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April is National Poetry Month

Fountain pen and paper
Aaron Burden
Fountain pen and paper

Some things just go together, like shoes and socks, peanut butter and jelly, and… poetry and music.

This month marks the 25th annual celebration of poetry and poets in April. And with a poet spotlighted at the presidential inauguration and at the Super Bowl as well, let’s celebrate by exploring a few musical pieces inspired by poetry.

In 1890, Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque included a gentle movement called “Clair de lune” (Moonlight). He was so taken by this poem by Paul Verlaine that he even made two other settings for the poem for voice and piano.

Clair de lune
Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masquerades and dancers are promenading,
Playing the lute and dancing, and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

While singing in a minor key
Of victorious love, and the pleasant life
They seem not to believe in their own happiness
And their song blends with the light of the moon,

With the sand and beautiful light of the moon,
Which sets the birds in the trees dreaming,
And makes the fountains sob with ecstasy,
The slender water streams among the marble statues.

And here is an amazing piano roll recording of Debussy himself(!) playing the music the poem inspired:

Felix Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture is one piece that was inspired by two poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Quiet Sea” and “Prosperous Journey.” It is believed Goethe intended the poems to be paired, and during his own lifetime they were published together a number of times.

While other poets and artists of the romantic era were depicting exciting storms and rough seas, Goethe first focused on the ‘quiet sea’ as a troublesome danger to ships and crew. Finally, winds stir up, land is spotted, and all will be well.

Quiet Sea
Deep quiet rules the waters;
Motionless, the sea reposes,
And the boatsman looks about with alarm
At the smooth surfaces about him.
No wind comes from any direction!
A deathly, terrible quiet!
In the vast expanse,
Not one wave stirs.

Prosperous Voyage
The mist is torn away,
The heavens turn bright,
And Aeolus unfastens
The bonds of fear.
There, the winds rustle,
The boatsman stirs.
Quickly! Quickly!
The waves rise up again.
The distant view draws close,
Land ho, I call!

Here is Mendelssohn’s blend of the two poems, with Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra:

American poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass inspired English composer Gustav Holst to honor him by writing the Walt Whitman Overture. But English composer Ernest Farrar actually took one of Whitman’s poems, “Song of the Open Road,” and turned it into an orchestral piece filled with the musical equivalent of wide-open spaces. Here’s the first part of the poem:

Song of the Open Road
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

(courtesy of The Walt Whitman Archive, CC BY 4.0)

And here is Alisdair Mitchell conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra:

Artists get inspiration from lots of different things, from vacations to beautiful places, major historical events, and even the deaths of those they hold dear. Setting an event to a canvas or sheet music is just another way to help people connect to the experience. When the inspiration is a poem, I like to think the artists are acknowledging the poet’s spirit as well as the poem itself.

CODA: Although many of us think of Mickey Mouse making a mess of the Wizard’s magical spells when we hear “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Paul Dukas would not have imagined Disney Studios using his 1897 piece in their 1940 movie, “Fantasia.” Dukas was honoring another Goethe poem, Der Zauberlehrling.

Here’s the beginning of the Mickey Mouse scene:

And here is an 1878 translation of Goethe's poem by Paul Dyrsen:

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Gone's for once the old magician
With his countenance forbidding;
I'm now master,
I'm tactician,
All his ghosts must do my bidding.
Know his incantation,
Spell and gestures too;
By my mind's creation
Wonders shall I do.

     Flood impassive
     With persistence
     From a distance
     Want I rushing
     And at last abundant, massive
     Here into my basin gushing

Come, old broom!
For work get ready,
Dress yourself, put on your tatters
You 're, I know, a servant steady
And proficient in such matters.
On two legs stand gravely,
Have a head, besides,
With your pail now bravely
Off, and do take strides!

     Flood impassive
     With persistence
     From a distance
     Want I rushing
     And at last abundant, massive
     Here into my basin gushing

Like a whirlwind he is going
To the stream, and then in
Like an engine he is throwing
Water for my use; with flurry
Do I watch the steady;
Not a drop is spilled,
Basin, bowls already
Are with water filled.

     Fool unwitty,
     Stop your going!
     Are the dishes.
     I forgot the charm; what pity!
     Now my words are empty

For the magic charm undoing
What I did,
I have forgotten.
Be a broom!
Be not renewing
Now your efforts, spell-begotten!
Still his work abhorrent
Does the wretch resume;
Where I look a torrent
Threatens me with doom.

     No, no longer
     Shall I suffer
     You to offer
     Bold defiance.
     I have brains,
     I am the stronger
     And I shall enforce compliance

You, hell's miscreate abortion,
Is this house doomed to perdition?
Signs I see in every portion
Of impending demolition.
Servant, cursed and senseless,
Do obey my will!
Be a broom defenseless,
Be a stick!
Stand still!

     Not impurely
     Shall you ravage.
     Wait! you savage,
     I'll beset you,
     With my hatchet opportunely
     Shall I split your wood, I bet

There he comes again with water! -
How my soul for murder itclies!
First I stun and then I slaughter,
That is good for beasts and witches.
Well! he 's gone! - and broken
Is the stick in two.
He's not worth a token;
Now I hope, I do!

     Woe! It is so.
     Both the broken
     Parts betoken
     One infernal
     Servant's doubling.
     Woe! It is so.
     Now do help me, powers eternal!

Both are running, both are plodding
And with still increased persistence
Hall and work-shop they are flooding.
Master, come to my assistance! -
Wrong I was in calling
Spirits, I avow,
For I find them galling,
Cannot rule them now.

     "Be obedient
     Broom, be hiding
     And subsiding!
     None should ever
     But the master, when expedient,
     Call you as a ghostly lever!"

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.