Words and Music: A Coexistence

by Richard Sellens


‘Words, a letter and a letter on a string, will hold forever humanity spellbound’

– Anders Edenroth, ‘Words’

In ‘Words’ (2005), Anders Edenroth considers the extent to which words are integral to human life, ranging from functional usage to artistic expression. In this article, I will explore how composers have used words in diverse combinations with music, by way of three examples: Eriks Ešenvalds’s The Time Has Come, Steve Reich’s Different Trains and Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane.

Ešenvalds’s The Time Has Come (2015) is the first musical setting of Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration speech. It might be unsurprising that the words take precedence, leaving the music to act as their vessel. This is not to say that the music is dominated by the text, but that the former’s function is something other than expressive interpretation. To allow Mandela’s words to be fully appreciated and to retain the authenticity of their original context, Ešenvalds must let them speak for themselves. As such, the music’s rhythms are dictated by a speech pattern that often contradicts the metrical stresses one normally encounters in a piece in 3/4 time (where the first beat of each three-beat bar would usually be given the most emphasis). Additionally, notable parts of the speech are performed by the two soloists who represent the individual speaker. When the full choir comes in at what one would consider the ‘chorus’, it is an extension of that one voice. This continues until the end of the piece, which concludes not with raucous jubilation but with an understated repetition of ‘let freedom reign’ beneath the rising lyrical lines of the soloists.

The words of The Time Has Come carry an importance, both personal and political, that is associated with the matter of apartheid in South Africa. As such, the audience, already knowing the words or even just their context, will enter into this piece with preconceptions as to how the language should be represented and interpreted by the music. Therefore, it is fitting that Ešenvalds essentially diminishes the responsibility of the music in favour of the established power of the text, giving rise to a relationship akin to coexistence. Through this, the composer has established an authenticity of representation that would not have been achieved had the music ended with a jubilant explosion of sound.

There are preconceptions about how, if at all, an art form should represent an event such the Holocaust. The balance of authenticity and interpretation is a delicate act that is rarely achieved. Among those undeterred is Steve Reich, in Different Trains (1988), which explores the lives of train travellers during WWII, specifically in the USA and Germany. Reich explains his reasons for composing such a piece:

The idea for the piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old my parents separated […] Since they arranged divided custody, I travelled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942 […] I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.

With this in mind, Reich recorded interviews with his childhood governess and a retired Pullman porter about their experiences on the trains. These he combined with collected audio recordings of Holocaust survivors from the Furtunoff Video Archive, which in 1982 aimed to preserve the first-hand witness accounts.

Different Trains is composed additively through several layers of recording and live performance. This consists of the audio interview recordings from the 1960s and 1980s, sounds of American and German trains from the 1930s and 1940s, the recorded ‘train’ string accompaniment (1988) and five solo performers (a string quartet and sound technician) who react to and embellish the existing material. Therefore, a performance of the piece today encompasses over eighty years of material.

In Different Trains, the music arises from the words in order to make a soundscape representative of the experiences of WWII. The subject matter and the specific statements are of great importance to the formation of the piece, primarily on a structural level, the piece being divided into three movements: ‘1. America – Before the war; 2. Europe – During the war; 3. After the war’. Yet from a technical, compositional standpoint these factors have no bearing. Instead, Reich extrapolates the implied melody of the voice and grafts this onto the instrumental make-up of the piece. It is through this that authenticity is retained; the speakers’ voices dictate all elements of the music that surrounds them, whilst simultaneously being heard in their original form by means of audio sampling. 

This should not be taken as suggesting that Reich allows the vocal intonation fully to control the harmonic structure of Different Trains, and thus deny him any compositional merit; but he certainly lets it take the lead, with all others elements of the piece following in its wake. As Reich strives for authenticity in Different Trains, it is clear that he wants the original source to remain as close to unaltered as possible, be it through retaining the full phrases of speech or through retaining the exact recording quality (however distorted this is at times). Nevertheless, the composer also realises the need for some level of manipulation. In this respect, certain phrases are played out of order or re-contextualised in relation to others, specifically in the third movement in which the excerpts begin to converse with one another, such as at the start when the statement ‘and the war was over’ is artificially answered by ‘Are you sure?’ Each vocal excerpt is shadowed by an instrument from the live solo quartet, which acts as a leitmotif later in the piece, representing the speaker in their voice’s absence. This allows Reich to interweave the excerpts further and eventually, in the third movement, to imply a cacophony of text without using words.

The voices heard in Different Trains will likely be unknown to the listener. What they discuss, however, will be all too familiar, and it is this recognition that serves as a connection to the lives laid out in the music. One might assume that a piece of music inspired by the Holocaust would be one of deep sadness and reflection. Different Trains certainly delivers on the latter, though this reflection comes directly from the words, virtually undistorted and undistracted by the surrounding soundscape, not from a deeper meaning or understanding that has been inorganically extracted from them. Additionally, whilst there are moments of sadness in the piece, Reich understands that this is not the message of Different Trains. The message is of life progressing despite where it finds itself and the atrocities by which it is surrounded.

The pieces of music discussed thus far have taken inspiration from pre-existing words. Fauré’s Pavane (1887) is different. The lyrics to Pavane were written by Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) alongside the music, and are considered optional (the score is described as ‘Pour orchestre avec Choeur ad libitum’). The outcome is a complex relationship between the two ensembles, within the reality both of the performance and of the music. With or without the choir, the orchestral music remains exactly the same. All of the melody is given to the instruments, with the choral music acting as supplementary material. On occasions where the choir sings a melody, such as the first entrance by the sopranos, this is doubled by an instrument or the harmonic line is shadowed, which prevents the vocal music from extricating itself from that of the orchestra. The exception to the rule comes in the altos’ final solo line (‘Adieu donc…’), which is the only time an independent melody comes from the chorus. Nevertheless, its cyclical chromaticism harks back to a similar melody heard moments before in the tenors and violins, lessening the impact of the moment of individuality from the singers.

From a purely musical standpoint, the orchestra and choir are divided, but still mutually complementary. From a lyrical standpoint, however, their relationship is defined by the choir’s reliance upon the orchestra. de Montesquiou’s text plays on the stereotypes of La Belle Époque (during which Pavane was composed), namely those of the gossiping upper classes and hopeless lovers, as it eavesdrops on the small talk and intrigue of a courtly dance. In order to achieve authenticity for this, the music of the Pavane (the origins of which lie in the traditional Spanish court dance) functions both as what the dancers hear and as what they sing. In other words, the music is diegetic: it exists within the reality of the piece as opposed to simply being a performance for the listener. Indeed, the dancers’ conversation at one point turns to their dancing and the music, about which they are not the most complimentary (‘Faites attention…’); at this point the piece loses its status as a ‘setting’ (i.e. music composed for or around the words). In light of the musical separation and the commentary, the listener hears the music through the dancers’ ears and, consequently, the in-universe reality of the Pavane becomes the listener’s reality. The music is no longer Fauré’s Pavane, but the pavane that is accompanying this courtly dance. It stands to reason, therefore, that without the music that Fauré composed neither the dancers nor their words would exist. They are simply a representation of the fantastical escapism that is emblematic of La Belle Époque and a product of the music to which they dance and chatter.



Richard Sellens studied for a BA in Music at Durham University (2014) and now works at the University of Cambridge. In his spare time, he sings in several choirs and tries not to burn things in the oven.



Image credit: Andrew Gustar

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