I must choose - decide?
Is it the words that move my heart, or is it the music that speaks more strongly?
Fruitless effort to separate the two.
Words and music are fused into one -
Bound in a new synthesis.
Secret of the hour -
One art redeemed by the other!
In choosing the one you will lose the other!
Does not one always lose, when one wins?
[Countess Madeleine in Capriccio: Words by Clemens Krauss, Music by Richard Strauss]
Picking up on discussions in several threads, I thought this subject worthy of a separate discussion. As Ganymede says, there is the risk of opening a can of worms, but there are some interesting families of worms to be found here!
Rather than start with my own views, I thought it better to at least start by collecting together sections from a few relevant posts from other recent threads:
Of course opera comes quickly to mind in any such discussion, as in my opening quotation, above.
On the one hand Matthewpiano wrote:
“With reference to Opera I believe the drama and text to be of huge importance, with the music there to create the atmosphere and make the whole experience more submersive. Of course, the music can stand very successfully on its own in the case of the finest compositions, but even then language and the sounds of words are such a crucial part of that.”
“In Wagner it's more difficult to separate music and libretto. Yes, a "C" or a "D" does not equal "Liebe", but in Wagner (especially), what the words and music convey together may be important. If you have every singer/instruments the same, but change all to the words to a hum instead (not just Wagner), what do you think? At the least, the pronunciation of the words is part of the music.
"Carried away by the music itself" also can involve further thinking, similar to Wagner comment above. Yes. the vast major portion of being carried away is the music. But can you separate your emotion, at the moment, from the dramatic event (e.g. opera)? As you know in opera (especially), the music progression follows the drama. A sudden cymbal crash seemingly out of place in what comes before it may loose its "meaning", if you just listen to the music absolutely blindly without knowing the event behind.”
On the other hand, this from Parla:
‘While I can agree with you, in general terms, that the text (see libretto) is an essential character of the Opera (not necessarily of the music) and may constitute a "crucial part of it", I still do not find any musical added value in them. Just try to present in the theatre any libretto or text (in the case of Wagner) without the respective music. No audience will stand it for more than few minutes, unless they stay there out of curiosity. On the contrary, how many times we see the music of Operas (in various forms) without words”.
And the same view but with a slightly different gloss came from Ganymede:
"Music and words are two entirely different things. You can use music to accompany words (with the words at the centre), but in the end I completely agree that pure music is beyond words. Words appeal to logic, to the analytical side of the brain, while music has nothing to do with our logic. Of course the material itself (the notes, playing techniques, etc.) are analytical tasks, but once those are out of the way the end product is completely beyond that. Music can be experienced, not thought of.”
The question of the importance of the text is by no means restricted to Opera. In religious music the text again comes into consideration, and provokes much argument.
In a previous discussion concerning Bach’s texts, after I challenged Vic’s assertion that: “As for the texts, they might as well be singing about Druidism for all I care.” he responded with exemplary clarity:
“I don't avoid any contact with religious texts, in fact I read a translation of [Cantata No.]178 and I take your point about Bach's motivation entirely. His deep religious faith is a fact - the holding of which, now as then, is a right to be respected. But another fact is that such superstitious nonsense is irrelevant to the enjoyment and appreciation of the music for me and for, I guess, the majority of listeners.”
Fair enough. Yet what we are discussing here now is something else: something that lies in between those extremes and neither requires religious faith nor threatens to invade rational thinking. Nicholas Kenyon (in his Bach guide), writing about the St.Matthew Passion said:
“The work grows directly out of its liturgical and cultural context and is fully grounded in it, yet it seems to reach beyond that context, beyond narrow sectarianism and even beyond religious observance, to say something to the whole of humanity.”
I’m sure most of us have shared that feeling: can one really claim that the text is not important?
And then, what about Lieder. The quotation that opens this thread, although it comes from an opera, refers to a sonnet, set to music. Surely you can’t seriously appreciate Lieder without giving due prominence to the texts? Perhaps that’s why Lieder represent a closed book to some music lovers!
Finally, I must add my tuppence worth to the discussion of Ganymede’s comment that “Words appeal to logic, to the analytical side of the brain, while music has nothing to do with our logic.”
Well, many of the most moving experiences of my life have included performances of plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, as well as literature and poetry too diverse to mention!
In the beginning was the word.