Classical music can be a good route to discover poetry. In songs and choral works, composers have set words on all sorts of subjects. And just occasionally, one of those subjects is music itself.
For a composer to set words about music might seem like self-indulgence. There’s certainly no shortage of source material: writers have long been drawn to the ineffable qualities of ‘the mosaic of the air’, as Andrew Marvell put it. But, since composers naturally share a love of music, perhaps it’s no surprise if these words don’t always bring about the most emotionally complex responses.
Take Schubert’s song An Die Musik. It’s in a straightforward melodic vein, and its message of sincere gratitude for the comfort music provides – it literally ends with a ‘thank you’ – brings to mind a much later song by ABBA.
Alternatively, Purcell’s Music For A While uses a mesmerising ground bass pattern, which lulls us into the very suspension of cares its lyrics describe. Other composers turn to sonic opulence – Vaughan Williams’s Serenade To Music calls on 16 singers, with a rich and serene orchestral sound, while Parry’s Blest Pair Of Sirens pulls out all the stops to celebrate music glorifying God.
Much less straightforward, however, is one of my recent discoveries. Kenneth Leighton’s symphony no. 3 is scored for orchestra with tenor soloist, and its subtitle, Laudes Musicae, is a name for the genre of writing in praise of music, of which there are examples as far back as Classical times.
But from the first notes, it’s clear we’re a long way from Schubert’s easy eloquence. Soft, luminous fragments conjure a sense of mystery, and a tight tussle of string lines leads to a fraught climax. Then the tenor begins, with a few lines of the composer’s own hand:
Oh yes I must sing
And so you must sing also
For all music is singing
And in music is there praise of life
The sentiment seems straightforward, but Leighton’s exaggeratedly florid melismas on ‘sing’ and ‘praise’ add an almost perverse sense that this won’t be so simple.
Leighton also gathers an unusual set of texts for this piece. Most of the first movement draws on Religio Medici, a 1643 spiritual work by the Renaissance polymath Thomas Browne. Written at a time of Puritan censure, Browne makes an essentially Pythagorean defence of music: that it represents cosmic order and harmony. The tenor sings these convoluted old sentences in a mostly declamatory style, with the orchestra shifting and erupting in illustration.
But I think a key point comes at the end, when Browne argues that even the ‘vulgar’ music of taverns has value:
there is something in it of Divinity more than the eare discovers. It is an Hieroglyphicall and shadowed lesson of the whole world, and Creatures of God, such a melody to the eare, as the whole world well understood, would afford the understanding.
‘Shadowed’ and ‘hieroglyphical’ immediately make sense of Leighton’s music. This symphony is less in praise of the art than it is spellbound by its mystery. And on its final word, the first movement evaporates into thin air.
As it happens, the text of the second movement only complicates matters further. It’s not a poem I was aware of before, but it has a wonderful musicality all of its own:
What was he doing, the great god Pan,
Down in the reeds by the river?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Musical Instrument tells the story of Pan, who cuts a reed from a river bank and makes it into a flute. Leighton represents this mischievous character with a wonky scherzo – nimble pizzicato strings and woodwind flourishes.
But the story is no simple creation myth for music. The subtext here is that the reed is the nymph Syrinx, who has transformed herself to hide from Pan’s lusty pursuit. Consequently, this poem has been interpreted as a feminist retelling of Pan, as a figure of rampant male power who laughingly cuts Syrinx up and plays her for his own enjoyment.
Browning describes him trimming the nymph-reed, pulling out its pith like a human heart, and notching ‘the poor dry empty thing’. Here Leighton creates a compelling sense of mounting horror in a long crescendo.
And yet Browning’s point is not so simple either. The note Pan plays on the butchered Syrinx is ‘blinding sweet’, ‘piercing sweet’. Here Leighton’s music grows heady and languid, the tenor duetting with flute arabesques in intoxication.
Browning uses music to suggest something primeval but complicated – both alluring and appalling – and Leighton responds enthusiastically and vividly to this dramatic mixture.
Another poem that I was only vaguely aware features in the final movement – Shelley’s Music When Soft Voices Die. The work began with the praise of life, and now it foreshadows death:
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovèd’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
After a brooding introduction, the tenor sings Shelley’s lines in a suitably pensive mood, rising to anguish in its final couplet. But far from slumbering on, this unleashes the most magnificent passages of the whole work, the orchestra gathering strength in a series of broad, expressive paragraphs.
Having dwelt so long on ephemeral illustrations of music’s power, Leighton’s turn to purely musical logic feels like a culmination. And there is a sense of catharsis when the movement eventually fades to the soft voices of woodwinds, before dying away on a faint string chord.
This symphony is a very singular work, but in my opinion all the better for it. Much like the mischievous Pan, Leighton splashes about in the Laudes Musicae genre, and gloriously muddies its crystal waters. The result is certainly one that vibrates in the memory.