English 24

Freshman Seminar: Song

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Fall 2022 Turner, James Grantham
W 2-3 pm Dwinelle 189


Literature and music are too often separated. The old epic poem begins “I sing” – but the poet doesn’t mean it literally. Performers sometimes concentrate on producing a beautiful or powerful sound, rather than making the words audible. We praise writing that is lyrical or song-like, but sing-song denotes something banal and mechanical. Ezra Pound valued “a sort of poetry where music, sheer melody, seems as if it were just bursting into speech.” Poetry, as shown here by the great Renaissance artist Raphael, holds a book in one hand and a musical instrument in the other, a lyre (as in lyrical): together they lift her up to a higher form of inspiration, which is why she grows wings. In this seminar we will try to do the same, to study actual songs both as literature and as music. We will ask: what is song-like about poetry and what is poetic about music? What happens, emotionally, when text and music blend together? What does it feel like to perform songs, in the concert-hall or in the shower?

We will study just six samples or small song-clusters, from a 500-year period. Each unit will be given two classes, over two weeks. First we will discuss the plain text, as poetry, and only at the end of the hour hear the song itself, in a recording or performance video that you can then play over and over in your spare time. For the following week we will be joined by the distinguished soprano and conductor Christine Brandes, to enrich our discussion with all the insights of the musician and singer. We will read and hear songs from Shakespeare’s plays and a setting of Milton’s “most musical” poetry, expressions of passion, grief and calm written by a female and a male composer, a Lutheran hymn transformed by Baroque splendor, dreamy Impressionist eroticism, and a soulful jazz “standard.”

We will set aside the final three weeks for students to present a song of their own choosing - which is the only formal assignment. There is no book to purchase, because all materials will be downloadable as text (English, German, Italian and French, with translations) and as links to recordings and video clips. No previous musical expertise is required; come with an open ear and a song in your heart.

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