For National Poetry Day, we’ve decided to celebrate by making a collection of our favourite poems that have been set to music. Poetry has been a source of inspiration to composers for centuries, and whilst the importance of text in music has been long disputed, it is hard to doubt the direct influence that poetry had in the following compositions.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German writer and early participant in the Sturm und Drang literary movement, and his works were a source of inspiration for many composers throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann. Franz Schubert set much of his music to Goethe’s texts, including ‘Liebhaber in allen Gestalten’. This comical poem begins ‘I wish I were a fish’, with each stanza introducing a new object the protagonist hopes to be. However, at the end, he concludes that everyone will just have to accept him how he is.
Goethe’s poem is light-hearted and buoyant; listen how Schubert sets it to music in Edith Weins’ recording.
Winterreise is one of Franz Schubert’s most famous works: the song cycle sets 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller for tenor voice and piano. The first song, ‘Gute Nacht’, opens this masterpiece of despair with steady monotonous chords, and the text ‘As a stranger I arrived’. Listen to Ian Bostridge’s take on Schubert’s intimate, desperately sad setting of this stunning text.
Emily Dickinson is a 19th century American poet who wrote nearly 1,800 poems during her lifetime. Although she was deeply private, and during her lifetime, her songs were only ever heard by her closest friends, she is now thought to be the poet most set to music, ever. In 1950, Aaron Copland wrote a song cycle of 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson for piano and solo voice. From this collection, ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ is one of Dickinson’s most famous poems, in which the narrator reminisces about their journey with death.
Listen how Copland sets this unsettling poem with abrupt leaps, dissonances and irregular rhythms in this recording by Roberta Alexander.
Clemens Brentano and Ludwig Achim von Arnim were both German poets and leading figures in German Romanticism. They worked together to produce Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder, translating as ‘The boy’s magic horn: old German songs’, which was published at the beginning of the 19th century. This collection of folk poems included stories of love, children’s songs, and folklore, and was one of Gustav Mahler’s favourite books. He decided to set it to music: one poem from this collection, Nicht wiedersehen, is about a lover who returns home from a long journey to find his true love is dead.
Mahler sets this devastating poem for baritone, and uses poignant major-minor shifts and dissonant repetitions of ‘Ade!’ to depict its tragedy. Listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s tender yet dramatic recording.
W. H. Auden is a 20th century American poet, renowned for his works ‘Funeral Blues’ and ‘The Shield of Achilles’. Auden developed a close relationship with composer Benjamin Britten, and as a pacifist, Britten moved to America during the Second World War, where he spent much time with Auden. Britten’s first opera, Paul Bunyan, was set to Auden’s libretto, and they collaborated on a number of other projects. Although they notoriously quarrelled, Britten declared ‘Auden is in all my operas’, and they undoubtedly had considerable influence over each other’s artistic output. Auden and Britten produced Cabaret Songs in the 1930s, and this diverse and exciting work is jocular in style. In our favourite song, ‘O Tell Me the Truth’, the protagonist tries to depict love’s characteristics, and understand its influence.
Here is a recording by Della Jones: hear how Britten’s melody uses chromaticism and seductive slides for this inquisitive, provocative poem.
Earlier this year, we were fortunate enough to work with composer Richard Birkin, whose project ‘Songs for Spoken Words’ used the poetry of Michael Oliver Frearson. Rather than actually setting text to music, Birkin intends that one listens to his instrumental music whilst reading Frearson’s poetry. This can either be spoken – it is possible to download their app – or one can watch Birkin’s video and read the poem in their head. This also adds a visual as well as aural dimension to the work. Furthermore, hearing one’s own internalised voice enables one to contribute to the art form themselves. This innovative project stretches the boundaries of music’s relationship with text, and how they combine in various art forms. The work has been highly praised, and Lauren Laverne from BBC 6 Music described it as ‘a beautiful project, a lovely idea’.
View Birkin’s website and watch the final piece, ‘Goodbye’, to understand this experience fully.
Exploring how composers set different texts is key to understanding their musical style and thoughtful responses, and we hope we’ve opened your eyes to the importance of poetry in music. Although this list is selective, our interests are wide-ranging – from Vaughan Williams’ setting of 3 Shakespeare Songs, to the Beatles’ Because – and poetry will continue to have a profound effect on musical composition in the future. It is for this reason in particular that we celebrate National Poetry Day.