised as its immediate predecessor, Piano Sonata No. 14, it is admired for the intricacy and technicality in the beauty it portrays. It takes roughly 35 minutes to play the entire work as intended with repeats.
A cadence is a pause or a short break in a piece of music or poetry. It can be done in a number of ways. Musically there are 4 types of cadences- perfect (dominant to tonic), imperfect (tonic to dominant), plagal (subdominant to tonic) and interrupted (tonic to subdominant). In poetry, pauses or cadences can be experienced by the formation of verses and structure of the piece apart from the obvious commas, semi colons, colons and full stops. A comma is equivalent to the latter three kinds of cadences and a perfect cadence is a full stop. It has been noticed that the cadences in poetry correspond to a similar type of cadence in the music which is produced around the same time.
A counterpoint, characteristic of the post renaissance period i.e. the Baroque is another important facet that is common to Counterpoint, art of combining different melodic lines in a musical composition. It is among the characteristic elements of Western musical practice. The word counterpoint is frequently used interchangeably with polyphony. This is not properly correct, since polyphony refers generally to music consisting of two or more distinct melodic lines while counterpoint refers to the compositional technique involved in the handling of these melodic lines. In terms of poetry composition, the contrapuntal form involves two separate, but related poems that are combined to create an entirely new, third poem, the third poem is composed of all the lines from the first two poems, read in a particular sequence. Rather than reading each poem through, line one, two, three, and so on, line one of the first poem is read, followed by line one of the second poem, line two of the first poem, then line two of the second poem, and so on in this pattern. The resulting poem yields a completely new perspective on the subjects and images depicted in the first two. Most of the contrapuntal music in the history of Music has been composed by JS Bach in his 24 Fugues that he wrote for all his Preludes in his two books Well Tempered Clavier 1 and 2.
Alberti bass is a particular kind of accompaniment figure in music, often used in the Classical era, and sometimes the Romantic era. It was named after Domenico Alberti. It is a kind of broken chord or arpeggiated accompaniment, where the notes of the chord are presented in the order lowest, highest, middle, highest. This pattern is then repeated. The broken chord pattern helps to create a smooth, sustained, flowing sound on the piano. However, it is also found in pieces for other instruments. What an Alberti Bass is to music, a steady rhyme scheme and rhythm is to poetry. It is typical of the Romantic poets, especially Lord Byron who very effortlessly and beautifully structured a constant rhythm and rhyme scheme into his poetry. A very good comparison would be his poem She Walks in Beauty which is probably one of the most beautiful poems in the history of English Literature to Mozart’s Piano Sonata K 545.
It is evident from these examples that Poetry and Music and Poets and Musicians of a common period, are affected by the same issues, socio-political problems and have a similar idea of beauty. A shift from one Era to the other can be seen in the styles of each of the compositions in music and poetry and analogies can be drawn.
Sonata in E flat major, Hob. 16:49 by Josef Haydn
An example of how startlingly similar these are can be established by one simple example which is just one out of the many that can be drawn out and read into. The famous Sonata in E flat major, Hob. 16:49 by Josef Haydn, one of the most brilliant classical composers of all time was composed and published around the same time as William Blake wrote and published his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
In the eighteenth century – perhaps more so than in any other era – many (serious) musical styles (or idioms and forms, if one prefers) were directly linked to social practice outside of the ‘serious music’ domain. Such styles were often applied deliberately by composers, in the knowledge that their sources would be recognized by the audiences. For the modern listener, who may have little knowledge of the contemporary cultural and social context of that earlier epoch and of the common musical language of the time, it becomes difficult to identify such styles and even more problematic to understand the way in which these styles were imitated, manipulated, combined or deliberately applied, often quite out of normal context. With Haydn in particular (who was a master of this kind of manipulation) it is crucial to be aware of the contemporary musical language. The sonata form is probably one of the most common forms in classical and romantic music. This form is commonly used in the first movement of sonatas, string quartets, symphonies and even concerts. It has three main sections: The Exposition The themes to be used in the sonata are presented in the exposition. It generally has two sections, the first section in the main key and the second section in the key of the dominant – or in case of minor keys – in the relative major or dominant key. Each section can have one or more themes. The themes may be similar or contrasting. The exposition can begin with an introduction. The first and second section are connected using a transition. This transition modulates to the new key. Composers as early as Mozart and Beethoven sometimes experimented with other keys for the second section. The exposition ends with a codetta. The Development In the development section, the composer develops the themes presented in the exposition. Recapitulation The recapitulation is a varied repetition of the exposition. The most important difference is that the second section is now in the main key. The composer can add, remove or develop sections and make variations in the texture and orchestration in the case of orchestral works. The movement ends with a coda that sometimes becomes a second development.
Written during his second visit to London, Haydn’s sonata displays many of the musical ideas that Haydn gathered in the cosmopolitan capital of England. Its astonishingly revitalized style is witness to the fresh stimuli he received through the new and foreign culture. While his Sonata can be said to embody the Viennese keyboard , his last three sonatas contain many elements of pianistic writing that he could only have acquired in London. Haydn’s sonata in E flat contains many elements of the ‘public’ London pianoforte style. It clearly shows that Haydn was impressed by the flamboyant virtuosity of his local colleagues and that he enjoyed exploring the sonorities made possible by the new English keyboard instrument. Sonata 49 in E-flat major, written in 1789, is one of the last of Haydn’s sonatas, and his mastery of the standard form was and is unquestioned. Looking now at the other pieces of the time, this convention provides a template by which to judge divergence and innovation. That was probably a judgment a mode of listening in his time. Looking at the sheet music and listening to this “sonata” one expects to see a first theme in the tonic key followed by a contrasting theme in the dominant, followed by material that confirms the dominant key and leads to a cadence in it. And one does, for the most part. In the longer second half one expects to see a “development” section that begins in the dominant and moves through more distant harmonic areas while exploring motivic material from the themes, leading to a cadence on the tonic and a recapitulation of both original themes, now planted firmly in the tonic key. And one does do. The standard narrative, reiterated in sonata 49, is of travel: home, departure, and return—“the hero’s journey”. There is also a convention that the first theme has a masculine identity and the contrasting theme a feminine. The standard form, then, iterates a phallo- and heterocentric theme: a male hero is established, followed by a female counterpart introduced as contrast/Other, and her force (key area) is the “dominant” pull on the energies and attention of the hero. Both undergo challenge, being transformed by their journey through exotic key areas—also heard as Other (development), before returning home (recapitulation), where both themes now sound in the original key (his).Theorist Susan McClary identifies, in the tonal narrative, patriarchal subjugation and domestication of the feminine, and this gendered reading of the tonal story is evident enough to be recognized by many theorists, including Arnold Schoenberg, whom McClary quotes comparing the inevitable tonal recapitulation to the heterosexual marriage that always concluded eighteenth century theatrical comedy. Inevitability would become the central quality proposed by Heinrich Schenker as defining the “masterworks” he favored, valorizing linearity over other meaning-shapes, and placing sonata form at the pinnacle of his aesthetic value system. This Haydn sonata conforms to this traditional structure.It is almost as if Haydn intended a demeaning marriage narrative in the piece he would dedicate and send to his beloved friend? But that is not so. But myth courses below the surface of every discourse, and it is not beside the point to remind us of the unspoken social conventions implied in a piece of art, especially where they touch the sword of power, which always divides. As in the standard model, sonata 49 begins with a perky theme, outlining the tonic triad through a neighbor tone figure, and announcing both the tonic chord and its counterpart. It is momentarily interesting that the opening motif doesn’t contain the tonic note in the melody, instead progressing through small skips to the 5th scale degree, accented. The second theme, as expected, is more lyrical, a rhythmic and melodic contrast, and though it doesn’t live entirely in the dominant as the model would have us expect, it spends time there, emphasizing the subdominant just as much, the minor key that will be the primary contrast area later in the development. The tonal narrative is built on a myth of encapsulated drama, with a clear beginning and end. Volumes have been written on the effect of delayed cadence, half/full cadences, deceptive cadence, modulation to and confirmation of key areas. Cadence signals arrival, and this “arrival” is only a metaphor—it’s just changing acoustic frequencies, after all—but it’s a seemingly useful metaphor for critics all along the spectrum. It must be reckoned with.
Timothy Vines believes that showing more than ‘the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul’ Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience reveals a symbolic development which existed in opposition to conventional concepts of modernity and morality. Blake’s writings are an endeavor to loosen or break society’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, which had been created through the edicts of a repressive church and supported by Parliament. Blake pointed to what he saw as the traditional values lost in the late 18th century. Through his poetry Blake fashioned an ideal form of human existence and weighed contemporary society against it. He found society wanting. Calling for the liberation of human energy and creativity, Blake’s Songs are scathing in their criticism of the prevailing mood of enlightenment rationality, a spirit of the age manifested in Newton, industry and conquest. Blake’s poems serve to damn those institutions which, by their advocacy of this rationality, sought to stifle divine energy with oppressive morality. This restrictive morality was anathema to Blake’s concept of the innate divinity of life, and a continuation of the practices which had separated man from God. Unity between energy, poetry and God was portrayed by Blake as an eternal ‘innocence’ while ‘experience’ came to embody that which had led man to fall from Eden – the invasion and subsequent enslavement of imagination by reason. Most poems in Innocence have an opposite in Experience. Thus the pastoral paradise of ‘The Lamb’ is juxtaposed with the industrial furnace of ‘The Tyger’ and the holy unity between man and God in ‘The Divine Image’ is offset by man’s malice in ‘The Human Abstract’. Blake’s poems can be analysed as a response to a collapse in human innocence – his maxim ‘everything that lives is Holy’ challenging the status quo enforced by those who would ‘[bind] with briars … joys & desires’. Blake’s innocence was once possessed by all, when man and God were united in a common ‘divine image’. All souls in this state of innocence were ‘white’ – filled with the light divine. Now, however, the new-born babe has innocence swiftly stolen by the repressions of an age where children were damned to work as chimney sweeps or to morals founded on pronouncements of ‘Thou shalt not’. Wherever Blake wanders in London all he observes are ‘Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. Songs of Innocence and of Experience is both a wondrous voyage into this shadowy spiritual world and a harsh indictment upon a society infamous for its injustices, cruelty and hypocrisy. Through his poems, animated by his engravings, Blake sought to challenge the collapse in society’s values, to reverse the decent into the godless abyss of reason and to reunite an intrinsically holy humanity with its creator.
Both Blake and Haydn were deeply influenced and affected by London. Both have an underlying sense of woe and melancholy that underlies their respective pieces of art. The physical structure and the divisions of moods and tones in all the three movements of Haydn’s Sonata are reflected in the two counterparts of Blake’s Songs- Innocence and Experience. Just like there was a shift from naivety and a sense of facing the woes of life in Haydn’s Sonata from sprightly-ness to depth from the first to the second movements in the sonata, and a sense of awareness and maturity in the finale, similarly Blake shifts from his sense of innocence to that of experience. The diversity and variety in the number of and kinds of short poems that Blake has included in his collection showcase different aspects of the Christian faith, vulnerability and awareness and are an amalgamation of different facets of structure, tone, theme and emotions and yet have a common underlying idea. It too is analogous to Haydn and the above mentioned diverse critique of Haydn’s Sonata.
There is a bibliography available for the research for this paper on request.