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Musical Ekphrasis:
Composers Responding to Poetry and Painting

Some Thoughts Towards a Theory of Musical Ekphrasis



Clüver recently reconsidered his earlier definition of ekphrasis, which he had declared to be "the verbal representation of a real or fictitious text composed in a non-verbal sign system" ("Ekphrasis Reconsidered: On Verbal Representations of Non-Verbal Texts," in U.-B. Lagerroth, H. Lund, and E. Hedling, eds., Interart Poetics: Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and Media [Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997] p. 26). He now suggests to substitute the word "representation" in the second medium, and favors the wording "the verbalization of real or fictitious texts composed in non-verbal sign systems" (see Clüver's recent article "Quotation, Enargeia, and the Functions of Ekphrasis" (published where?) as well as his talk "The Musikgedicht: Notes on an ekphrastic genre") given at the Graz conference of the International Association of Word and Music Studies in June 1997. For my purpose--that of expanding not only, as Clüver does so well, the range of art objects to be transmedialized, but also the range of those capable of transmedializing--the earlier wording is preferable.


See Alkis Raftis, ed., Danse et poésie: Anthologie internationale des poêmes sur la danse (1989).


Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 258.


Friedrich Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation I, trans. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1969), p. 264.


Tovey considered musical programs incidentals that the listener can safely ignore while concentrating on the "musical" significance of the sounds. "Not a bar of the Pastoral Symphony would be otherwise if its 'program' had never been thought of" (Donald Francis Tovey, "Programme Music," in The Forms of Music [New York: Meridian Books, 1956], p.168).


On the creation of semantic content in instrumental music through representations of the body, see David Lidov: "Mind and Body in Music," Semiotica 66/1 (1987): 69-97. Similarly to gestures, which exploit a listener's identification with motor activity, a specific timbral quality may be linked with a particular vocal grain ("what kind of feeling would be expressed if this timbre was that of a human voice?").


Shostakovich based his musical monogram neither on the spelling as we know them it in English or French (beginning with Sh) nor on his native Russian (where the initial sifflant is written as a single cyrillic letter that has no equivalent in the musical scale) but on the German spelling common for his name, Schostakowitsch. His famous signature motif D-S-C-H [= D-Eb-C-B] is used for the first time in the third and fourth movements of his Tenth Symphony, where, shortly after Stalin's death, it speaks for the composer's assertion of his individuality--a scandalously subversive act in Communist Russia. The later Eighth Quartet of 1960 is saturated with the DSCH motto.


For the purpose of my current argument, I am using "metaphor" as describing both placement and motion in auditory space and nuances of affective content. For a lucid investigation of the fuzzy boundaries and extremely varied landscapes within the territory of "musical metaphor," see Naomi Cumming, "Metaphor in Roger Scruton's aesthetics of music," Theory, analysis and meaning in music, ed. Anthony Pople (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 3-28.


See Leonard Meyer's definition that "Musical meaning arises when our expectant habit responses are delayed or blocked--when the normal course of stylistic mental events is disturbed by some form of deviation" (Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture [Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1967], p. 10). More recently, Robert Hatten has made this point more explicitly in his crucial study on "markedness" as a generator of signification (Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation [Bloomington: University of Indiana Press,1994]).


Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrativity in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. xi-xii.


Atalanta fugiens by Michael Maier (1568-1622) is listed alternatively with the explanatory subtitle hoc est, emblemata nova de sacretis naturae chymica and the longer Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum per oculis et intellectui: accurate accommodata, figuris cupro, emblemata, epigrammata, illustratum, opusculum ingeniis alterioribus. The work was composed in 1617 and first published in 1618. The music is for three unspecified voices; the emblems are engravings in copper.


The most obvious examples of music integrating a strong visual element can be found in compositions written in graphic notation. This system of a composer's specifying or suggesting performance ideas developed from the verbal directions found in earlier scores, which were now expanded and, in part or in toto, replaced by imaginative symbols that intended to activate the performer's creative participation. Known at least since the middle of this century (Morton Feldman's Projections of 1950-51), this notational practice moved more and more into the area of non-specific analogy of sign and intended contents. However, I doubt that we are generally dealing here with a "piece of visual art" even on the simplest level of defining the term art. Notation, in all cases, is graphic in nature. And while an explicitly graphic notation of music that claims to do without any kind of "alphabet" or transliteration of clearly delineated phenomena takes the idea into often interesting territory, I would hesitate to count such scores among the "integrations of music and picture."


The scores of Sylvano Bussotti could be compared here with concrete poetry, in that the visual aspect of the written form conveys a message of its own.


For more details see Joza Karas, Music in Terezín 1941-1945 (New York: Beaufort Books, 1985).


As Carter tells it, he was inspired by Hart Crane's most famous poem and originally meant to base his composition directly on it. However, finding Crane's poetic language rather confusing while being fascinated by the poet's eccentric life, he decided to make his composition a synthesis of poetic transformation and portrait of a poet. In that sense, the work does not present a case of musical ekphrasis.