The Poetry and Music Connection

Mickey Mouse as he appeared in The Sorcerer's Apprentice segment of the film Fantasia.

( CC BY 2.0) /  JD Hancock

We can express ourselves artistically in various ways - music, dance, poetry, painting, etc. These artistic expressions can be related, connected or inspired by the other. For example, a music piece can inspire a choreographer to come up with new dance moves, or a painting can inspire someone to write poetry. Through the years we've heard songs that have been partly or greatly inspired by poems. These two art forms possess certain similar elements, such as meter and rhyme. Let's take a look at some examples:

Songs Inspired by Poems

  • "Hail to the Chief": The title of this song came from a poem, "The Lady of the Lake," written by Sir Walter Scott and published on May 8, 1810. The said poem consists of six cantos, namely: The Chase, The Island, The Gathering, The Prophecy, The Combat, and The Guard Room. The words "Hail to the Chief" is found on Stanza XIX of the Second Canto.
  • "Auld Lang Syne": This is a traditional Scottish song derived from the poem of Robert Burns (1759 - 1796). Burns was a Scottish national poet who also wrote songs and lyrics. He first published a collection of poems in 1786 under the title Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, also known as the Kilmarnock edition.
  • "America the Beautiful": The words of this song came from a poem of the same title by Katharine Lee Bates (1859 -1929). She wrote the poem in 1893 and then revised it twice; first in 1904 and then in 1913. Bates was a teacher, poet and author of several books including America the Beautiful and Other Poems which was published in 1911.
  • "What Child Is This?": The words of this song was written by William Chatterton Dix (1837 - 1898), a hymn writer who also wrote carols. The three verses were actually taken from Dix' poem "The Manger Throne" and harmonized with the famous melody known as "Greensleeves." The said melody was a traditional English melody that was popularly used in many texts during the 14th century.
  • "O Little Town of Bethlehem": In 1865, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), an Episcopal clergyman, visited Bethlehem. His said visit to the town of Bethlehem inspired him to write a poem in 1867. A year later, Lewis Redner, Brooks' organist at Ho­ly Trin­i­ty Epis­co­pal Church in Phil­a­del­phia, Penn­syl­van­ia, created the music which will later be known as the carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

Through the years, many composers have been inspired by poetry, and some even set these poems to music. Let's take a look at some of them:

Poems Set to Music

  • Josquin des Prez set to music a poem by Jean Molinet in honor of Johannes Ockeghem.
  • Claude Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" was inspired by the poem of Stéphane Mallarmé.
  • Samuel Barber's "Dover Beach" is a poem written by Matthew Arnold which Barber set to music.
  • Paul Dukas' most famous work, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," was based on J.W. von Goethe's poem "Der Zauberlehrling."
  • Edvard Grieg set to music several works of the writer/poet Bjornstjerne Bjornson.
  • Jean Sibelius set to music several poems written by J.L. Runeberg.
  • Edward Elgar's "Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands" is a collection of poems written by his wife which he set to music.
  • Amy Beach's "Ah, Love, But a Day" and "The Year's at the Spring" were inspired by the poems of Robert Browning.