- Baudelaire in Song, 1880–1930 by, Helen Abbott and; Brahms and his Poets: A Handbook by Natasha Loges
Helen Abbott's and Natasha Loges's books are two of the most significant recent interventions in the scholarship of art song. They approach their subjects from different disciplinary angles but both focus on the reputation of one artist. Abbott, a modern linguist, is concerned with the reception of the poet Charles Baudelaire in song; Loges, a musicologist, concentrates on the poets selected for song setting by the composer Johannes Brahms. While Abbott focuses on a sample from the hundreds that use Baudelaire's poems—and not necessarily from the most famous composers—she pursues a kind of quantitative analysis intended to reveal stylistic trends. There is a completist aspect to Loges's project, too, for she deals with all the poets Brahms used for his published solo songs, lending the whole an encyclopaedic air. Despite the large number of songs Brahms composed, they have less presence on the concert platform and in academic discourse than might be expected: Loges's book looks set to become the definitive volume on them for years to come.
Abbott's book is more methodologically orientated and much slimmer than Loges's tome, but is packed with ideas and examples. Its first three chapters contextualise Baudelaire's poetry within the world of song (with a helpful overview of song types), discuss how to analyse poetry-as-song, and explore the consequences of "repackaging" Baudelaire's poems as songs. Each chapter will be of use to lecturers and students exploring the manifold ways in which words and music can be approached, as will the appendix tabulating "shared critical language used in adaptation, translation, and word/music theory".
For such a small and simple genre, song is remarkably evasive. Abbott explains in detail the various interpretative strategies that have been adopted to cope with song's inherent slipperiness. In part, the problem is one of hoary romantic tropes: even modern theorists describe song as mysterious, conveying individual emotions at the same time as it evokes communal experience. There is also, more pragmatically, resistance to analysing song as a genre. In her second chapter, Abbott provides an account of existing approaches, most notably that of Kofi Agawu, whose 1992 article "Theory and Practice in the Nineteenth-Century Lied" (Music Analysis 11, no. 1 [March 1992]: 3–36) remains one of the most convincing attempts to devise a systematic method of analysing song. Where Agawu falters, Abbott argues, is that he privileges music over words. Here, she attempts to provide instead "a new, testable model for working with song" that faces head on the genre's potential to provoke "boundless" analytical activity (p. 27). ("Boundless activity" is Agawu's phrase; importantly, he does not say that the provocation is unique to song but that it is true of all music analysis.)
It is crucial, Abbott says, to admit to song's instability; its format may change according to how it is scored (for different voice types and for piano or orchestral accompaniment), or how it is performed and disseminated. We can then ask:
What is it that enables poem and music to cleave together? What is the nature of the bonds between poem and music? Why is it that some of the bonds are particularly strong in some songs, while in others the connection seem too flimsy for the song to stay the course?(p. 28).
Looking at the "how" of song, rather than the "what", "who", or "why", promises to deter readings that habitually resort to biography or that treat song as nothing more than the juxtaposition of two different art forms, poetry and music, as if in a montage. Abbott proposes as an alternative model the "assemblage", which brings poem and music together "to form a temporary, [End Page 339] sometimes strong and sometimes weak, set of bonds" (p...