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Songs in Motion: Rhythm and Meter in the German Lied

Songs in Motion: Rhythm and Meter in the German Lied W. H. Auden claimed that the theme or content of a poem is often, for a real  poet, less interesting than its rhythm and meter. “All my life,” he said, “I have  been more interested in poetic technique than in anything else.” Ezra Pound  also chimes in: “Rhythm must have meaning” (qtd. in Fussell 965] 1979, 3).  Moving  from  poem  to  song,  we  hear  something  similar  from  Brahms,  as  recounted in the memoirs of his one-and-only composition student, Gustav  Jenner: He  recommended  to  me  that  before  composing  [a  song]  I  should  carry  the  poem around with me in my head for a long time and frequently recite it out  loud  to  myself,  paying  close  attention  to  everything,  especially  the  declamation. I should also mark the pauses especially and follow these later when I was  working. . . . It is particularly pleasurable to observe the way that Brahms knew  how to treat these pauses in his songs, how they are often an echo of what precedes them, often a preparation for what follows . . . how here, at times, the  rhythm undergoes an artistic development.1 (1905, qtd. in Malin, 151) To be sure, we have the option of waving such comments aside as poetic or  music-compositional  shoptalk—what  do  they  have  to  do  with  us?  Yet  it  is  hardly  insignificant  that  poets  of  the  stature  of  Auden  and  Pound,  and  a  composer  of  the  stature  of  Brahms,  should  so  explicitly  place  rhythm  and  meter at the very center of their creative activity. Perhaps we should take their  words as an incentive, when working with song in general and Lieder in particular, to bring rhythmic and metric matters closer to the center of our own  analytical and interpretive endeavors—to respect them as carriers of meaning in their own right. 1  For the excerpt cited here, and many more, see Jenner  1990, 197. Journal of Music Theory  55:2, Fall 2011 DOI 10.1215/00222909-1540365  © 2012 by Yale University To determine why and how rhythm bears meaning in the Lied, and to  ponder what such meaning might be—these are the tasks of Yonatan Malin’s  Songs in Motion: Rhythm and Meter in the German Lied. Malin sets for himself a  challenge  that  no  previous  writer  has  taken  on:  to  write  an  analytical  and  interpretive book on the nineteenth-century Lied that focuses primarily on  rhythm and meter. That he should choose the Lied for such a study is entirely  natural. After all, rhythm and meter are aspects, individually, of both poetry  (with its patterns of accented and unaccented syllables) and music (with its  successions of strong and weak beats). But poetic meter is not measured— that is, not regulated by an isochronous pulse—as musical meter is, and so  the setting of a metrical poem to metrical music always requires choices on  the part of the song composer, and such choices can be intriguing indeed.  On  the  one  hand,  musical  setting  can  be  perfectly  straightforward,  if  the  rhythmic  patterning  of  a  perfectly  regular  metrical  poem  is  matched  to  a  corresponding patterning within a perfectly regular musical meter. As Malin  points  out,  such  simple,  hand-in-glove  poetic/musical  correspondence  was  characteristic of the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Lied, with its  close connection and similarity to German folksong (Volkstümlichkeit). such  regularity was without question the default that Lied composers, especially  those of the early nineteenth century, had in mind when making their musical  settings.  But  as  the  Lied  evolved  from  a  folk  genre  into  an  art-music  genre—that is, as a high-art consciousness emerged gradually out of the originary  Volkstümlichkeit—irregularities  multiplied,  in  both  poem  and  music,  and they became expressive devices in themselves, in the separate arts and in  their combination as Lieder. It is especially these irregularities that interest  Malin and that underlie many of his choices of songs for analysis, for use as  examples of a particular technique, and for hermeneutic interpretation. In such irregularities lies another reason that the Lied is a natural repertory  for  Malin  to  study.  American  http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of Music Theory Duke University Press

Songs in Motion: Rhythm and Meter in the German Lied

Journal of Music Theory , Volume 55 (2) – Sep 21, 2011

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Duke University Press
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Copyright © Duke Univ Press
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0022-2909
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1941-7497
DOI
10.1215/00222909-1540365
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Abstract

W. H. Auden claimed that the theme or content of a poem is often, for a real  poet, less interesting than its rhythm and meter. “All my life,” he said, “I have  been more interested in poetic technique than in anything else.” Ezra Pound  also chimes in: “Rhythm must have meaning” (qtd. in Fussell 965] 1979, 3).  Moving  from  poem  to  song,  we  hear  something  similar  from  Brahms,  as  recounted in the memoirs of his one-and-only composition student, Gustav  Jenner: He  recommended  to  me  that  before  composing  [a  song]  I  should  carry  the  poem around with me in my head for a long time and frequently recite it out  loud  to  myself,  paying  close  attention  to  everything,  especially  the  declamation. I should also mark the pauses especially and follow these later when I was  working. . . . It is particularly pleasurable to observe the way that Brahms knew  how to treat these pauses in his songs, how they are often an echo of what precedes them, often a preparation for what follows . . . how here, at times, the  rhythm undergoes an artistic development.1 (1905, qtd. in Malin, 151) To be sure, we have the option of waving such comments aside as poetic or  music-compositional  shoptalk—what  do  they  have  to  do  with  us?  Yet  it  is  hardly  insignificant  that  poets  of  the  stature  of  Auden  and  Pound,  and  a  composer  of  the  stature  of  Brahms,  should  so  explicitly  place  rhythm  and  meter at the very center of their creative activity. Perhaps we should take their  words as an incentive, when working with song in general and Lieder in particular, to bring rhythmic and metric matters closer to the center of our own  analytical and interpretive endeavors—to respect them as carriers of meaning in their own right. 1  For the excerpt cited here, and many more, see Jenner  1990, 197. Journal of Music Theory  55:2, Fall 2011 DOI 10.1215/00222909-1540365  © 2012 by Yale University To determine why and how rhythm bears meaning in the Lied, and to  ponder what such meaning might be—these are the tasks of Yonatan Malin’s  Songs in Motion: Rhythm and Meter in the German Lied. Malin sets for himself a  challenge  that  no  previous  writer  has  taken  on:  to  write  an  analytical  and  interpretive book on the nineteenth-century Lied that focuses primarily on  rhythm and meter. That he should choose the Lied for such a study is entirely  natural. After all, rhythm and meter are aspects, individually, of both poetry  (with its patterns of accented and unaccented syllables) and music (with its  successions of strong and weak beats). But poetic meter is not measured— that is, not regulated by an isochronous pulse—as musical meter is, and so  the setting of a metrical poem to metrical music always requires choices on  the part of the song composer, and such choices can be intriguing indeed.  On  the  one  hand,  musical  setting  can  be  perfectly  straightforward,  if  the  rhythmic  patterning  of  a  perfectly  regular  metrical  poem  is  matched  to  a  corresponding patterning within a perfectly regular musical meter. As Malin  points  out,  such  simple,  hand-in-glove  poetic/musical  correspondence  was  characteristic of the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Lied, with its  close connection and similarity to German folksong (Volkstümlichkeit). such  regularity was without question the default that Lied composers, especially  those of the early nineteenth century, had in mind when making their musical  settings.  But  as  the  Lied  evolved  from  a  folk  genre  into  an  art-music  genre—that is, as a high-art consciousness emerged gradually out of the originary  Volkstümlichkeit—irregularities  multiplied,  in  both  poem  and  music,  and they became expressive devices in themselves, in the separate arts and in  their combination as Lieder. It is especially these irregularities that interest  Malin and that underlie many of his choices of songs for analysis, for use as  examples of a particular technique, and for hermeneutic interpretation. In such irregularities lies another reason that the Lied is a natural repertory  for  Malin  to  study.  American 

Journal

Journal of Music TheoryDuke University Press

Published: Sep 21, 2011

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