Song—the combination of music and words—is arguably the most prominent musical soundtrack of our lives and has been for centuries. This combination seems to accomplish something that neither the words nor the music can achieve on their own. Yet, writings about vocal music are often preoccupied with aesthetic, philosophical, religious, and political debates over which of the two art forms deserves primacy: music or poetry.
This course will explore the history of music and poetry from the middle ages to the present day. We shall begin with the middle ages, thanks to the burst of vernacular song by the troubadours and trouvères whose notated songs afford scrutiny of what they and their contemporaries had to say about the power of music to enhance, undermine, or contradict a poetic text. They also wrote songs about why they should sing—thus laying out an aesthetics of their sonic activity. This will serve as a starting point for our analysis of some 800 years of the practice, challenges, and purposes of putting music and poetry together, covering a repertoire of poet-composers (those who write both the text and music), famous collaborations between poets and musicians, and composers who create musical settings of pre-existent texts. Through different cultural and historical contexts, we will explore the rich layers of meaning and interpretation available in the interplay of poetry and music: from readings of the text, to scrutinizing how the music serves as an interpretation of a text (including cases of different musical settings of the same poem), to hearing how different performances bring out different interpretations. Although the focus of this course will be on the Western tradition, students will be invited in some assignments to apply concepts learned in the course to music from any historical and global tradition. No prior knowledge of music or poetry is expected or required.