Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Lied by example

The 75th volume in our Eastman Studies in Music series is a study of German Lieder edited by Jürgen Thym, Of Poetry and Song. Within its William Morris covers is a truly interdisciplinary study of the relationship between text and music written by two musicologists and two German-literature specialists. In this post, Thym explains how this quartet came together and the rationale behind their collaboration:

Of Poetry and Song: Approaches to the Nineteenth-Century Lied constitutes a kind of symposium, a (mostly virtual) get-together of scholars with a common interest and a similar approach to the subject matter. Our conversations extended over decades. Sometimes we met at conferences, sometimes we offered separate contributions at the same conference session, and sometimes two of us teamed up on a conference paper or article. In retrospect, it may even seem that the four humanist-musicians (or were we musician-humanists?) constituted a school.

It was by no means foreordained that the quartet of scholars represented through selected writings in Of Poetry and Song would recognize each other as like-minded and belonging together, as disciplinary boundaries and careers in very different institutions separated rather than united us. And yet, from very early in our academic careers, we pursued studies in the German Lied informed by the insight that the song is a compound genre whose aesthetic character is determined by the interaction of poetry and music and that such studies are most successful when the expertise in musical and literary matters comes together in one individual or, alternately, when scholars of Germanistik and musicology (or music theory) collaborate.

There were additional common underpinnings. Very early on we were united by a dissatisfaction with the state of research on Lieder around 1970, which, with a few notable exceptions, may be characterized as a divide between music scholars, often analyzing the Lied with little or no regard for the poem that inspired the setting (as if a song were just a piece of chamber music), and specialists on Goethe or the German Romantic poets, insisting on the primacy of the literary text (or the interpretation of a particular critic) as determining the quality of a setting. And when attention was paid to the Lied as the setting of a poem, authors commented, almost exclusively, on the images of the poetry or the emotional content of the words and how these aspects found their equivalents and analogues in the musical setting.

While not denying or denigrating the importance of these dimensions in the setting of Lieder, the four authors insist on treating the poem and its setting as a complex phenomenon in which different dimensions of language and music work together (and, at times, also conflict with each other) in order to establish a network of communicative meaning. Meter and rhythm, rhyme structure and sound values, verse structure and stanzaic organization, and the succession and connotation of images establish a complex organism that can be subjected to a variety of interpretations. And the composer, by responding to some or many (certainly not all) of these dimensions, establishes a correspondingly complex organism, the Lied that constitutes an interpretation of the poem.

The quartet’s approach is thus unashamedly structuralist—perhaps no surprise in view of the dominant paradigm in academia during the years when we first formulated many of these essays, but our approach is also open to meaning and expression. We believe that it is futile to neatly separate structure and meaning—in fact, the latter comes into being through the former. And here is perhaps a lesson to be learned, or reaffirmed, at a time when paradigms have changed in the humanities—we indeed live now in a completely different, post-modernist, era. The essays, hopefully, may suggest some ways in which close analysis and factual knowledge can help inform the search for meaning(s), and, vice versa, a search for meaning(s) can invigorate analytical and factual studies.

When did the four authors become a school unified by similar convictions in studying Lieder? There was no fanfare, heralding a new beginning; no manifesto, asserting the righteousness of our cause; not even a conference session in which all four, jointly, introduced their approach on text-music relations to their colleagues in Germanistik and musicology. (It even seems doubtful that we ever got together as a quartet.) And yet, communication and collaboration slowly began to take root more than thirty years ago. Two members of the quartet, Ann C. Fehn and Rufus Hallmark, worked together in the late 1970s on their magisterial study on Schubert’s pentameter settings, announcing their findings at various professional conferences and publishing them in two different essays (condensed in Of Poetry and Song into one chapter).

When Fehn moved to the University of Rochester in 1982, accepting a combined academic and administrative position, she quickly reached out to me (I had just become chair of musicology in the University’s Eastman School of Music), invoking one of our common interests, German Lieder. “Would it not make sense to meet once a week or every other week,” she argued, “to talk about something non-administrative?” The collaboration undertaken as an escape from administrative burdens, was, in a way, an extension of the work Fehn had begun with Rufus Hallmark. From investigating the declamation of a particular poetic meter (line structure, as it were), we moved to larger poetic forms: the ghazel (taking a cue from Harry E. Seelig who had worked on Wolf’s settings of this poetic form), the sonnet (clearly an extension of the pentameter studies by Hallmark and Fehn), and free verse (arguably a follow-up to Seelig’s unpublished lecture on Goethe’s “Ganymed”).

It was especially the infectious energy, gentle persuasiveness, and generosity of spirit of Ann C. Fehn who inspired the scholarly collaborations that, in due time, led to dialogues and lectures at professional conferences and, finally, also to publications of an interdisciplinary nature. It is futile to speculate about the directions that the collaborative efforts of the four authors might have taken, if the life of Ann C. Fehn had not have been cut short, at age 44, in November 1989 after a long illness. But so many of the essays collected in Of Poetry and Song owe their existence to, or were inspired by, her intellectual curiosity, organizational skills, and, ultimately her astute insights on issues pertaining to the German Lied, that the symposium may be considered a record, a memorial as it were, of a collaboration of scholars that saw its heydays in the late 1970s and 1980s and whose echoes have continued in the work of the three surviving members up to today. For that reason the book is dedicated to the memory of Ann C. Fehn.

Of Poetry and Song is edited by Jürgen Thym and published by the University of Rochester Press this month. For further information about this or the previous 74 books in the Eastman Studies in Music series, please visit our website.

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