Let’s Talk About Text (Baby)

So…I thought about taking this tack with the bluecerealeducation content challenge last week. Then Rick Cobb sort of beat me to it with his introduction-to-poetry-through-lyrics lesson.  I know I can’t top Tom Petty, but hopefully it won’t totally suck.

We talk about text a lot in my class. Sometimes our rehearsals turn into a poetry or text interpretation session. It’s very important that students make a connection to the text and understand its meaning, otherwise a truly musical performance isn’t possible. Sometimes this process requires a bit of discussion and reflection. Sometimes they get it right away. Sometimes I have to nudge them in the right direction before they truly comprehend the meaning. For instance, last week we discussed the translation for a little Mozart nocturne they are performing that is in Italian. Roughly, it translates to:

“Two beautiful eyes that enslave my heart. If I cannot win the mercy of those lights, I will die of love.”

I know. Pretty potent stuff, right? But (and I’m sorry to say it), this kind of expression is almost completely foreign to my students. I spent some time talking about the era in which Mozart lived (mid-late 1700’s). Not only would it have been inappropriate, but downright scandalous for men and women to express passion in public. “Decent” men and women weren’t even permitted to touch each other unless they were dancing, or escorting/being escorted somewhere. Words and music were the only acceptable ways of communicating strong emotion. In other words, receiving the above sentiment from an admirer certainly would have been swoon-worthy in Mozart’s Day.

It’s OSSAA State Contest week for 2A/3A/4A high schools in Oklahoma. My high school girls are preparing an arrangement of an Emily Dickinson poem, Heart! We Will Forget Him.

Heart, we will forget him!

You and I, tonight!

You may forget the warmth he gave,

I will forget the light.

When you have done, pray tell me,

That I, my thoughts may dim;

Haste! Lest while you’re lagging,

I may remember him.


I have sung and/or directed a few different arrangements of this text. It’s always a winner with the girls. We talk about the meaning of words like “haste” and “lagging”. We talk about the “bargaining” between “speaker” and “heart” (you forget this, I’ll forget that…come on, heart! Do your part! I can’t be pulling all the weight, here!). I usually share with them my sad story about my horrible break-up with my college boyfriend. We laugh, we cry, it’s a good time, and usually results in a great performance by musicians, not just singers.

All of this is to say that text plays a big part in the music I choose for my students. I try to choose text that is appropriate according to age, and to which the students can relate. However, we choral directors have to take it one step further.

We have to consider the way the composer treats the text.

Most of you have probably read or heard a recitation of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. Here’s the text, just to jog your memory:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Great fun, right? The kids usually love this one. Especially all the silly words.

“Slithy toves? Mome raths?”

“What the hell is a borogove?”

“Ms. D., what’s a vorpal blade?”

Even with all the nonsense words, they understand the story. They even get that it’s meant to be satirical and a little bit funny.

Now, here’s where the composer comes into the picture…er…score.

Watch the University of Utah A Capella Singers perform this Sam Pottle arrangement of Jabberwocky. Go ahead. I’ll wait.


Now check out this one by Rene Clausen. You don’t need to hear the whole thing, just a minute or so to get the gist of the style.


Don’t worry if you gave up on it after a minute. I think it’s boring, too. Since I only have about seven readers right now, I’m pretty sure this won’t get back to Mr. Clausen. He’s a great composer, I just don’t care for this particular work because I don’t think it stays true to the spirit of the text. It takes itself way too seriously.

In the Pottle arrangement, on the other hand, there is no shortage of silliness and wimsy. This choir did not take too many liberties; the parts for children’s toy instruments are actually written into the score. You’ll also notice the composer has a little fun with the nonsense words. For instance, he uses chromatic scales both ascending and descending on the words “burbled as he came”. The text, “he went galumphing back”, repeats several times, starting out slowly and speeding up with each repetition—as if somebody were bringing a horse from trot to gallup. We call this text painting—when the music actually imitates what the words are suggesting. I mean…even the composer’s name—Sam Pottle—sounds like exactly the guy Carroll would have picked to score his poem.

I’m not saying you’re wrong if you prefer the Clausen arrangement (I’m not saying it…). One of the great things about music—and poetry, I think—is that we are free to interpret and experience it in different ways. Both of these arrangements of Jabberwocky have been all-state chorus pieces in Oklahoma sometime in the last ten years. Just goes to show there’s more than one way to skin a cat…or slay a Jabberwock.


6 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Text (Baby)

      1. Every time I hear “stream of consciousness”, I think of the two excruciating months we spent on “Portrait of the Artist…” In APLit. I guess Joyce is just too smart for me…:)
        I definitely need to do a little editing, though!


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