Connecting Music and Poetry in Education
In Celebration of World Poetry Day
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of poetry coming together with music can be seen in the works of the great Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. Considered geniuses by many, these two individuals joined forces to create arguably the most famous and successful partnership in American musical theatre.
Rodgers, the musical composer, and Hammerstein, the poet and lyricist, combined to receive multiple Tony, Oscar, and Grammy awards by writing some of our most well-known and best-loved musicals, including Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music, and others. To accomplish this, they both have reflected on how a mutual respect for each other’s craft was a necessity, allowing their finished products to become the gems that we now know, both musically and lyrically.
Referring to the hit musical Oklahoma, “The very first lyric Oscar finished was ‘Oh, what a beautiful mornin,’ and when he handed it to me and I read it for the first time, I was a little sick with joy because it was so lovely and so right,” Rodgers said before his death in 1979. “When you’re given lyrics like ‘The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,’ you get something to say musically.”
On World Poetry Day, it takes little effort to see the connection between poetry and music. Music, primarily that which includes lyrics, has a foundation in both the simplicity and complexity of poetry.
Beethoven’s famous final symphony, his ninth, has a final movement that introduces a chorus and four soloists for the first time after 45 minutes of music have already been performed. The addition of the poetry, expressed through lyrics and song, provide a dramatic climax to the historic work that would be impossible to imagine without. The text, taken from Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, translated to English, comes together with many repetitions of:
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity
Daughter from Elysium
We enter, burning with fervor
Heavenly being, your sanctuary!
Your magic brings together
What custom has sternly divided
All men shall become brothers
Whatever your gentle wings hover.
Beethoven knew the power of words, of text, of poetry. In fact, the very orchestration of them was like a musical poem all to itself — when to include or not include the voices, whether to introduce the lyrics with a soft, subtle approach or with a strength that would awaken any listener. It could be said that Beethoven was a poet in his own right.
Similar to the musical theatre of Rogers and Hammerstein, or the artful classical music of composers such as Beethoven, we also see the tight relationship between poetry and music as we examine children’s music. Our general music curriculum for grades PreK through grade 8, Spotlight On Music, contains more authentic song material than any other curriculum on the market.
Looking at any number of the songs, one can see the importance that music has to poetry. For instance, any of the well-known patriotic songs are rooted in poetry. Simply consider the lyrics of “America”, written by Samuel Francis Smith, and it’s impossible not to hear, or sing, the tune that we all know:
My country ’tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing
Land where my fathers died
Land of the pilgrim’s pride
From every mountain side
Let freedom ring
“Bickle, Bockle”, a song often used by music educators to teach rhythm and intervals, has a short poem as it’s foundation:
Bickle, bockle, blue bottle
Fishes in the sea
If you want a partner
Just choose me
Through these lyrics, combined with the melody that accompanies them, students are able to develop both musical and English literacy that would not be possible if the lyrics were left to their own accord.
There are endless examples of poetry’s connection to music. A simple look at the index of song material in our other two curricula, Music! Its Role and Importance In Our Lives and Voices In Concert, gives a glimpse into not only the wealth and diversity of material that each curriculum offers, but also the depth of connection between words and music.
This year, as we recognize World Poetry Day, may we consider not only the poets and the poems they write, but also how they have, and continue to, cross-over into our musical experiences and musical intelligences.
By Gregg Ritchie, National Curriculum Specialist, McGraw-Hill Education