Bartolo Musil

Sailing in Brackish Water. Text and Music in the Art Song of the Fin de Siècle: Theory and Practice

An art song is the recitation of a poem and at the same time a piece of chamber music: a complex piece of art in which structures of language and music intertwine, get entangled, and sometimes collide. In the body of the singer, the potential of text and music becomes physical reality. The bipolar antagonism of speech and music dissolve in the omnivorous sensuality of the larynx and the breathing apparatus. Similarly, poetry can turn into rhythmic sound and hence turn into music, while vocal music can achieve a coherent, story-telling narrative.
Obviously, accumulating a certain amount of “theoretical” knowledge is a necessary requirement for the satisfying interpretation of a song. But it is equally obvious that this can only be a first step. What comes next? How does one filter this knowledge through your system to make it useful for your artistic practice? A singer is at the same time a musical instrument and the reciter of a text; but is he/she more committed to the intentions of the composer, or to those of the poet? The implications of such questions reach from the most pragmatic technical questions to the most sophisticated problems of interpretation.

Examples of poetry settings, especially parallel settings of the same poem by different composers, are used as landmarks on a journey through the no man’s land between speech and music, and between analysis and performance. Analyses of poetic prosody, musical phrase structure and harmonic design in these songs (by Hugo Wolf and Claude Debussy among others) will be discussed with regard to their relevance for a convincing performance.