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The Clements Blog

Words and Music - Endless Possibilities

Friday, 4th October 2013 | 0 comments

Singing may be the fundamental origin of all music. It is even possible that prehistoric humans may have sung to each other even before the development of language. Today there is no doubt that you can pick almost any style or genre of music from around the world and you will find music written for the voice, from traditional chant to rap, from opera to jazz scat. At the same time, you will also find an endless variety of ways of setting words to music. (For an extreme example, see the video of Luciano Berio's Sequenza III in our post on extended techniques).

A great example of how to use that versatility is the following scene from Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes (1945). Grimes, a fisherman, has been accused of the murder of his young apprentice, who died while the two were at sea (it is never made clear whether this was an accident or something more sinister). In this scene from near the very end of the opera, Grimes, sung here by Jon Vickers, descends into madness and despair because of the unproven accusations against him.

Britten's setting is impressive for two reasons. The first is that he gives the singer almost no accompaniment at all. This emphasises Grimes' loneliness, and his distance from the village community that used to be his home. The second inspired idea is using a range of vocal styles, resembling the jumbled thoughts and memories in Grimes' head. The main style is quite solemn, but others include the sarcastic impression of a village gossip's "accidental circumstances" at 4:18, or the nursery rhyme "Young Joe has gone fishing" at 6:08. This long solo aria constantly shifts in mood, as though Grimes has been pushed to the brink of sanity.

This is pretty dark stuff, but how a composer sets words to music can cover every emotion. Keep checking back for more inspirational ways of writing music for the voice.


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