À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
I can well understand how the beauty of the poems, like that of an antique vase, challenged the music to crown them; not to make them complete, for they are complete, but to articulate more strongly and to throw into relief their proud and melancholy charm; to lend more lastingness to the priceless moment of their every detail than is granted to the breathed-out words; to such moments of condensed imagery as in the third stanza of the "Ode on Melancholy," the image of the "sovran shrine" which veiled Melancholy has in the temple of delight, though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine -- all that is so brilliant that it scarcely leaves the music anything to say. It may be that it can only injure it, unless by simply speaking with it, and so lingering it out. I have often heard say that a poem must not be too good to furnish a good Lied. Music is at home in the task of gilding the mediocre. Just as real virtuosity in an actor shows up more brilliantly in a poor piece. But Adrian's relation to art was too proud and critical for him to wish to let his light shine in darkness. He had to look very high, intellectually, where he was to feel himself called as musician, and so the German poem to which he gave himself productively is also of the highest rank if without the intellectual distinction of the Keats lyrics. In place of literary exquisiteness we have something more monumental, the high-pitched, sounding pathos of the religious hymns, which with its invocations and depictions of majesty and mildness yields even more to the music, is more faithfully compliant with it than are those British images with their Greek nobility.Alex Ross put the idea to read this book in my head, by quoting it so often in his recent book The Rest Is Noise. This passage is one of the best descriptions of the relationship of text and music. The joke about how a good poem makes bad music, and vice-versa, could also be applied to the matter of how stilted musical texts often are, although we do not translate them into English that way, which Greg Sandow was writing about recently. There are certainly cases of excellent musical settings of excellent poetry, but just as often, as Mann puts it, "Music is at home in the task of gilding the mediocre." (The translation featured in the link at right is not the same as the one quoted here, inherited from my wife's late father.)
-- Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (1947, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter), Chapter 6, pp. 264-65
15 minutes ago