The Sackbut "Poets’ Touches", an essay on poetry and music, June 1920


Among the many excellences which go to make a fine song there is one difficult to describe, difficult to define, and extremely hard to achieve. For it cannot be won by sheer work. It is no more an essential constituent of a song than a pearl is implicit in every oyster. And though in a diffused way it is present in every composition where words and music are nobly mated, in its rounded form, jewel-like and distinct, it is of as rare occurrence as the pearl itself.

Perhaps, in default of a better name, we may call it 'The Poets' Touch' or 'Composers' Poetry' since it springs from the use of music as a language to express, by sound and sense combined, something which is greater than both - that living truth which man feels around and within him, but can only imply, never fully utter.

Poets do this by their words. F.W.H. Myers alludes to this in his essay on Virgil:-

"The range of human thoughts and emotions greatly transcends the range of such symbols as man has invented to express them; and it becomes therefore the business of Art to use these symbols in a double way. They must be used for the direct representation of thought and feeling; but they must also be combined by so subtle an imagination as to suggest much which there is no means of directly expressing. And this can be done; for experience shows that it is possible so to arrange forms, colours and sounds as to stimulate the imagination in a new and inexplicable way. This power makes the painter's art an imaginative as well as an imitative one; and gives birth to the art of the musician, whose symbols are hardly imitative at all but express emotions which, till music suggests them, have been not only unknown but unimaginable."

Instances of this higher power can be cited by the score from the works of Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and all the company of great poets. Nor is it difficult to supply parallels in the region of absolute music. Beethoven valued above all other titles the title of 'Tone Poet', and such things as the pedal point at the end of the scherzo in his C minor symphony, for the trumpet call in the Leonore No. 3 Overture are perfect examples of a power which is one of the chiefest glories of Art.

Browning, though not often able to achieve these heights himself, understood well and wrote unforgettably of the power:

"And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound but a star."

This power functions equally in poetry and music; it does not, however, function similarly. In poetry a clue is supplied to the message of this higher emotion by the meaning of the words. In absolute music there is no such indication - thought and emotion range through the Universe in untrammelled freedom.

But in vocal music, particularly in songs, poetry and music meet on equal terms, and a situation is conveyed which united the finest attributes of both. The sense, the meaning, can be conveyed in words with crystalline clarity, at the same time that the vaster issues, which music alone has power to express, can be indicated. Finite and infinite sense are linked together.

There any many means in music by which these "Poets' Touches" can be achieved: by some subtle adaptation of form, some shade of harmony, some significant line of melody, by word-painting, even by silence. But it is no use to tabulate methods; as well try to map cloudland, since these Poets' touches are not realism but idealism, and can never be taught. Unless a composer has them in his heart it is useless to hope that he can acquire them by study. They are the outward and visible sign of some inward grave of truth of which he himself even may be only partially conscious.


Purcell is one of the composers who exhibit this 'poet's touch'. We trace it in his setting if 'I attempt from love's sickness to fly in vain,' where the employment of Rondo form - (decidedly unusual in such a connection at that time) - subtly suggests that state of the lover when he says 'since I am myself my own fever and pain.' Such a touch is psychological poetry. Another example may be found at the end of a beautiful song from 'Dioclesian' where the lover complains that banishment from his 'dear Astrea's sight' makes him die and the voice at the end reiterates the word 'die' on a steadily falling cadence, which gives a marvellous impression of extinction by death. Finest of all perhaps is the employment of a ground bass in Dido's Lament, the constant repetition forms in the under-current of her thoughts, just as Tennyson makes his Elaine say:

"Vain, in vain: it cannot be.
He will not love me: how then? must I die?
Then as a little helpless innocent bird,
That has but one plain passage of few notes,
Will sing the passage o'er and o'er
For all an April morning, till the ear
Wearies to hear it, so the simple maid
Went half the night repeating, 'Must I die?'"

Schubert had an insight equally exquisite into the heart of a girl. In his setting of 'Gretchen am Spinnrade' the wonderful rise of the voice to the emotional climax of the song when the reflection comes 'Und ach! sein Kuss', the sudden cessation of the spinning wheel, the pause of reflection, 'the acutely sensitive harmonies enforcing the complicated' mood of the moment are even more marvellous in their truth than the poem which suggested them. To read the poem is to see Gretchen; to hear the music is to be Gretchen.

A very beautiful piece of 'composer's poetry' may be found in Schumann's 'Dichterliebe' Cycle. It depends for its full effect upon a power of memory in the listener.

Early in the cycle occurs a song - No. 8 - in which the delicate young flowers spoken of in the words are suggested by singularly lovely and graceful music. Other songs follow. In No. 12 - where the lover fancies that the flowers are whispering and pitying him an allusion is made in the piano to a phrase associated with the flowers in the previous song. Then the tragedy closes upon the lover, blotting out hope, and the last poem ends with death and the dark peace of the grave. After the voice has ceased Schumann continues the piano accompaniment alone, giving it the phrase previously associated with the flowers.

The effect is indescribable. The growing flowers upon the grave become a symbol of Heaven.

To search the works of the great foreign song writers for these poets' touches would be an enjoyable and fruitful quest. In England between Purcell and the present time there was only one man who possessed the power - S.S. Wesley - and he employed it exclusively in Church music. But the renaissance has brought a great change.

Among the last set of songs by Sir Hubert Parry, now nearing publication - there is one called 'Reveille', instinct from first to last with 'composer's poetry', though the full meaning of the music only bursts upon us in the last bars. The poem deals with the Judgment Day, and begins thus: "When the Sun's great orb shall refuse its heat and light to our poor world." Parry has set it to music which, beginning softly, moves on with ever-increasing and majestic passion, till at last the theme of the music reveals itself as having been all the time the sound of the Last Trumpet, and a magnificent climax is reached on the words "The Reveille for the resurrection of the Dead." The voice soars up on a rising melismatic passage at the word 'resurrection' with an effect of wonder and beauty absolutely amazing.


Another instance of a melisma, employed to enhance by a poet's touch the meaning of a word, is to be found in a setting of Masefield's poem 'By a Bierside' by Ivor Gurney. The song is one which Parry himself admired greatly and considered the most tragic thing he knew in music. Towards the end of the poem the line occurs:

Death drives the lovely soul to wander under the sky.

This the composer has set to highly sensitised harmonies and on the word 'wander', the voice drifts down upon a long and tenderly melodic melisma. This is word-painting of the finest type.

Yet another example of the Poets' Touch occurs in a "Rondel of Rest", by Herbert Howells. The song opens with a soft restful rocking arpeggio figure in the treble for the piano, visionary and ethereal, above that main theme with which the voice, presently enters on the words beginning:

If rest is sweet at shut of day
For tired hands and tired feet

When, after a contrasting middle section, this main theme returns at the lines:

When the last dawns are fall'n on gray,
And all life's toil and ease complete,
They know, who work - not they who play,
If rest is sweet.

The accompaniment figure which before had been above and beyond has now been transferred to the bass, and is the foundation of all. The dream has become the substance of things hoped for.


The future may - nay, surely does - hold promise of ever fresh beauties to be evoked by the touch of our tone poets. But what they will be is yet secret from us. As of the poet, so of the tone poet, we may say:

"Who shall foretell his songs, and who aspire
But to divine his lyre?
Sweet earth, we know thy dimmest mysteries,
But he is lord of his."


by Marion M Scott

This article appears here with the kind permission of Pamela Blevins


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