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Seven Instrumental Pieces Inspired by Poetry

“Music and poetry have ever been acknowledg’d Sisters, which walking hand in hand, support each other; As Poetry is the harmony of Words, so Musick is that of Notes; and as Poetry is a Rise above Prose and Oratory, so is Musick the exaltation of Poetry. Both of them may excel apart, but sure they are most excellent when they are join’d…”

Henry Purcell wrote that in 1650, reflecting on vocal music. But poetry has often been a supporting sister for purely instrumental music as well, especially in the Romantic era, when instrumental composers were fascinated with extra-musical inspiration. Here are seven compositions for instruments which were inspired by poetry.

"Harold in Italy" by Hector Berlioz

Inspired by George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)

Byron was one of the most influential poets of the early Romantic, and his work appealed to many of music’s Romantic avant-garde, especially Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Berlioz’s most famous Byron work is Harold in Italy, Op. 15, (1834) which he called a “Symphony in Four Parts with Viola Solo.” Harold in Italy was inspired by the title character of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, an epic poem published in parts between 1812 and 1818. Childe Harold was so influential that world-weary Romantic literary characters like Harold came to be known as “Byronic heroes.”

[My] intention was to write a series of orchestral scenes, in which the solo viola would be involved as a more or less active participant [with the orchestra] while retaining its own character…I wanted to make the viola a kind of melancholy dreamer in the manner of Byron’s Childe Harold. – Hector Berlioz

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

–    Lord Byron, from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

“3 Sonneti del Petrarca” by Franz Liszt

Inspired by Petrarch (1304 – 1374)

The sonnets of Italian humanist scholar Francesco Petrarca center around his unrequited love for a mysterious woman known only as Laura. Petrarch’s passionate, personal work helped pave the way for Renaissance lyric poetry, and it inspired countless composers, like Renaissance madrigalists Luca Marenzio and Jacques Arcadelt.

During a visit to Italy in 1842, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) began to set three of Petrarch’s sonnets as songs for voice and piano. Later he created piano solo versions of these 3 Sonnetti del Petrarca, which he included in his piano suite entitled Années de pèlerinage II (Years of Pilgrimage, Part II, pub. 1858). The suite reflects on Liszt’s experiences living in Italy, especially his experience of the nation’s art and literature.

I find no peace, and all my war is done.
I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;
And nought I have, and all the world I season.
That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not – yet can I scape no wise –
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion.
Without eyen I see, and without tongue I plain.
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health.
I love another, and thus I hate myself.
I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain;
Likewise displeaseth me both life and death,
And my delight is causer of this strife.

Petrarch’s Sonnet 104, translated by Sir Thomas Wyatt

"Walt Whitman Overture" by Gustav Holst

Inspired by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Surprisingly, the beloved American poet Walt Whitman initially appealed more to European composers than American ones. Vaughan William’s Sea Symphony and Delius’s Sea Drift are two of the many turn-of-the-century English works inspired by Whitman. Since the First World War, composers from both Europe and America have increasingly set Whitman’s work, particularly in times of grief.

Whitman’s secular spirituality was a major influence on Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934). Holst turned to Whitman for inspiration frequently throughout his career, in works like The Mystic Trumpeter for soprano and orchestra (composed in 1904) and his choral piece Ode to Death (1919). Holst’s first Whitman composition was his Walt Whitman Overture, Op. 7, which he wrote in 1899. Holst didn’t specify one poem by Whitman as the inspiration for his overture; rather, it’s a celebration of Whitman’s philosophy as a whole.

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

– Walt Whitman, from “Song of Myself”, verse 52

"Suite bergamasque" by Claude Debussy

Inspired by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

French Symbolist Paul Verlaine was one of 19th-century France’s most popular poets. Symbolist poetry like Verlaine’s relies on subtle suggestion and imagery to create a mood, rather than concrete settings or narrative. Verlaine’s poetry appears frequently in French art song, including works by Gabriel Fauré and Reynaldo Hahn.

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) also set Verlaine’s poetry, as well as finding inspiration in it for instrumental works. His Suite bergamasque (pub. 1905), with its beloved movement “Clair de lune,” was inspired by Verlaine. The suite’s title comes from a line in Verlaine’s poem “Clair de lune” (Moonlight), where he makes a pun on the words masques (masqueraders) and bergamasques (Renaissance dances from the Italian city of Bergamo), as part of the poem’s fanciful, enigmatic atmosphere.

Your soul is like a landscape fantasy,
Where masks and Bergamasks, in charming wise,
Strum lutes and dance, just a bit sad to be
Hidden beneath their fanciful disguise.

Singing in minor mode of life’s largesse
And all-victorious love, they yet seem quite
Reluctant to believe their happiness,
And their song mingles with the pale moonlight,

The calm, pale moonlight, whose sad beauty, beaming,
Sets the birds softly dreaming in the trees,
And makes the marbled fountains, gushing, streaming –
Slender jet-fountains – sob their ecstasies.

– Paul Verlaine, from “Clair de lune”, translated by Norman R. Shapiro

"The Lark Ascending" by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Inspired by George Meredith (1828-1909)

Thanks to his considerable output of choral music and songs, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) music is linked with many English poets, from Shakespeare to Robert Louis Stevenson. One of Vaughan Williams’ most popular instrumental works is also rooted in poetry: The Lark Ascending takes its name from a rhapsodic poem by Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith.

Ursula Vaughan Williams, the composer’s wife, had a unique perspective on the piece, being a poet herself. In R.V.W., her biography of her husband, she explained, “He had taken a literary idea on which to build his musical thought in The Lark Ascending and had made the violin become both the bird’s song and its flight, being, rather than illustrating the poem from which the title was taken.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams inscribed the following lines from Meredith’s poem in his score for The Lark Ascending:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

– George Meredith, from “The Lark Ascending”

“By the Still Waters” by Amy Beach

Inspired by the Book of Psalms

Perhaps the most frequently-set poetry in Western music, the book of Psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures has inspired composers since ancient times: from their original musical form in ancient temple worship, to plainsong, Renaissance polyphony, grand Baroque settings, Romantic art song and choral works by Bernstein and countless others.

Much rarer are instrumental works inspired by the Psalms, like this piano piece by American composer Amy Beach (1867 – 1944). By the Still Waters, Beach’s Op. 114, was composed in 1925. Beach produced a large body of sacred choral work as well as many compositions for the piano, her own instrument, and this lovely, almost Impressionistic piece is a fascinating meeting of those two worlds.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

– from The 23rd Psalm, King James Version (1611)

“Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” by Judith Weir

Inspired by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

The poetry of Emily Dickinson is drenched in music. It’s eminently singable, as she often borrowed meters from American hymnody: for example, many of her poems can be sung to the Common Meter tune of “Amazing Grace.” Dickinson also wrote frequently about music, like in “Better — than Music!,”I’ve heard an Organ Talk, sometimes,” and “Musicians wrestle everywhere,” which helped inspire the following instrumental work.

“Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” is a chamber piece, a “concerto for ten instruments” which British composer Judith Weir (b. 1954) wrote in 1994 for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Of this piece, Weir has said that that she wanted to write a work informed by the everyday sounds of her urban environment in London.

“While writing the piece, I discovered Emily Dickinson’s poem, which seems to suggest, in the very modern way of Cage and Feldman, that music is all around us if we only care to listen to it.” – Judith Weir

Musicians wrestle everywhere
All day, among the crowded air,
I hear the silver strife;
And — waking long before the dawn—
Such transport breaks upon the town
I think it that “new life!”

– Emily Dickinson, from “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere”

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