Cummings is the poet

November 4, 2012

In August this year I was alerted by the wonderful @brainpicker to an intriguing sounding “17 Songs Based on the Poetry of E. E. Cummings”. Following the link I was taken to a review of a new album by the San Francisco band Tin Hatthe rain is a handsome animal – which is exactly and delightfully as described. I’ve included some of my favourites of the 17 near the bottom below.

However, I also felt a note of disappointment: what I was really hoping to find was a collection of 17 songs by different people to words by Cummings. So I decided to make my own list. And here it is: in fact a total of 25 songs by 14 artists and composers, in an exceedingly wide variety of musical styles.Cummings

I’m quite surprised at the relative dearth of Cummings music. Before researching this I was only aware of one song or composition (the Boulez mentioned below). And I was disappointed not to find any bearable setting of a particular favourite of mine – silently if, out of not knowable – which I read at my wedding. (Maybe I should try to commission one … from  … ?!)

Yet to me Cummings seems a poet who howls out for musical treatment. Perhaps the inevitable loss of the important visual aspects of his writing is offputting to musicians (though a dance project incorporating some of that spatial play might be interesting).

Cummings’ poetry varies from the cheesily romantic and even vulgar through every shade of playful to deeply felt nocturnes and ecstatic affirmations. It’s interesting to see which personalities across the musical spectrum have been drawn to it, and to which poems.

I hope Tin Hat’s beautifully crafted album prompts more interest from musicians of all sorts. We are after all still early in the afterlife of Cummings the poet.

– – – – –

1. Joan BaezAll in green went my love riding

This poem has been set by numerous classical composers but this haunting version from 1968 by Joan Baez is by far my favourite.

2. Brad Mehldauit may not always be so

Jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau collaborated with classical mezzo Anne-Sofie von Otter on the album Love Songs, which includes this single Cummings setting as its opening track. Mehldau describes the sonnet as a “youthful, tragic poem for all ages” which is moving because it “telegraphs the speaker’s inability to put … a mixture of adoration and despair into words. His singular way of messing with syntax helps to make that despair palpable.”

3. Leonard Bernsteinif you can’t eat you got to

Bernstein wrote this set of orchestral songs for the American bicentennial, and chose a selection of texts by American poets including this comical one by Cummings. It’s unusual in having multiple solo singers.

if you can’t smoke you got to
Sing and we aint got
nothing to sing;come on kid
let’s go to sleep

4. Eric Whitacrehope, faith, life, love

Popular choral composer Eric Whitacre has written several Cummings settings including his Three Songs of Faith (1999). The set includes i thank you God for this most amazing day; I will wade out, and (performed here) hope, faith, life, love. Whitacre takes just eight words from the poem to make an introspective, meditative piece. Apparently the musical treatment of each individual word quotes a different work by the composer.

5-6. Ned Roremin the rain

In Poems of Love and the Rain (1965) prolific classical songwriter Ned Rorem created an unusual structure in which eight poems are given two distinct musical settings each, arranged in pairs around a central interlude. The Cummings text – in the rain – appears as number 7 and 11 in the sequence, the former being especially watery, matching the slippery text. (Note the track names are all broken in Spotify).

7-8. BjörkSun in My Mouth, Mother Heroic

I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that Björk has been drawn to Cummings for inspiration: she seems a perfect match for his combination of playfulness and intensity. These two songs are settings of the poems i will wade out; and oh, thou that bowest thy ecstatic face respectively. Björk has also created a version of it may not always be so.

9-13. John CageFive Songs for Contralto

Another perfect match for the poet. I’m including this set of early songs Cage wrote in 1938 complete because they are so tiny and delightful. The poems are why did you go, little fourpaws; little silent Christmas tree; in Just; hist whist, and another comes. While dating from before the innovations and experiments for which Cage is famous, they are thoroughly characteristic in their simplicity, peacefulness and whimsy. The third poem, describing spring from the viewpoint of a child, “when the world is puddle-wonderful”, Cage surprisingly but gorgeously sets on a monotone.

– – – – –

I’ll take a brief pause at the midpoint of my list to mention a few things I’m not including, mostly because recordings aren’t available: a 1927 song by Aaron Copland – in spite of everything; a piece from the sixties (possibly legendary) by Philip Glass; a ballet by David Diamond to a scenario by Cummings based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and most importantly – to me! – A Sunbeam’s Architecture (title taken from the poem no man), a song cycle for tenor and chamber orchestra written by Elliott Carter in 2010. Rolando Villazón is set to give the European premiere in Berlin next April, and though no recording has been made yet, enthusiasts can peruse the score here.

– – – – –

14. Ra Ra RiotDying is Fine

This song by American indie band Ra Ra Riot takes lines from dying is fine)but Death as its starting point.

15. Pierre BoulezCummings ist der Dichter

This piece for choir and chamber orchestra from 1970 is probably what first brought my attention to Cummings. The title comes from a linguistic accident. Boulez wrote to the organisers of the commissioning festival – in broken German – something along the lines of “I don’t know what I’m going to call it, but Cummings is the poet”. Which was promptly misinterpreted, and the name stuck.

Boulez takes as his text a mysterious miniature – birds(here,inven and further scatters the syllables incomprehensibly through a kaleidoscope of startling harmonies and extremes of attack and duration. It’s very rarely heard, presumably because it’s almost impossible to sing, but more than anything else on this list it’s a setting that meets Cummings head on with a deeply thought out response to the elasticity of the text, including its spatial inventiveness.

16. Babelfishit may not always be so

Another setting of the poem heard above in Brad Mehldau’s version. Babelfish is a collaboration between singer-songwriter Brigitte Beraha and jazz pianist Barry Green.

17. Vincent PersichettiFlowers of Stone

Persichetti was a prolific composer in many genres and set numerous Cummings poems to music, both for choir and solo voices. The Flower Songs for choir and orchestra (1983) are all based on Cummings poems, this first of the set being these children singing in stone.

18. Luciano BerioCircles

Another major European modernist drawn to Cummings, ten years before Boulez, was Luciano Berio, with this colourful and dramatic work for female voice (originally Cathy Berberian), harp and two percussionists. The poems set are stinging; riverly is a flower, and n(o)w.

19-22. Morton FeldmanFour Songs to E E Cummings

A set of tiny but impassioned miniatures by a composer more known for the opposite extreme of duration. The poems are !blac; air; sitting in a tree, and moan. (Note that track names are badly muddled in Spotify).

23-25. Tin Hatthe rain is a handsome animal

And finally three favourites from Tin Hat’s album of 17 Cummings songs: cloud on a Leaf; 2 little whos, and yes is a pleasant country.

all is merely talk which isn’t singing

and all talking’s to oneself alone

but the very song of(as mountains

feel and lovers)singing is silence


The composer Elliott Carter was born in New York City on 11th December 1908, one day after Olivier Messiaen’s birth in Avignon, France. By way of introduction, here’s Bridget Kibbey playing part of his 1992 harp solo Bariolage.

Carter gave this piece a motto from Rilke (Sonnets to Orpheus, 2, 10):

But existence is still enchanting for us; in hundreds

Of places still pristine. A play of pure forces

Untouched except by one who kneels in wonder.Elliott Carter

Like many artists of his time, Carter is burdened with a sometimes excessive discussion of his technique and historical significance, which can perhaps be offputting to listeners. I find it hard to resist joining in with this chatter, but suffice it to say he has a preoccupation with the perception of time – a splintering of regular time to match the complexity of twentieth century life; a taste for long expressive melodic lines, and a powerful sense of drama driven by giving idiosyncratic characters to different instruments or groups.

I first encountered Carter’s music at one of my first ever proms back in 1985. It was the première of a substantial chamber piece called Penthode, conducted by Pierre Boulez. I didn’t know much classical music at all at the time and I can’t honestly remember what I made of it. But I do recall a critic sniping about the 1985 season as a whole, saying something like “too much sadly neglected British music plus a helping of Elliott Carter is sure to get the audiences fleeing in their droves”. My teenage identity gave me no interest in the former but demanded I should make a determined effort to befriend Elliott’s spiky complexity.

And I have to admit it’s taken me a long time to really befriend him! I always found his music interesting and enjoyable, but it’s taken me many years to find a real emotional engagement. Unlike, for example, Boulez, with his glittering frenzy, or Birtwistle, with his powerfully evocative dark rites.

I’ve returned to Carter numerous times over the years, encouraged by one work in particular I’ve always loved, Night Fantasies. This long piano piece from 1980 is of fearsome technical complexity (I definitely do not recommend reading up on what’s going on in there compositionally), but to me it invites a very direct emotional response, as befits the title.

My breakthrough came quite recently when I put on a CD of Symphonia (1996). To my great surprise I soon found myself spontaneously rising from my seat and starting to dance around the room to it. I’ve no idea how that happened, but it certainly did, and it signalled a different kind of listening, or perhaps not-listening: certainly not trying to listen.

That experience has transformed how I feel about all of Elliott’s music. I’m still unsure how to put into words my poetic response in the way I easily can for, say, Boulez. I’ve realised there’s a huge difference between musical style and musical personality – a topic that deserves it’s own blogpost – and I’m still wondering who really is similar to Carter in personality, as opposed to style. Names that come to mind are Schoenberg and Berg, who seem to overlap with his robust emotional world. But my response is now much more physical, and through that emotional, and I’m left with a fantasy of finding a DJ willing to play his records for me late into the night.

I’m also left wondering if Carter demands close attentive concentration, or if in fact the opposite is true – and in general if technically complex modern music can sometimes benefit from a more relaxed approach by the listener? I believe there’s room for both. I certainly spent far too long trying to understand Carter’s technique and personality, whereas in the end my response was at least partly physical. You either respond to the energy, drama and playfulness or you don’t – and quite possibly with your feet.

I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that the creative output of a significant artist beyond the age of 100 is of enormous intrinsic interest. Elliott’s recent works (and they are legion) have a new delicacy and simplicity, remain playful, and have less expressive extremes but still a wide range of mood. Charles Rosen means no insult in commenting that Carter is “a rare instance in which losing a little edge in old age is not a bad thing”.

In 2010 he composed a song cycle called A Sunbeam’s Architecture, the title referring to the following lines by E. E. Cummings:

such was a poet and shall be and is

who’ll solve the depths of horror to defend

a sunbeam’s architecture with his life:

and carve immortal jungles of despair

to hold a mountain’s heartbeat in his hand

Finally, here are some interesting short video interviews on the Boosey & Hawkes website. Near the end Carter comments that unlike many modernist composers who raised a fist to the past, “I’ve always loved so many kinds of music … Bach and Beethoven … Guillaume de Machaut … and my music is somehow a thankyou note to all of that.”

Recommended recordings:

Symphonia / Clarinet Concerto

Night Fantasies / Ravel

Figments and Fragments

String Quartets