Composing Narratives through Song Cycles

Burton, Natalie (2023). Composing Narratives through Song Cycles. In: Ensslin, Astrid; Round, Julia and Thomas, Bronwen eds. The Routledge Companion to Literary Media. Routledge Literature Companions. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 159–173.



Song cycles – collections or groups of songs that combine to form a single, complete musical work – were established during the nineteenth century and constitute a form of literary media that gives rise to a range of critical and aesthetic complexities. These issues are augmented through the emergent property of narrative, most particularly in relation to any plot or story that is developed as the result of a composer’s selection, combination and juxtaposition of poetic texts.

Difficulties in analysing narrative in song cycles exist on several levels. The intermedial status of the genre invites a wide range of methodological approaches from both literary and musical perspectives. But in the potential privileging of either words or music, meaningful analogy can be obscured or lost altogether. Much musicological criticism is characterised by underlying assumptions of conventional, linear narrative structures, a bias that has had, and continues to have, a significant impact on discussions about the potential shape and structures of narratives within the repertoire. Finally, in song cycles narrative is rendered within a complex, dynamic, polyphonic spectrum, realised not only through the vocalisation of the words themselves, but also through the composer’s music, which participates in, articulates and comments on the action.

The poetry of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad provided a particular source of inspiration for composers of English song cycles throughout the twentieth century. Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge (1908–1909) is one of many cycles to set texts from the collection, but the work resists a conventional linear structure in which songs are organised to be cumulatively revealing. Applying a melopoetic methodology in which structural synergies between the composer’s musical design and the poet’s sequence are explored reveals a structure of three micronarratives. Vaughan Williams’s musical setting of Housman’s texts, to varying degrees, simultaneously represent and transform Housman’s source text to recall, reimagine and devise new stories of Shropshire Lads.

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