It’s a truism that great poetry doesn’t always make for great lyrics. Most composers who have set a lot of poetry can attest to the fact that some of the things that make a poem come alive on the page or when spoken are the very things that make it DOA when set to music.
I haven’t heard much discussion, though, of the ways that poorly constructed poetry can make for effective music. I’ve been writing the texts to my own vocal works for about 25 years (longer, if you count all the songs I wrote as a kid), so I’ve had plenty of experience dancing on this particular cracked pavement.
For the last few months, I’ve been working on an extended choral work, and a prime example of this divergence has cropped up. The text is:
We saw her fall,
her arms extended.
On the page, this quatrain is hopelessly clunky. It gets off to a promising start in the first couplet, but the second couplet thuds: rhythmically inert, a horrible rhyme, an obvious parallel.
Yet, when sung, the cloddities are given space to shine in a way they never could on the page. The reason? The vocal setting takes the better part of three minutes, with each word explored in detail through repetition, elongation, fragmentation. In particular, “extended” and “suspended” both get hung up on their second syllables, leading to sustained “nnn” passages, which create a long range rhyme that drifts into nothingness. There really isn’t a good way to accomplish that in a poem, but it makes perfect sense in a musical composition.