Launched by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996, National Poetry Month is a special occasion that celebrates poets’ integral role in our culture and that poetry matters. Poetry on the page is an invitation into the magical world of the poet’s imagination, but it comes alive in new ways when read aloud. And composers add yet another dimension to the written word when setting it to music for the human voice. Here are some extraordinary settings of familiar words, and perhaps a surprise or two, complete with text so you can follow (or sing!) along!
James Joyce published asset of poems called Chamber Music in 1907, and wrote about it to his brother Stanislaus,”…some of them are pretty enough to be set to music. I hope someone will do so…” And do so they did, from Samuel Barber to the American rock band Sonic Youth! Here is Wayland Rogers’ setting of “In the Dark Pine Wood”:
In the dark pine-wood
I would we lay,
In deep cool shadow
At noon of day.
How sweet to lie there,
Sweet to kiss,
Where the great pine-forest
Thy kiss descending
With a soft tumult
Of thy hair.
O unto the pine-wood
At noon of day
Come with me now,
Sweet love, away.
Octavio Paz was a poet and diplomat from Mexico city; a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship which he used to study at UC Berkeley. And in 1990 her was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is Eric Whitacre’s luminous setting of “A Boy and A Girl”:
Stretched out on the grass
A boy and a girl
Savoring their oranges
Giving their kisses like waves exchanging foam
Stretched out on the beach
A boy and a girl
Savoring their limes
Giving their kisses like clouds exchanging foam
Stretched out underground
A boy and a girl
Saying nothing, never kissing
Giving silence for silence
In 1951, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams set text from two William Shakespeare plays, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and created “Three Shakespeare Songs”. The first is Ariel’s song to Prince Ferdinand from Act I scene 2; then the sorcerer Prospero speaks of the transience of life in Act IV scene 1; and from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies sing of their devotion to Titania, The Fairy Queen in Act II scene 1.
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them, – ding-dong bell.
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind: We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough briar,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire
I do wander everywhere.
Swifter than the moonè’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dew-drops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
And finally, because no one can resist the Bard, here is Bay-area tenor Erich Buchholz recording from the depth of John Muir woods! An arrangement of a 1980’s Georgio Moroder melody and Shakespeare’s most familiar sonnet #18, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day”:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Do you have a favourite poem set to music? Share it in the comments below, or perhaps even write your own!