Song Cycle

Song Cycle with Michael Zapruder

Michael Zapruder holding glowing lights in his palms

In this monthly series, poets, writers, and musicians trace the long relationship between poetry and music, exploring how individual composers and musicians have transformed poems into musical works. In this installment, composer Michael Zapruder shows how Francis Poulenc translates a poem by Apollinaire into song while preserving poetry’s “superpower”: silence.

Matthew Rohrer once said to me: “when poetry and music come together, poetry usually loses.” Classical music in particular is full of songs in which composers exploit musical or sonic cues in a poem almost reflexively (imagine, for example, the music imitating birdsong any time the poem mentions a bird); or where composers repeat, eliminate or rearrange a poem’s lines to suit their musical impulses. I even know a composer who changed specific words in Walt Whitman’s poems to fit his musical needs.

As a musician, I covet poetry’s superpower, which I believe is found not in the words that poets use (powerful as those are), but in the silence behind those words. To me, that particular poetic silence, which emerges when a poet is reading a good poem well, seems superior to any sound because it seems to transcend all possible sounds. That poetic silence is the signature of something we can approach but not enter; and for me, a poem or a song or a composition with none of that silence in it isn’t worth much at all.

Francis Poulenc’s song La Carpe, composed to the text of an Apollinaire poem by the same name, preserves the silence of its poem, and is for me a model of how music can listen to—and hear—poetry. Unlike many classical art songs, La Carpe derives its power from what it leaves out, and from what it does not do. It is therefore a trick of alchemy, combining elements which on their own may seem like mere fragments into a cohesive, complete entity. In other words, it is a song.

In La Carpe, Poulenc takes Apollinaire’s four lines of eight syllables each and he makes . . . four melodic lines of eight notes each. This may seem unremarkable, but it is in fact a choice, since composers can use melismas—multiple notes on a single syllable—to create elaborate melodies even from single words. Poulenc reinforces the restrained feeling of this syllabic melodic approach by using multiple repeated pitches in each of the melody’s four lines; and by casting the entire melody in austere, almost mechanical phrasing. Poulenc’s only significant rhythmic fingerprints on the poem are silences: short pauses before the first and last lines; and Poulenc’s only melodic gestures are the two pairs of melodic leaps that occur in lines two and four. Taken together, these choices—two silences and five leaps (the last three notes leap up an octave and then down a third)—hardly amount to anything at all (a good sign!).

La Carpe’s piano part is even more minimal, consisting of five precisely exact repetitions of a two-measure musical oscillation. The first measure, closed-sounding and dissonant, dilates into something more open and severely beautiful, which cycles back to the first measure to begin the cycle again. Every measure in the song (except the final chord with which the song ends) is rhythmically identical.

Poulenc wrote a small book about his songs (Journal de mes mélodies) and much of his writings in the book directly concern poetry. Memorably, Poulenc wrote: "When I set a text to music I consider and appraise it so many times that I know very quickly the exact weight of its meaning.” This feels right to me. Poulenc does not mention the poem’s meaning (say, the birds that the music can imitate), but rather the weight of the poem’s meaning. This itself sounds a bit like poetry. In this idea I can sense an incipient silence. Poulenc’s is the kind of sensitivity that will not only keep poetry safe from music, but will allow poetry to win. And, as La Carpe coolly unfolds, poetry wins, and then the song wins, too.

The Carp

In your pools and in your ponds
Carp, how long you live
Is it that death forgets you
Fish of melancholy

Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated from the French by Michael Zapruder

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