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A Hundred Gourds 5:1 December 2015

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Haiku and Music: A Morganatic Marriage?

by Charles Trumbull

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 |page 4 | page 5 | page 6


Setting poetry to music has been a pastime probably since the invention of both. In fact the border between poetry and song is blurred, and has long been so. Singer/songwriters flourish in our times: for example, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Tom T. Hall, the rappers, the German Liedermacher, the Soviet-era political bards; Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel.... Classical composers have always set text by poets to music—not to mention the relationship between librettists and opera composers.

In this essay I review the many attempts that have been made to set haiku to music, or present haiku with music, and give my opinions as to which approaches work to the benefit of the haiku, the music, or—in a perfect world—both. The text is augmented with hyperlinks to audio clips, audio files in the Web, and YouTube performances. In the latter case, the forbearance of the reader/listener is begged. It sometimes takes 10–15 seconds for the YouTube clip to load. Feel free to click past the usual introductory commercial messages and ignore the video, which in my opinion only muddies the listening experience. You may also have to manually stop each YouTube clip before you start another.

First let’s listen to a sterling example of poetry set to music with our ears attuned especially to the question of the relationship of the text and the music. This is a poem “Wohin?” (“Whither”) by Wilhelm Müller from the cycle Die Schöne Müllerin set by Franz Schubert, and sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The young man is falling for the mill-girl. The rushing of the brook parallels the agitation of his mind. Listen how the brilliant accompanist Gerald Moore captures the young man’s turmoil:




Schubert, “Wohin?” (2:11)1



This performance, to me, is a total artistic and literary success. I can hear the words of the poem, the music and interpretation reinforce and enhance the poet’s work, and the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts.

Can the same thing be done with haiku and music? I would dare say that it has not been done yet. Is there anything about haiku that makes it different from Müller’s poem and makes it somehow less fit to be set to music?

In the notes to Die schöne Müllerin, Fischer-Dieskau is quoted about the importance of finding a balance in each performance between the text, articulation, and melody. He recognizes that the text and the music are two entirely different things and that often it will be the case that they seem to present contradictory truths. “What is necessary to the music is, of its nature, guilty of impeding the poetry—which is itself equally necessary. Yet the confrontation is impossible unless the two are on equal footing, on level ground, otherwise it cannot even begin.”2 I believe it is especially difficult to preserve this balance when setting a haiku to music. I also think that most composers who have combined haiku with music, for one or another reason, have simply seen fit to ignore balance.

I keep coming back to the question, “What does the haiku gain by being set to music?” Many of the truths about haiku that we have all been ingrained with seem to work against trying to “improve” them with music.

By nature, haiku are incomplete, leaving the reader/hearer to fill in the missing parts from his/her own experience; do we really want a musician to fill in those missing parts, presenting us then, presumably, with some sort of a completed whole?

In a sense, musical notes are the equivalent of syllables. Haiku are typically seventeen syllables in length or shorter. Can the essence of haiku can be maintained in poems that are significantly longer than that, whether counting in words or musical notes?

Haiku rely upon brevity. As haiku poets we ruthlessly root out any lengthening of the haiku moment through words—so should any protraction through unnecessary musical notes. If haiku is a breath-length poem, perhaps we could impose a limit that any musical haiku setting may not be longer than the breath-length of a medium-sized oboist!

Haiku are suggestive and allusive. A musical accompaniment could be that way too, but it would most likely interfere. Much musical haiku seem to be attempts at gilding the lily. Because of the sufficiency of the haiku itself, as complete and balanced compositions haiku settings seem doomed to failure. It is my contention that, in nearly all cases, a haiku gains nothing from musical treatment. Net artistic gain, if any, has always been on the side of the music. The best we can hope for, I’m afraid, is that a haiku might survive being set to music.

So how is our precious haiku treated by contemporary classical composers? This question was the topic of an interesting meeting of the British Haiku Society in 2004 led by Colin Blundell, who is a composer as well as a haiku poet. He wrote in the newsletter of the British Haiku Society:

I asked if BHS was likely to have a view] about the kind of musical accompaniment that might best be associated with haiku. … [S]even years ago I asked the question which of the “classical” composers I knew might be suitable models for haiku music—I came up with Webern: short utterances, a feeling of spontaneity, free from conventional associations, requires one just to listen putting aside preconceptions about what you think music is, absence of thought-out meaning & pattern. Just like haiku!3

About his Six Bagatelles for String Quartet from 1913, Webern wrote, “One has to realize what restraint is needed to express oneself with such brevity.”4 Clearly, his compositional method (and his angst) was the same as that of the haiku poet! For fun, before we get down to business and look at haiku and music, let’s give a listen to some Webern—the third of his Five Pieces for String Quartet of 1909. This is the complete movement; it is marked “very turbulent.”





Webern, Fünf Sätze (0:41)5







This essay has was presented at a quarterly meeting of the Haiku Society of America in Minneapolis 25 June 2005, and again at Haiku North America—2005, Port Townsend, Wash. The text has been updated, with web and YouTube links added, 22 March 2008 and 14 August 2015.

1 Franz Schubert. “Wohin?” from Die schöne Müllerin. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and (I think) Gerald Moore. YouTube. I believe this audio is taken from the famous 1951 recording, which (along with other recordings) is available on CD by RRC1383 Regis Setting of “Wohin?” by Wilhelm Müller. Translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published 1839, available at the Bartleby website.

2 Quoted in Wolf-Eberhard von Lewinski. “The composer and the interpreter,” album notes for Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin. Deutsche Grammophone Gesellschaft, 1972.

3 Colin Blundell, in The Brief, the newsletter of the British Haiku Society (#62, December 2004).

4 Quoted in Humphrey Searle, “Anton Webern,” album notes to Webern: Das Gesamtwerk, Opp. 1–31 (Sony Classics S3K 45845).

5 Anton Webern. “III. Sehr bewegt,” from Fünf Sätze für Streichquartett. Performed by Les Dissonances. YouTube.


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