“this innocent virgin constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer”
from Hymn to St. Cecilia – W.H. Auden

From my standpoint, not so much as workshop leader, but as the one who, together with the finest chamber choirs in the world, has been fortunate enough to have the task of conducting all the works by these young composers, and bringing them to life in a very short time, this has been a fascinating, thought-provoking and profound learning experience.

More then ever before I have asked myself – ‘what makes a good setting of a text’? We are all familiar with the great text settings in works for chamber choir – works such as Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia on a text by Auden, all Poulenc’s settings of Eluard, Schoenberg’s setting of his own satirical Drei Satiren, or Dallapiccola’s Due Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane, but can we really say for sure what it is that makes them so great?

The first task is clearly to find the right text – a text in a language one finds beautiful, and that one either knows or is prepared to learn – a text whose rhythm or metre, or lack of it, could suit one’s own musical style – a text suited to a setting by a chamber choir, with all the rich subtleties this medium has to offer – and a text whose language and subject matter inspires us to create something even better than the poem itself, or at least which augments its power and scope.

The second task is to treat the text sensitively from the point of view of the language – intonation, stress, rhythm, vowel colouration and so on – and content – making sure that important words and phrases are intelligible, at least enough so that meaning of the poem comes across. With all the possible textural complexities at our disposal, it is easy to allow the music to obscure the text. Textural treatments are fine, as long as it is clear what they relate to in the text and why they are there.

One could write a small book about this subject, but these are just a few thoughts – beyond this one has to accept that in the end, a successful marriage between text and music is a mystical union, which usually defies explanation.

During the Tenso 14-18 project we have experienced all kinds of approaches to a wide variety of powerful WWI texts, in a wide variety of languages. If asked to pick out a few works from these young composers which have demonstrated a real understanding of their texts, bearing in mind the criteria I have attempted to describe here, I would choose three very special and different cases:

  • Jug Marković’s Nirvana, whose opening chord alone was enough to send a shiver down the spine, with its depiction of night, death and sacrifice (the main images of the first verse) all in one chord. Later in the work, its treatment of the rest of Vladislav Dis’ poem is no less impressive, and truly augments the power of its imagery.
  • Maria Rostovtseva’s Sonett captured in a very different way the beauty, sensuality and eroticism of a fabulous poem by Marie Under. Here the text is always to be heard, and the composer’s use of sensuous but entirely contemporary melodies, and of delicate and subtle vocal harmonies made it wonderful music both to sing and to hear.
  • Sebastian Androne’s Crimson Bloom set a rich combination of short passages from three different poems, and three different poets: Queen Mary of Romania, Octavian Tăslăuanu and Isaac Rosenberg, all in English translations. This presented an especially interesting ‘collage’ of poetic styles which set up highly thought-provoking tensions within the text itself. But Androne’s setting brought them together seemingly effortlessly, as if they had always meant to co-exist in the same musical context.

My thanks and admiration go to all those composers who have provided such stimulating and thought-provoking subjects for discussion and experimentation throughout the 14-18 project, through their energy, enthusiasm and their music; and even greater thanks go to all the wonderful singers who have contributed so enormously, not only from the excellence of their singing, but in their feedback and active engagement with the composers. This experience will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

James Wood (July 2018)