Text: Charles Sanford Skilton, “Musical Possibilities of Poe's Poems,” Music (Chicago, IL), vol. VII, no. 3, January 1895, pp. 236-239


[page 236, unnumbered:]


WHENEVER a poem illustrative of American life and sentiment receives an adequate musical setting from a composer whose education and experience have been American, an interesting answer is given to the question whether there can be a national American music. The poems of Longfellow, Taylor, and writers still living have inspired our composers to produce songs which are in the broadest sense national. Yet the poet whose genius was of the highest quality our country has produced, whose writing” have had the deepest influence along certain lines upon our literature, who is recognized as wholly unique and peculiar to America, this poet, Edgar Allan Poe, has been quite overlooked by American musicians. The general reader knows Poe by “The Raven,” “The Bells,” “Ulalume,” and a few prose tales. In these, it is true, he is most original and striking. His power of presenting the weird and horrible is so great that it satisfies us, and disinclines us to look for other perhaps more elusive qualities of his style. Yet he who is most in sympathy with Poe values more highly his expression of the beautiful, not merely knowing but loving him for “Lenore,” “Annabel Lee.” “Israfel,” and several exquisite short lyrics.

A composer seeks in a poem certain qualities: euphony, forcible diction, rhythmic flow, intelligibility, and, above all, the lyrical or dramatic spirit. Lacking some of these qualities many poems, like those of Browning, are unsuited to music. The poems of Poe are a fresh, untrodden field of lyrical beauty. In respect of euphony, Poe, like a master musician before an organ, has drawn from the English language tones which equal the softness and richness of the Italian. What musician would not love such phrases as “crystal, wandering water,” “From grief and groan to a golden throne,’‘ “with love in her luminous eyes.” Seldom does our speech offer to music such richness of [page 237:] sound effect. Poe's diction is always elegant and suited to the prevailing mood; beguiled by its charm one is sometimes in danger of overlooking the poet's meaning, In rhythm perhaps, even more than in euphony and diction, is Poe's original power displayed. Consider the military precision and stately sweep of the first verse of “Eldorado:”

Gaily bedight,

A gallant knight,

In sunshine and in shadow,

Had journeyed long

Singing a song,

In search of Eldorado.

or the sombre, mysterious roll of “Dreamland:”

By a route obscure and lonely,

Haunted by ill angels only,

Where an Eidolun named NIGHT,

On a black throne reigns upright,

I have reached these lands but newly

From an ultimate dim Thule

with the bewildering, surging rush of the following lines:

Bottomless vales and boundless floods,

And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,

With forms that no man can discover

For the dews that drip all over.

the impassioned movement of “Lenore” the delicate, tripping grace of “Fairyland’‘ — all these. rhythms are suggestive to the composer. Poe is usually intelligible, and always lyrical or dramatic. It would be difficult to find in his poems, with the exception of those which are definitely personal, a tine that would be unsuited to music. To the composer of ballads four striking poenss especially appeal. “Eldorado” is a picture of strong, unswerving purpose, carried out in spite of failing; strength, and finally justified by a spiritual interpretation. One can imagine how the music, at first bold and strung, would gradually grow weaker, sinking to the last verse, when it world vise again and make a glorious close. Or in the pathetic “Bridal Ballad” the first verse could be dreamy, happy recitative, followed by a simple narrative melody for the two verses containing the bride's retrospect. Then again recitative, this time troubled, discordant, leading abruptly to a passionate [page 238:] climax, and dying away interrogatively with the words:

Lest the dead who is forsaken

May not be happy now.

“Dreamland” and “Fairyland” with their wealth of scenery might become as good ballads as the famous “Kleiner Haushalt” of Löwe. But when our American Löwe is in a purely lyrical mood, what could suit him better than the lines beginning.

“Fair river in thy bright, clear flow

Of crystal, wandering water —”

Other lyrics in different veins are,Spirits of the Dead,” “The Evening Star,” “A Dream Within a Dream,” the “Hymn,” “To One in Paradise.” Three longer poems which offer our composers full scope for display of their powers, are,The Haunted Palace,” “The Conqueror Worm,” and “Israfel.” A great musician might make these songs worthy of a place beside the “Erl King.” Three of Poe's greatest poems, “The Bells,” “The Raven,” and “Ulalume,” occur to the amateur in this connection, but professional experience leads us to set them aside. “The Bells” depends for its effect upon its imitation of sound, and would only lose its charm in the presence of actual music. “Ulalume” and “The Raven” are too long for songs, and too vivid personal experiences for longer vocal works. But a composer might study the changing moods of “The Raven,” and if he could express them in orchestral music, he might create a magnificent Symphonic Poem. “Annabel Lee” and “Lenore,” in which there is only pure, ennobling sentiment, also transcend the limits of a song, but are admirably suited to a broader style of composition. They should receive a setting for chorus and orchestra. More than any other of Poe's poems, “Lenore” excites the composer's imagination. The situation is dramatic. A lover and false friends stand over the bier of the departed maiden. The friends lament her death in conventional phrases, and gently chide the lover for showing no sings of grief. This leads him to denounce them as the real cause of her decline. They seek to avert his wrath by a soft invitation [page 239:] to join in a common lament, but he turns away and expresses his belief in immortality as a blessed state to be viewed with joy and not with grief. The orchestra might begin with a picture of the lover's deep, strong emotion, dying away and giving place to the solemn. march-like strains of the chorus:

“Ah! broken is the golden bowl, the spirit flown forever,

Let the bell toll, a saintly soul floats on the Stygian River.”

When this passage has grown intenser and reached a climax, a solo quartet might sing in different style, to the lover.

“And Guy de Vere, hast thou no tear? Weep now or nevermore:

For on yon drear and rigid bier low lies thy love Lenore.”

The chorus taking up the closing words could lead back to the opening strain with more intensity and grandeur. And then with what fierceness the lover would break forth:

“Wretches, ye loved her for her wealth, and hated her for her pride

adding with poignant grief:

“And when she fell in feeble health ye blessed her — that she died.”

Then an almost frenzied outburst:

“How shall the ritual then be read, the requiem how be sung

By you — by yours, the evil eye, — by yours, the slanderous tongue,

That did to death the innocence that died, and died so young.”

For a moment the orchestra should play alone, while this passion subsides, then the chorus gently, persuasively mingle their voices:

Peccavimus; but rave not thus! and let a Sabbath song

Go up to God so solemnly the dead may feel no wrong.”

The whole verse should be gentle, sweet, consoling, and of rare beauty. Then the lover rouses himself, a man who has found comfort in his own soul, and sings in vigorous, inspiring melody:

“Avaunt! tonight my heart is light, no dirge will I upraise.

But waft the angel on her flight with a pan of old days.”

Such are the possibilities for music which lie hidden in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Have we no composer who will undertake to realize them?








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