(The following is adapted from an essay I wrote on the subject of the development of collaborative coherency (and songwriting in general) throughout the twentieth century. Naturally, this will be far from comprehensive, but I hope that it will serve to illustrate some of the concepts that I believe lie at the heart of lyric-writing.)
Often overlooked in the rush to praise instrumental music and poetry is the humble art form of songwriting. An institution probably as old as language itself, the practice of coordinating music and lyrics took great leaps and bounds in the 20th century, but in a manner rather different than those of its independent constituent parts. This is because of the inherently elaborate nature of the song. For many artists the relationship between music and lyrics is symbiotic, one of interplay rather than dominance of one over the other. Thus, not only should the rhythms of the music and the rhythms of speech in the lyrics match up, but the emphases in the music (be they of pitch, volume, duration, or what have you) should ideally correspond to similar points in the music. This form of coordination will be referred to from here on out as “collaborative coherency,” and understanding this concept and its development is essential to understanding the development of songwriting as a whole through the 20th Century; from the acceptable but inconsistent collaborative coherency of opera sprang a vast and disparate range of approaches, from Schoenberg’s rejection of collaborative coherency to Weill and Brecht’s refinement of it to a fascinating reconciliation of the two.

              Oddly enough, the most conventional example that we will examine here is Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” (lyrics by W.H. Auden). The opera was written towards the end of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, and is useful for the purposes of this discussion largely because it bears both the most admirable and most tedious characteristics of traditional opera, particularly in the coordination of music and lyrics. The aria “No Word From Tom” will serve as a fine example.
             Like most opera, the aria displays a reasonable degree of collaborative coherency, but by no means a particularly faithful one. That is to say, the music and lyrics superficially coordinate their efforts in that there are no places where the two are egregiously mismatched, but it is also important to notice that only on very rare occasions do the music and lyrics attempt to coordinate their tones or draw additional layers of meaning from each other. Their relationship is one of toleration, nothing more. For example, in the line “has love no voice?” the melody goes up in imitation of a question, outwardly matching the rhythms and patterns of speech. But techniques like these are not always consistent in their use, and while they negotiate the truce between the music and the lyrics, they do not permit the two either to combine nor to contrast. From this peaceable but segregated point, combination and contrast become the two major possible directions of innovation. The developmental revolution in the form that came with the 20th Century saw both approaches bear fruit.
            The avant-garde, as would be expected, tended to favor contrast to combination. Much as with instrumental music, the art of combining music and lyrics saw reactionary resistance to order and cohesion. This meant that collaborative coherency was often abandoned altogether, and where better to find such techniques in practice than in the work of the father of the 12-tone technique, Arnold Schoenberg? “Der Mondfleck” from Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” takes its lyrics from the work of Belgian poet Albert Giraud, but rather than accept the operatic model and have a loose swing at collaborative coherency, Schoenberg seemingly chooses to dismiss it entirely.
            To begin with, the piece is performed in Sprechstimme, or speech-song, cutting most of the ties between the vocal line and the harmony. But then Schoenberg seems to take an almost vengeful approach to setting the verse, producing bizarre emphases like the odd over-emphasis of the humble word “fleck,” meaning “spot,” or on the second syllable of “mondes” instead of the first. Schoenberg’s approach seems uninterested in cooperation with the lyrics, or indeed with helping the lyrics to convey anything in particular to the audience by way of meaning. Instead, he seems to delight in making the word emphases as disjointed as the music that accompanies them. This was very much in line with his general philosophy that the music, for those who understood it, conveyed enough intellectual significance to render familiarity with the words unnecessary.
            However, not all composers agreed with Schoenberg’s methods. Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, for example, would doubtless have seen Schoenberg’s work as bourgeois and elitist. Still regarded as one of the greatest songwriting duos in theater history, these two German artists took a vastly different approach to combining music and lyrics. Their most significant contribution to the art of songwriting, in fact, may be their advances in the area of collaborative coherency, which they took to astounding new levels. In the song “Nanna’s Lied,” for example, we see the placement of the emphases not only providing aesthetic coordination (i.e. matching rhythms) as opera does, but also conveying meaning as opera frequently fails to do.
Meine Herren, mit siebzehn Jahren
Kam Ich auf den Liebesmarkt
Und Ich habe viel erfahren
Böses gab es viel
Doch das war das Spiel
Aber manches hab ich doch verargt.
(Schlieβlich bin ich ja auch ein Mensch.)

Gott sei Dank geht alles schnell vorüber
Auch die Liebe unde der Kummer sogar.
Wo sind die Tränen von gestern Abend?
Wo ist der Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr?
Wo sind die Tränen von gestern Abend?
Wo ist der Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr?

Freilich geht man mit den Jahren
Leichter auf den Liebesmarkt
Und umarmt sie dort in Scharen.
Aber das Gefühl
Bleibt erstaundlich kühl
Wenn man damit allzuwenig kargt.
(Schlieβlich geht ja jede Vorrat zu Ende.)

Gott sei Dank geht alles schnell vorüber
Auch die Liebe unde der Kummer sogar.
Wo sind die Tränen von gestern Abend?
Wo ist der Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr?
Wo sind die Tränen von gestern Abend?
Wo ist der Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr?

Und auch wenn man gut das Handeln
Lernte auf der Liebesmess’:
Lust in Kleingeld zu verwandeln
Ist doch niemals leicht.
Nun, es wird erreicht.
Doch man wird auch alter unterdes.
(Schlieβlich bleibt man ja nicht immer siebzehn.)

Gott sei Dank geht alles schnell vorüber
Auch die Liebe unde der Kummer sogar.
Wo sind die Tränen von gestern Abend?
Wo ist der Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr?
Wo sind die Tränen von gestern Abend?
Wo ist der Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr?

The melody, in another context, might seem seductive, but when accompanied with lyrics sung by the character of a teenage prostitute, the song becomes a tragic one, perhaps even an ironic parody of the mechanical seductions that the young woman must enact night after night. In one way or another, the melody always contrives to place emphasis on the last word of each line. Accordingly, Brecht and Weill coordinate that musical emphasis with words they wish to draw attention to. For example, in the first line the phrase siebzehn jahren, or “seventeen years” (referring to the girl’s age), receives this treatment, liebesmarkt, or “love market,” gets it in the second, and so on. The device elevates both the music and the lyrics, since each gains resonance from the contributions of the other. Notice also how the nostalgia of the line schnee vom vergangenen jahr, or “the snows of yesteryear” in the chorus is undermined in the second repetition by a chromatic descent that momentarily jolts the ear. The technique is used only briefly but very deliberately and to great effect. For Brecht and Weill, deviations from collaborative coherency must contribute meaning. For them, it is not enough to use such devices merely because it is possible to do so, but rather for a specific purpose, usually an emotional one.

The significance of this approach can be divined from the politics of its practitioners. Both Brecht and Weill were fervent Communists, and it is well known that they sought to create theater that would connect with the experiences of the people even as it advocated for them. It should be unsurprising, then, that the two would tend to favor the emotional and intellectual clarity that comes with collaborative coherency. After all, if you are trying to send a message to the masses, clarity is absolutely essential. However, it would be doing a disservice to Weill and Brecht to suggest that this populism of form required them to sacrifice creative sophistication. “The Alabama Song” from “Mahagonny,” with its woozy lapses into misplaced emphases and dissonance, serves as a perfect example of how Brecht and Weill sought to use modern technique within an emotional framework that could be appreciated by all, regardless of social class.

            The emphases in the first verse deliberately fall in the wrong places. In speech, the emphases would go “the next whiskey bar,” meaning that a collaboratively coherent melody would reserve emphasis exclusively for the first half of the word “whiskey.” This emphasis can be placed in one of three ways: by having it fall on the beat, by matching it with a higher pitch, or by placing it either at the start or at the end of a figure. The line does successfully place some emphasis in the correct place, putting “whis-“ on the beat and at the beginning of the song’s repeating three-note figure. However, it gives “next” emphasis by placing it on the previous beat and giving it the last note of the figure. Similarly, “the” and “-key” are bizarrely matched with higher pitches, giving them emphases that the ear does not anticipate. Finally, “bar” is given pride of place (and the greatest musical emphasis) in its place at the end of the line. This and the intermittent passages of dissonance show Brecht and Weill borrowing the techniques of the avant-garde, but consciously avoiding the temptation to throw them about willy-nilly. Instead, the techniques are deliberately placed within an accessible emotional framework and used with subtlety. It would have been easy enough to simply use jarringly misplaced emphases to convey the song’s drunken stagger, but Brecht and Weill instead choose to confuse the issue of which words are to receive pride of place by giving them all subtly different emphases until it is impossible to tell which bears the most significance. While Schoenberg merely confused popular audiences, Brecht and Weill used that confusion in a theatrical context to convey subtle emotions and pervasive unease. These two approaches remained clearly separated for the longest time, the avant-garde moving toward the increasingly abstract and theatrical songwriting moving toward enormous popular approval by means of the American Broadway stage.

However, innovation was still very possible, and in Elliott Carter’s work, the two approaches even managed to find a happy medium. In his setting of Robert Frost’s “The Rose Family,” Carter alternates between the odd, arbitrary emphases of the avant-garde and the more theatrical and emotionally resonant style of Weill and Brecht.


Frost’s poetry is notoriously difficult to set to music (as I mentioned in a previous article). So much of it depends on the stark loneliness of the words that adding music seems a terrific folly or, at best, an unforgivable redundancy. But in the first half of the setting, Carter uses a repeated and almost jazz-like harmony that, while consistent with the tone of the poem, does not make any particular effort to follow the melody. The extreme melodic emphasis on, of all things, the word “plum” also fits within this pattern. Instead of trying to force the square peg of a conventional melody into the round hole of Frost’s words, Carter deliberately throws off and undermines the musical coordination to better enable the words to stand more independently. The final effect is not so unlike hearing the poem read aloud over musical backing, but Carter’s setting carries with it the added thrill of watching the music skirt ever-closer to the lyrics but never quite meeting them. The second half of the setting takes a much more theatrical approach. The words “you, of course,” while sung quite loud, are set to a musical figure whose rhythm matches that of the words, presenting a definite symmetry between music and lyrics for the first time since the beginning of the piece. But then something remarkable happens: the music gives way, leaving just a gentle chord hanging as the vocalist more quietly sings, “…are a rose.” From then on, the music and lyrics pool their resources to create a beautifully theatrical effect that Brecht and Weill would be proud of.
This is particularly fascinating because it demonstrates that not all moderation is created equal. The traditional opera also constituted a midpoint between absolute collaborative coherency and absolute rejection of collaborative coherency, but whereas that method too often consisted of mere fence-sitting, Carter’s innovation manages both to combine the two approaches and to engage with the words on an intellectual level, even when the music and the lyrics are segregated. This happy collaborative medium would prove to be highly influential, finding its way into the work of Stephen Sondheim and his successors like Jason Robert Brown.
            It is easy enough after a cursory glance to dismiss these advances in the area of songwriting, for it is much easier to treat it as the advances of music plus the advances of poetry rather than grapple with further complexities in two already complex fields. But I contend that, while music and poetry have gone farther than almost any other art form into abstraction, no broader range of philosophies and approaches have been tried than in the pursuit of combining music and words. Fortunately, the success of songwriting is not necessarily contingent on how much we are able to appreciate its value as an independent art form, but on how well we understand its intent, and on those grounds alone it might not be unwise to deem the 20th Century’s innovations in the field as an unqualified success.

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