In today's post, I will share with my readers an excursion into the history of the union of word and sound. It is a result of a compilation of several sources which I undertook for my study of the intersemiotic translation.
Vocal music is closer to word than any other genre of music, in that its ties with lyrics go really deep into the human history. Probably, vocal music should be considered the heir to the long tradition of re-uniting word and music.
In Ancient Greece, music and the word were an inseparable unit (together with dance). Word was understood as sound and rhythm. Later, word, sound and rhythm emancipated from each other. And although Christian middle ages initially tried to relate word to music as a means of expressing their Christian sentiments and Christians’ edifying each other, the unification was not always successful. One of the reasons was that prosaic (that is, not strictly rhythmically organized and therefore emancipated from rhythm) Scriptural texts were often put to music. Another major factor responsible for the separation of the word and sound was Guido of Arezzo’s notation (introduced circa 1020), which spatially separated notes and lyrics on the page.As a result, new relations between word and sound began to develop, for example, the correspondence between notes on the page and in the text. Before Guido, the relationship between sounds was not always that shorter-wave sounds were customarily described as being higher and longer-wave sounds as lower, in fact what we call higher sounds were understood as lower, because the shorter-wave strings on string instruments were lower than the longer-wave ones. But with the new notation system, higher pitched notes became placed higher than lower pitched ones, irrespective of where the sounds were produced on instruments. This led to a new type of relationship between the word and sound. It is believed that Josquin Desprez (1450–1521) was the first to exploit this relationship by depicting Jesus descending from Mount Olympus by means of a descending scale of twelve notes:
Yet another factor of the emancipation of the word and sound was the introduction of counterpoint where the capacity of music to let several voices sing different parts at the same time clashed with the prerequisite of speech to be clear and have only one part speaking at any one time.
In Protestant Europe, other means of re-uniting the word and music were attempted—most prominently, subduing music by making it responsible for illustrating the word. For example, in a motet commissioned by Martin Luther to his friend and composer Ludwig Senfl (1486–1542), the text was “Non moriar sed vivam, et narrabo opera domini” (I will not die but live and declare the deeds of God). In Senfl’s motet, the phrase “sed vivam” tends to grow out of the phrase “non moriar” and is often a rising motif. The rise in pitch is associated with the notions ‘life’, ‘re-birth’, ‘resurrection’, etc. The phrase “et narrabo” has characteristic elements of recitative and the repetition of sounds in it may be interpreted as expressing the determination to preach the glad tidings. The word “domini” is emphasized in all cadences with a slowing down motif leading to tonal centres, symbolizing divine magnificence, indestructibility and attractive force.
In late baroque and classicist periods, through the introduction of figures, or formulae, that is, certain types of sound movements with an ascribed meaning, comparable to rhetoric formulae in speech, into musical composition, music became a sort of rhetoric. This was another attempt to remedy the separation of the initial unity of the word and music.
Romantics, and perhaps most of all Schubert, tried to render the word by means of sounds (or “übersetzt,” translated—Müller-Blattau) in their Lieder in a different, folklore-like and presumably more natural way. That is the closest, in Müller-Blattau’s opinion, that word and music has managed to come to each other in the post-classic Western history.
Late Romantics made further attempts to re-unite word to music and even declared, as Wagner did, that poetry and music should form a unity, music-drama, be “melt together in a mystical erotic embrace” in order to produce their common offspring—word-speech and tone-speech, verse-melody, and this supreme fruit of the union of Music and Poetry is a return to the primitive kinship of the two arts, “a recovery of the primitive melody (Urmelodie)” (Babbitt). Yet the natural unity seems to have been lost forever (“unwiederbringlich verloren,” Müller-Blattau) through the instrumentalization of melodies, and their relationship with lyrics also became allegedly less natural.
Vocal music is a realization of intersemiotic translation (Jakobson). Lyrics and music interact in a way similar to how two different linguistic units, one of which is explained by another (in intralinguial translation), do, or how two different languages interact in interlingual translation. Who is the translator in the intrasemiotic translation (re-)uniting word and sound? Obviously, it is the composer. We should agree with Müller-Blattau who, at one point, termed what Schubert did when composing his Lieder—translation (see above). Expressed formulaically, in vocal music the same scheme A>M>B which is observed in Types 1 and 2 of translation, is realized, where A and B are interacting parties and M is mediation. In the case of vocal music, the interacting parties are two different semiotic systems—language and music; the mediating party is the composer(s).
Note that in vocal music, most of the time it is the word that influences music (as was the case with Desprez’ translating the lyrics about Jesus descending from Mount Olympus into a descending scale). The instrumentalization of vocal parts in modern music, deplored by some musical critics, may be interpreted as an attempt on the part of music (composers) to turn the tables on the millennia-long pre-eminence of the word.