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Poetry and the Joy of Human Expression

World Poetry Day falls on March 21st 2020. The annual celebration, which was adopted by UNESCO in 1999, is an opportunity to revive oral traditions, promote the reading, writing and teaching of poetry, and foster the convergence between poetry and other arts, including music. Poetry can act as a uniting force, expressing common human experiences – a vital force for connection in difficult times – and so UNESCO extends the invitation to everyone to take part.

In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.

UNESCO

Music and poetry are compatible – rhythmically, expressively and emotionally. Song lyrics have elements of poetry – some are even poems set to music – and many works of classical music are based on poems. There are even pieces called ‘poems’. Tone poems or symphonic poems are single-movement orchestral works, normally from the Romantic period, that illustrate or evoke the content of a poem or other non-musical source. Their descriptive power is clear from the use of tone poems like Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in pop culture. The awe in the opening notes of Strauss’s tone poem hold a common human experience that speaks of the vast emptiness of space in Kubrick’s 2001 and the rising of the sun in its original context.

In popular music, some of the most notable songwriters have either been celebrated as poets or published books of poetry. Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

In his acceptance speech, Dylan explained:

If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.

Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.

Bob Dylan

Leonard Cohen, a contemporary of Dylan’s was a poet first and a songwriter second. A post on BBC 6 Music’s social media asking people to list their favourite Cohen lyrics attracted hundreds of varied replies. Such was his command of language and the extraordinary feelings he could evoke with a simple twist of words. Cohen had his opinions on fellow artists. After Bob Dylan was awarded with his Nobel Prize, Cohen commented,

To me,” he said, “[the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.

Leonard Cohen

In March 2015, Cohen wrote a poem in reply to comments made by rapper Kanye West in a talk at Oxford University. In the talk, West had expressed a wish that he’d studied art, saying:

My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso or greater. That always sounds so funny to people, comparing yourself to someone who has done so much, and that’s a mentality that suppresses humanity.

Kanye West

In response, Cohen wrote this poem:

Kanye West is not Picasso

I am Picasso

Kanye West is not Edison

I am Edison

I am Tesla

Jay-Z is not the Dylan of Anything

I am the Dylan of anything

I am the Kanye West of Kanye West

The Kanye West

Of the great bogus shift of bull**** culture

From one boutique to another

I am Tesla

I am his coil

The coil that made electricity soft as a bed

I am the Kanye West Kanye West thinks he is

When he shoves your ass off the stage

I am the real Kanye West

I don’t get around much anymore

I never have

I only come alive after a war

And we have not had it yet

For many, poetry may seem irrelevant, romantic, difficult and inaccessible. But Dylan wrote about war, politics, ecological concerns and protest, and Cohen penned lyrics full of irony, love, joy and intense agony.

In difficult and conflicting times, perhaps it’s time to delve deeper, to explore the incredible wealth of poetry that exists within the world of musical compositions and song writing and to express our anger with poems as well as placards.

Featured Image by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Debussy: Trailblazing Modernity

Achille Claude Debussy, or Claude Debussy as he’s usually known, was, along with Maurice Ravel, the most prominent French composer of classical music associated with Impressionism. Born in 1862, he died on March 25th, 1918, making this year the centenary of his death. His music is still incredibly popular, and ‘centenary’ recordings are trending in the classical music charts.

Impressionism is a term used to describe both music and art. In music, it indicates works that convey emotion, suggestion and atmosphere, using timbre (texture) harmony (colour) and orchestration (palette) in the same way that impressionist painters such as Monet and Renoir built an overall impression rather than a detailed realistic image.

Children on the Beach at Guernsey, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1883

These styles were in keeping with the literary fashion of the time: Symbolism. Symbolism was a reaction against the grittiness of realism. It featured metaphor and suggestion. Individual objects were given symbolic meanings with the intention of representing ‘absolute truths’ that could only be described indirectly.

Debussy rejected the term ‘Impressionism’ when applied to his music. In a letter of 1908 he wrote,

I am trying to do ‘something different’ — in a way realities — what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’ is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics.

In fact, the composer spent a lot of time, and shared many ideals with symbolist writers, including Mallarmé and Pierre Loüys. Although the label of ‘impressionist’ that was given him in a less than flattering way after he submitted Le Printemps to the Conseil de Art (it was refused by the Académie’s Secretary in a letter warning him about “impressionism, the most dangerous enemy of artistic truth”), he adhered more to symbolism than impressionism, and transcended both.

Debussy at the Piano

Debussy’s musical language marked the era of modernity. His focus was constantly on originality – a genuine trailblazer in the world of music. Experimental from the outset, he was also a brilliant pianist and a fantastic sight-reader. While he applied the techniques of the old masters, he pushed these to their limits. He used whole tone scales, pentatonicism, and unresolved dissonances by removing them from the tonal framework.

Travels to Russia in his youth had interested in non-European music. These trips possibly also prepared him for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, where he discovered the Japanese gamelan and Annamite theatre. By integrating these elements into his language, he created a sound that was previously unknown and was to spark modernism in music.

Russian music itself made a strong impression. Influences from late nineteenth-century Russian music, including that of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Borodin can be heard in Debussy. There was increasing cross-cultural flow during the period of the Franco-Russian alliance in the late nineteenth century, and Russian music was also performed and popularised by musicians including Liszt and Saint-Saëns.

As winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome with his composition L’enfant prodigue, Debussy had received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This included a four-year residence at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further his studies (1885–1887).

In his letters to Marie-Blanche Vasnier (a singer with whom he went on to have an eigth-year affair) he complained that he found the artistic atmosphere stifling. He didn’t enjoy the culture in Rome either. The operas of Donizetti and Verdi were distinctly not to his taste. He was often depressed and unable to compose. He was, however, inspired by Franz Liszt, whose command of the keyboard he found admirable.

In June 1885, he wrote of his desire to follow his own way, saying,

I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas.

It was Debussy who can to some extent be attributed with the development of modern music in the United States in the early twentieth century. American music critics showed mixed reactions to the composer’s highly original harmonic language and style, but his modernistic musical language and symbolist ideals soon evoked enthusiasm. In the early decades of the century, Debussy’s orchestral music was championed more than that of any other contemporary composer by the symphony orchestras of Boston, Chicago, and New York. His work is also thought to have influenced American jazz long after his death.

Debussy died of rectal cancer at home in Paris home at the age of just 55. His death occurred in the midst of the aerial and artillery bombardment of Paris during the German Spring Offensive of World War I.

His funeral procession passed through deserted streets to Père Lachaise Cemetery as the German guns bombarded the city. The military situation in France was grave, and the public funeral he would otherwise have received, with its pomp and ceremonious graveside orations, was impossible. The following year, his body was reinterred in the small Passy Cemetery  behind the Trocadéro, fulfilling his wish to rest “among the trees and the birds”.

Further Reading:

Debussy: The first ‘modern’ composer (a New York Times article by Pianist Stephen Hough

Five pop-ish musicians who owe a debt to Debussy 

Debussy’s influence on jazz

And check out our MWC ‘Debussy’ Spotify playlists:

Debussy’s Piano Music

Debussy’s Orchestral Music

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