Here’s a mouthful of text to set to music:

“No one on whom the sun of her eyes has shone, who has been wrapped in the warmth of her heart, has lived a life in shadow, but feels deep gratitude towards Providence which revealed itself in divine mother love, thereby implanting in us a belief in love immortal and eternal.”

That’s the final sentence of Eugenie Schumann’s Memoirs, and the source of the concluding passage in my Genealogie.  When setting it to music, my first step was to make a few slight adjustments in order to clean up the rhythm:

“No one on whom the sun of her eyes has shone, who’s been wrapped in the warmth of her heart, has lived a life in shadow, but feels deep gratitude to Providence which revealed itself in divine mother love, thereby planting in us a belief in love eternal, immortal.”

What I’ve done was both very simple and absolutely essential: I’ve pared a very long sentence down to phrases that pace more effectively to my ear.  To get there, a few small steps:

  • “Who has” changed to “who’s” – 2 syllables condensed into 1.
  • “towards” changed to “to” – again, 2 syllables to 1.
  • “implanting” changed to “planting” – this time, 3 syllables condensed to 2.
  • Deleted the word “a” – not necessary, one less syllable.
  • “immortal and eternal” changed to “eternal, immortal” – two things happening here: “and” is replace by a comma, which deletes a syllable, and the order is switched.  For reasons I can’t quite explain, I don’t feel comfortable ending a piece with the word “eternal.”   I suppose it feels a bit hackneyed.  “Immortal” is every bit as extravagant but somehow doesn’t seem quite so overdone.

Having made these adjustments (which, by the way, have no impact on the meaning of the sentence – I’m not averse to changing meaning when necessary, but it wasn’t necessary in this case) my next step is to create musical segments that convey the meanings in graspable packages.  Prose morphs into poetry, each of the line breaks indicated by a breath of a few beats in the musical line (and here’s an apology for the way WordPress skips lines in verse – takes up far too much space on the screen, but nothing can be done about it, as far as I can tell):

No one on whom the sun of her eyes has shone,

Who’s been wrapped in the warmth of her heart,

Has lived a live in shadow,

But feels deep gratitude

To Providence

Which revealed itself

In divine mother love,

Thereby planting in us

Belief

In love eternal,

Immortal.

Next, the harmonic rhythm places another level of emphasis on certain moments in the text.  Here I’ve marked in [TS] for each tonal shift:

No one on whom the sun of her eyes has shone,

Who’s been wrapped [TS] in the warmth of her heart,

[TS] Has lived a live in shadow,

But [TS] feels [TS] deep [TS] gratitude [TS]

To [TS] Providence [TS]

Which re- [TS]vealed itself

[TS] In divine mother [TS] love,

[TS] Thereby [TS] planting in us

[TS] Belief

In love e- [TS]ternal,

Immortal.

Notice only one shift in the final phrase “Belief in love eternal, immortal.”  Four out of those five words are among the most lavish in the English lexicon: no need to gild the lily.  There’s a fine line between expressing fine sentiment and wallowing.  Notice also the shift on every word in “feels deep gratitude to Providence.”  Why?  That line feels like it would be difficult to follow if sung too quickly, so I’ve spread it out over several measures, giving each word time (and a separate harmonic world) to register.

I’ve laid out these steps as if I were following an instruction manual, but in practice all of this happens in a very unstudied manner.  I set the lines in a way that appeals to me; in retrospect I can pick out the discrete steps.  The moment-to-moment process is intuitive, and who is to say how much of it comes from experience, study, or natural inclination?   I’ve long ago given up on the idea that I might be able to accurately gauge the relative weight of the many inputs leading to creative output.  All I can do is report something about the results of various stages, and hope there is some value in that exercise.  Of course, I haven’t even touched on shifts in scoring, texture, counterpoint, etc.  How inadequate language is to the task of conveying musical composition!  And yet, I keep trying to capture something, while the steps are fresh in my mind.

2 Responses to “Prosody workshop”
  1. Larry,

    A most welcome and absolutely precise commentary on the challenges of text setting. Thank you for posting this. Bravo!

    Warm regards,
    Ken

  2. Lawrence Dillon says:

    Thanks, Ken. As you well know, there is so much more that could be said on this subject, but I appreciate your response.

  3.  
Leave a Reply