The Art of Setting Text

A Conversation with Libby Larsen and Dale Warland

A renowned composer and choral artist discuss the challenges of choosing and setting texts—what every composer, conductor, and chorus seeking to commission a new choral work should know.

If music is “love in search of a word,” as poet Sidney Lanier described it, where does that leave choral music? Because when it comes to choral literature, the word tends to be the starting point rather than the destination. For the typical choral composer, the text comes first.

Yet many choral composers don’t give the choice and treatment of text the attention it deserves—at least as far as Libby Larsen and Dale Warland are concerned. In separate appearances at the 2012 Chorus America Conference in Minneapolis, Larsen, composer of more than 100 choral works, and Warland, founder of the Dale Warland Singers and a composer himself, both touched on the act of combining words with music.

“The human voice carries the spirit of our culture on its breath,” Larsen told a dinner gathering organized by the American Composers Forum. “That’s why it’s hard to compose well for the voice.”

And that’s why both Larsen and Warland say they’re surprised that the challenges of setting text are seldom taught and discussed.

In a Conference session titled “Choral (Ad)Ventures,” Warland led a hand-picked chorus through four brand-new works with the composers present to hear his suggestions. “I love the notes I got from them afterward,” Warland says. “One of them told me, ‘I never had a conductor give me feedback like this.’ There’s a crying need for it. There are no books on setting texts.”

With that in mind, writer Don Lee sat down with Warland and Larsen at Warland’s home in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, to gather some advice for choral composers on choosing and setting text.

Q: As a composer working with poetry or prose, what is your responsibility to the text in the act of setting it?

DW:  The key question for me is, Will a musical setting enhance or will it diminish the impact of the text? Is the text better left alone?

LL:  You have to maintain vigilance about ego—your own, that is. That’s part of the responsibility of working with text. You’re dealing with another human being’s creative output.

Q: Where do you look for texts? When you find a writer you like, how inclined are you to return to that person’s writing?

DW:  I find that the act of thumbing through the pages of a book and reading aloud the potential texts is inspiring in itself. So I prefer to physically hold a book of poetry, collections or anthologies, rather than going online. I also keep a file of choral music that utilizes poetry I find especially appealing and might wish to set someday. 

I do tend to return to writers that I enjoy. Sara Teasdale is a good example. While she perhaps falls into the category of “overused,” I’m very fond of her work. I find that her kind of sensitivity speaks to me personally. I also find that the general length of a great many of her poems is ideal for the most-often-requested three- to four-minute choral piece. The fact that her work now falls into the category of “public domain” is a bonus.

LL:  Like Dale, I love to hold a book of poetry in my hands. This morning I was looking at Mary Oliver. I have a large collection of poetry. What I’m looking for is authentic voice, whatever that is. I’ve always been drawn to the turn of a word or a catchy phrase. I look at the newspaper, blogs and other writing, listening for music within the text. I love written text; a well-written text can be compellingly musical.

DW:  Whenever I happen to be leading conducting seminars, I invite one conducting participant to read poetry to open each session. My goal is to encourage a deeper sensitivity to poetry than one usually finds among choral conductors. It’s quite exciting to observe the enthusiasm and a new awareness for the significance of poetry that invariably occurs. It’s inspiring.

LL:  I often do exactly the same thing with masterclasses. We read poetry and I ask the students to take its rhythmic dictation. Then we put bar lines in. This results in all kinds of revelations about the music of poetry.

Q: When you first look at or hear a text, what tells you you’d like to try a choral setting? What are the main signals?

LL:  Certain texts seem to sing off the page. It’s quite a personal thing. If a text has its own internal sense of how the rhythm flows and I can hook into that, then it begins to sing off the page. For me when a text begins to resonate the basic elements of music…motion, pitch, shape, emotion, it starts to work in the non-texted part of my brain. The poem beckons, Set me.

DW:  After determining whether or not a text is appropriate for the occasion for which the work is being created, I want to be certain that that same text speaks to me. Does it reach out and grab me? Do the words and phrases lend themselves to singing? And finally, do they inspire musical ideas? 

LL:  When you’re word painting with a Shakespearean text, you can easily overdo it. You’ve got to be subtle. Just a little paint here and there.

DW:  I have a feeling that Mozart didn’t stew very much over the selection of texts, quite unlike Dominick Argento, who I know spends nearly as much time seeking out a text that fully engages him as he does in the writing of the actual music. The same is true of Benjamin Britten. He’s famous for the selection of texts for all his choral works. They’re always unique and invariably meaningful.

As a composer, I want to own the text, feel good about it, and then let the music take over. I print it out, using large type and ample space, and then read it aloud, over and over, committing it to memory if possible. 

LL:  It sounds like you do. I just put the text on the piano and I mark it up. I circle things. I let the music take over when it needs to.

Q: Under what circumstances do you alter texts as you set them?

DW:  I have never altered the words of any given text that I have set and would not, unless I first had permission from the author.

LL (agreeing):  It’s the substance of the words. Sometimes the music gets hold of you and you run into a challenge. For instance you may have a two-syllable word when the music calls for one syllable. I try to find a musical solution that arises from the words of the poem.

DW:  At the Chorus America Conference, during the reading session for composers writing for chorus, I worked with a composer who had set a text from Isaiah, in the Old Testament, that included the two-syllable word “power,” notated with one long note. The music, as it was laid out, might have been stronger if the composer would have simply added another note to account for the two syllables of the word “power.” However, I suggested another translation that used the word “might.” This now made it possible to use one note on a strong beat and utilize a better-sounding vowel (actually a diphthong) on which to sing this word. We tried it and it worked!

A lot of people have no compunction about altering words. Most composers will change the text and never mention it.

LL:  Randall Thompson’s Frostiana hangs like a cloud over this kind of discussion. Thompson agreed to make the piece using Robert Frost’s poetry. He took a musical approach that fragmented the poems. I heard this from a man who was in the choir at the time—Frost came to listen. He was furious. He felt his poetry had been violated by Thompson’s choices of meter and his use of repetition. After that he instructed his attorney to refuse all requests to set his poetry to music.

Q: Libby, in your session with composers at the Conference you advised them to do nothing with a text before getting the rights. Why?

LL:  It can break your heart if you fall in love with a text and compose the piece in a spirit of innocence and hope, and then the publisher or the estate refuses to grant permission to set the text to music.

DW:  A composer should seek official permission to utilize a text just as soon as he or she decides to use it, and well before putting notes to paper.

LL: Most estate lawyers know very little about how choral music works. They ask for things like 50 percent of the gate, having no understanding of the piece’s place in the context of an entire concert. You have to negotiate to the nth degree for the text. It depletes your enthusiasm. Especially when you know the poet would have granted the rights.

Q: How often does a commission come to you with a text already chosen? How do you respond?

DW:  Most composers want to make their own selection of text to set. What commissioners usually offer is a suggestion that comes from a nostalgic association with a particular bit of poetry and, more often than not, it doesn’t stir up an enthusiastic response from the composer. Of course there are exceptions to this. The composer needs to explain the importance of the text being one that he or she can identify with and will be excited to set. I believe the composer should calmly state, I’ll show you the text that I settle on, and I’ll be certain to solicit your approval before proceeding with the actual writing of the music.

LL:  I have had experiences, a few, when I’ve turned down a commission. I’ve also accepted them when I shouldn’t have. Life’s a learning experience. Sometimes if I’m not getting the text I’m looking for from the commissioner, I use a pseudonym, either M.K. Dean or Aldeen Humphries, and write my own text. I take their concept and write my own text.  

Q: Is poetry the form of writing you prefer for choral settings? When does prose work for you?

DW:  Younger composers, at least composers of the current generation, seem to be making settings of prose, as opposed to poetry, much more frequently than composers did in the recent past. Their passions seem to be more attuned to prose vs. poetry, much more than even five years ago. Two out of the four composers participating in the Chorus America Conference reading session chose to present musical settings of prose. I was surprised to find this trend.

LL:  I’m seeing it a lot. It may be a trend, but it may be a new compositional vein, influenced, I think, by recording studio technology, which allows you to amplify material you wouldn’t be able to hear clearly in an acoustic setting. Hip-hop is a good example. I don’t know how many young people today read poetry. I know they’re up on contemporary lyrics. To stay in touch with this I listen to The Current, a Twin Cities alternative rock music station.

DW:  I have set no prose. However, one example that comes close to being prose is a recent composition in which I paraphrased a published interview with a retired English farmer. I took the farmer’s very personal expressions and attempted to make his words as poetic as I was able. For me it worked.

LL:  I set quite a bit of prose because it can be effective in art song literature and opera.

DW:  Do you read the text aloud when you are in the process of setting that text?

LL:  Yes. I’m listening for natural inflection and pulse. Pulse in prose is different than in poetry and both differ from meter in music. When I rhythmate the text from pulse to pulse, I find the music in the text. I also look for alliteration, in-rhyme, certain consonants and vowels, and so on. Like poetry, I think prose offers its own metric signature to the composer. I began thinking about this when I studied with Dominick Argento

DW:  I don’t know of another modern composer of choral music who comes close to Dominick Argento’s ability to create settings of prose that seem so natural and convincing and never feel concocted. To set prose as Argento does so effectively is an extremely challenging feat.

LL: Now I show this method to young composers. I use a recording of Lou Gehrig’s line, ‘I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth….’ We determine Gehrig’s speaking pulse and how he rhythmates between pulses. Then we put musical meter and pitch to it.

Q: Are there texts that work well for chorus but not for solo voices? Vice versa?

DW:  I’ve written very little art song, but I believe that texts of an intimate character are much better suited for the solo voice than they are for the collective voice of a choir. In those texts, the point of view is “I,” not “we.”

LL:  Yes. The choral “I” has a different meaning than when one person says it. It’s a different metaphor: the individual vs. the congregant. A solo voice provides direct, one-to-one relationship between singer and auditor. This changes the meaning of the words. When I look for an art song text, I allow more musical flexibility. With a chorus you have the need to hold the group together.

Q: When it comes to sacred or religious music, is there a particular challenge to choosing a text?

DW:  For me, all great music is sacred. Likewise, all great poetry is sacred. A given text can include the word “God” but that doesn’t mean we can automatically define it as sacred music. I have no problem with music for the church that is simply great music and does not incorporate the obvious by utilizing so-called “religious expressions,” including the word “God.” But I have great difficulty if the music is seriously inferior and is categorized as sacred because it alludes to God or is a setting of religious expressions. Just as I believe that all wine is red, all cake is chocolate, I also believe that all good music is sacred.

LL:  I agree with Dale. There’s a reverence to the setting of a fine text, and to great writing. I run into trouble when I’m asked to write a liturgical piece. I feel puzzled. I was asked to compose a mass for a Catholic church. Though I went to Catholic school, I turned the commission down. I did compose a liturgical Lutheran mass last year. I’ve also composed a secular mass, Missa Gaia;all of the texts are poetry about the earth. To me true reverence, what is most deeply sacred, lies in our treatment of ourselves and our environment. Remember the line, “Only God can make a tree”? When I was little, in the summer I’d skip church and spend an hour sitting in a tree rather than participating in a man-made ritual. Our approach to the self, living our lives in wonder…that to me is the most sacred journey there is.

DW:  Ascertaining what makes music “spiritual” is another challenging question. Perhaps “a mystery” is a more appropriate description. A composer’s intentions do not automatically make the musical result spiritual. However, I think there are a handful of composers who seem to have spirituality in their very bones. Herbert Howells is one. Arvo Pärt is another. Both, for me, have that admirable skill to create choral works that exemplify the inspiring combination of outstanding craftsmanship and unmistakable spirituality.

LL:  You hear it and you know it. There’s no artificiality. You don’t even need words.