DUNSBY: Making Words Sing: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Song

Without oversimplifying the aesthetic and philosophical underpinning that he describes in the introduction, Dunsby attempts to deal with song in a different way. By choosing to avoid the traditional distinction between words and music, where meaning is sometimes inferred as falling between the two components, he focuses on the intrinsic bonds between texts and sounds that are at the core of song. Toward this end, Dunsby’s study consists of a series of essays that deal with several vocal works: Johannes Brahms’ “Von ewiger Liebe;” Arnold Schoenberg’s “Vorgefühl” (Op. 22, no. 4); “Stripsody” by Cathy Berberian; and “Going to Heaven!” by Aaron Copland.
It is useful to examine such varied works in detail to arrive at what some may describe more traditionally as stylistics, in contrast to the formalism that results from outlining the form, tonality, and melodic shape, etc. without showing how they merge. Certainly the objections that Dunsby makes about the conventional way of analyzing song as text and music reinforces the fact that any interaction between words and sounds is a single dimension of a process that is ultimately more complex. Traditional music analysis provides empirical knowledge of the components without necessarily shedding light on the process of perception, which is critical for understanding the heightened sense of meaning that occurs in effective settings of music. Dunsby’s own analysis of a Romantic work like Brahms’ “Von ewiger Liebe” brings to light some of the details of composition that may have even escaped the composer as Brahms gave shape to his setting of a lyric that intrigued him. What emerges is a sense that no one can hear music immediately in the way that such intensive analysis demands. The very act of stepping aside to evaluate the fusion of the tonal and temporal, aspects of music that the pioneering musicologist Guido Adler singled out in his own studies from the previous century (see pp 25-27), must occur after the experience of music.
What heightens the text in one’s experience of the music can sometimes escape verbal analysis, and this is one of the challenges that Dunsby faces in this study. The listener cannot rely solely on outlines of form to convey the sense of the whole that can only be experienced through perception. Thus, the Schenkerian analysis that Dunsby used to summarize the tonal and motivic structure of Brahms’ song “Von ewiger Liebe” must become a tool that musicians take into their own study of that song and use, perhaps, as a point of departure for dissecting other songs that are meaningful to them.
While similar approaches can be useful with Schoenberg, avant-garde vocal music of the twentieth century does not lend itself easily to conventional music analysis. Berberian’s “Stripsody” is ultimately a vocal piece that pushes the boundaries of traditional song because it requires the performer to make sound effects, rather than sing a conventional text. The various cartoon-like notations contain letters and words that suggest to the performer what to do, rather than confine this vocal work to a sung text. Yet this work and others like it often demand a vocal technique that must succeed in its wordless sounds.
Through non-traditional notation, music like the piece by Berberian transcends the boundaries of traditional nineteenth-century song. Yet it is hardly unique in breaking the conventions of the artsong. Even within more traditional melodic and harmonic structures of pieces like the Bachianas Brasilieras of Villa-Lobos and the Chants d’Auvergne of Canteloube, the texts create an exotic effect through the sounds of the Portuguese language in the former and the langue d’oc dialect of the latter. Works like these force the listener to consider the vocality of the music, just as the operatic idiom of a composer like Janacek engages listeners through the soaring instrumental accompaniments to the vocal lines in works like The Cunning Little Vixen.
Although Dunsby does not take up examples such as those cited above, his selection of case studies is useful because of the varied ways in which each composer created a vocal work. In the end, more questions may exist than answers when it comes to expressing the aspect of vocality that is often understood within the experience of such music in performance. Dunsby’s study is nonetheless valid, but it raises the question of efficacy: When is it appropriate to use his level of analysis to explore a song? Or, should the analyst use such measures if a song captures the imagination so strongly that it is important to know what makes it work so well as a piece of music?
These and other questions emerge from a careful reading of Dunsby’s unique study. The aspect of vocality is certainly a valid one, but it begs the question of a thorough investigation of the nature of the vocal music as it evolved from the late nineteenth century through the twentieth. In making words sing, to paraphrase the title of the book, it is important to consider the kinds of texts twentieth-century composers set. The very departure from the use of traditional poetry signals a break with the past that merits attention, when even graffiti, fragments from Joyce, and other texts are part of a nominally non-vocal piece like Berio’s Sinfonia. Likewise, vocalized sounds in a piece like the Grand Pianola Music by John Adams contribute an aspect of lyricism that might fall flat had the composer introduced a traditional sung text — and if he had, what would suffice that is not better than the connotative text that emerging from the pop idiom he used for those passages?
If Dunsby forces readers to consider the nature of vocality in music, it succeeds well. Yet this kind of study is still new, and the best responses to it will be further investigations that move beyond the traditional boundaries of text and music, to express more cogently how vocal and instrumental elements function. For those ready for the challenge of an unresolved hermeneutic and aesthetic study, Making Words Sing should incite further thought and, certainly, some debate about vocality and the perspective this distinction contributes to understanding that nature of song, not on only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but also for other styles and eras.
James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

image_description=Jonathan Dunsby: Making Words Sing: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Song
product_title=Jonathan Dunsby: Making Words Sing: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Song
product_by=Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 164 pp.
product_id=ISBN 0-521-83661-1 (hardcover)