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Learning from Composers: Ned Rorem’s Last Poems of Wallace Stevens

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The Poetic Music of Wallace Stevens

Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in Music and Literature ((PASTMULI))

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Abstract

The final chapter, principally authored by Eeckhout, explores how one major American composer from the second half of the twentieth century, Ned Rorem, has responded to Stevens’s work. Composed between December 1971 and February 1972, Rorem’s song cycle for voice, cello, and piano Last Poems of Wallace Stevens sets seven of the poet’s lyrics from the period 1953–1955 to music. After an introduction in which we draw insights from two further composers who set Stevens to music (Elliott Carter and Matthew Barber), the case study opens with a substantial portrait of Rorem as a composer, in particular, his love of the art song as a genre and the Francophilia of his style (conspicuously shared by Stevens), for which we build on the work of musicologists as well as on Rorem’s own writings. We then analyze such issues as Rorem’s selection of poems and their idiosyncratic sequencing; his choice of genre and instrumentation; the question of a late style; the musical enhancing of particular images, sounds, and ideas from the selected texts; and the question how Rorem’s music might allow us to hear, experience, and understand Stevens’s poetry in new ways.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

—Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”

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Notes

  1. 1.

    At the time of writing, a recording of the song made at Tanglewood by NPR and starring Kate Lindsey as a soloist is available at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98081089&t=1564166369890.

  2. 2.

    A stage recording on the occasion of the premiere of Barber’s To the Roaring Wind may be seen and heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJ3h0Xk7qN4.

  3. 3.

    See, for details, http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.scdb.200033677/default.html. An early illustration of Rorem’s absence from critical discussion in the realm of Stevens studies is provided by John Serio’s annotated secondary bibliography of the poet, which summarizes nearly two thousand books, articles, and dissertations up to 1990, not a single one of which appears to have revolved around Rorem.

  4. 4.

    Looking back in the year 2000, Brian Zeger notes Rorem’s longstanding identification with French musical traditions, sensibilities, and tastes, and quotes the composer as saying, “French is superficial in the highest sense of the word, skimming surfaces to invent impressionism …” (7).

  5. 5.

    All the remaining quotations in this paragraph are from the same unpaged source, Rorem’s essay “Poetry and Music.” Note that Rorem’s flippant claim about the doomed marriage of music and poetry puts him at odds with a theorist of intermediality such as Lars Elleström, who finds it explicitly “unsatisfying to continue talking about ‘writing,’ ‘film,’ ‘performance,’ ‘music’ and ‘television’ as if they were like different people who can be married and divorced” (5). We mention this because Elleström will return as a theoretical reference point in the analysis of our case study.

  6. 6.

    All the remaining quotations in this paragraph are from the same unpaged source, Rorem’s 1983 album note.

  7. 7.

    For a nuanced reflection on the concept of lateness and the myth of a late style, see Utard.

  8. 8.

    Compare how the poems from Harmonium selected by Barber similarly insist on the dynamic quality of the natural scenes they evoke, through which the wind is forever blowing. Poetic images of unstoppable movement in nature—from blowing wind to running water—continue to be ideal for turning into music because music is the art form that is arguably most effective at providing a fleeting and flowing sensation. Asked about this, Barber confirms that the final stanza of “Fabliau of Florida”—“There will never be an end / To this droning of the surf” (CPP 18)—was central to his choice and setting of the poem, and that the blowing of wind is “the one image that ties the four poems together” (qtd. in Eeckhout 158).

  9. 9.

    That the possibility of charging silence with intense affect exerts a powerful attraction on composers who are interested in setting poetry to music is further illustrated by Lawrence Kramer’s 2013 cycle for baritone and piano Songs and Silences to Poems by Wallace Stevens. In a brief note to the score about the genesis and overall purpose of the composition, Kramer writes, “The music of Songs and Silences seeks to unveil the haunting traces of [an] underlying emptiness—absence, silence, and ellipsis all in one—in ways that allow the paradoxical fullness of imagined things to find a voice.”

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Correspondence to Bart Eeckhout .

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Eeckhout, B., Goldfarb, L. (2022). Learning from Composers: Ned Rorem’s Last Poems of Wallace Stevens. In: The Poetic Music of Wallace Stevens. Palgrave Studies in Music and Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-07032-7_7

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