“No Opera Plot Can Be Sensible, for People Do Not Sing When They are Feeling Sensible”: Poetry and Music Course in Colorado with Ernest Hilbert

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button_ad_everseradio_Feb14_2013I will teach an advanced graduate course on poetry and music at the Western State College of Colorado MFA in Creative Writing program this summer. Below is the course syllabus. For more information, please visit the program’s website.

MFA in Creative Writing: Poetry with an Emphasis on Formal Verse
Summer Intensive 2011 / CRWR 633: Poetry and Music

Professor:    Ernest Hilbert
Location:    Taylor Hall 229
Times:        Monday through Friday (July 15-19), and Monday through Wednesday (July 22-24), 1-4 PM

Office:        Taylor Hall 208C
Office Hours:     M, T, W, Th: 10:00 – 11:00 AM
Phone:        215-275-2477 or 970-943-2590
Email:        ehilbert@western.edu

Course Description
In ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound proposed that “poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” How do musical elements of poetry affect us as readers and listeners? How does one write for musical settings? Before the modern era, poetry was often sung. In fact, from its earliest uses in ancient cultures, poetry has served alongside music to entertain and enlighten in both religious and secular performance. The class will address the purely musical elements of the language and ways they may be used in both written and musical environments. The class will also focus extensively on practical aspects of writing for musical setting and constructing finished song lyrics and opera libretti.

Course Objectives
This hands-on workshop, combining musical, prosodic, and theatrical elements, will examine the ways in which a librettist or song-writer goes about preparing a text for musical setting. Students will begin work on a short opera (select characters and setting, determine thematic focus, write both recitative and arias), select existing texts for use as oratorio, compose popular song lyrics, and engage in detailed discussion of theories addressed in assigned reading material.

Course Topics
•    How does one begin an opera? How does one establish a relationship with a composer, find a suitable topic, secure permissions?
•    How does one develop characters and create distinctive voices?
•    What tactics do opera librettists deploy when writing for a composer?
•    How does dialog as recitative differ from lyric as aria?
•    How do song lyrics relate to lyric poetry? Is there a difference?
•    What can be accomplished in a song that might not be possible in a poem?
•    What are the origins of lyric poetry? How have song and poetry diverged?

Readings/Textbooks/Recommended Further Reading
What follows is a list of books I will draw upon for the course. You need not have read them beforehand, but you may want to pick a number of them up at some point after the course, in order to continue exploration of particular topics. There will also be a number of Xeroxes and handouts in class.

Philosophy and Critical Theory

  • Aristotle. Malcolm Heath, trans. Poetics. New York: Penguin, 1996.
  • Bridges, Robert. “A Letter to a Musician on English Prosody.” In The Musical Antiquary, Volume I, October 1909-July 1910. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Conrad, Peter. Romantic Opera and Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • Freytag, Gustav. Elias J. MacEwan (trans). Technique of the Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art (English translation of Die Technik des Dramas, 1863). Chicago: S.C. Griggs, 1896. [This volume is scarce. However, a serviceable reproduction of the text is readily available in print-on-demand format for little money.]
  • Frye, Northrop, ed. Sound and Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956.
  • Hollander, John. “The Poem in the Ear.” In Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
  • Kerman. Joseph. Opera as Drama. New York: Random House, 1956. Reprinted, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Kirby-Smith, H.J. The Celestial Twins: Poetry and Music Through the Ages. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999
  • Patel, Aniruddh. Music, Language, and the Brain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Pence, Charlotte, ed. The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.
  • Rupprecht, Philip. Britten’s Musical Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Symonds, John Addington. Essays Speculative and Suggestive. “Is Music the Type or Measure of All Art?” London: John Murray, 1907.
  • Weisstein, Ulrich, Ed. The Essence of Opera. New York: Norton Library, 1964.
  • Winn, James Anderson. Unsuspected Eloquence, A History of the Relations Between Poetry and Music. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.


  • Abbate, Carolyn and Roger Parker. A History of Opera. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
  • Kildea, Paul. Britten on Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Lehman, David. A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. New York: Nextbook, 2009.
  • Schmidgall, Gary. Literature as Opera. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Smith, Patrick J. The Tenth Muse. A Historical Study of the Opera Libretto. New York: Schirmer Books, 1970,
  • Wilder, Alec. American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Practice and Application

  • Crist, Bainbridge. The Art of Setting Words to Music. New York: Carl Fischer, 1944.
  • Istel, Edgar. Art of Writing Opera-Librettos, Practical Suggestions. New York: G. Schimer, Inc., 1922. [This volume is scarce. However, a serviceable reproduction of the text is readily available in print-on-demand format for little money.]
  • Thompson, Virgil. Music with Words: A Composer’s View. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Libretti and Song Compilations

[Excerpts from numerous other libretti will be supplied in class by the instructor]

  • Auden, W.H. (ed. Edward Mendolson). The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Libretti and Other Dramatic Writings, 1939-1973. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Particularly the introduction by Mendolson.
  • Gioia, Dana. “Sotto Voce: The Libretto as Literary Form.” In Nosferatu: An Opera Libretto. St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2001.
  • Gottlieb, Robert and Robert Kimball eds. Reading Lyrics: More Than 1,000 of the Century’s Finest Lyrics. New York: Pantheon, 2000
  • Mason, David. The Scarlet Libretto. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2012.
  • Stein, Gertrude. Four Saints in Three Acts. New York: Random House, 1934.
  • Taylor, Deems [Preface]. The Complete Gilbert & Sullivan: Librettos from All Fourteen Operettas (Complete & Unabridged). New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 1998.
  • The Opera Libretto Library: The Authentic Texts of the German, French, and Italian Operas With Music of the Principal Airs. New York: Avenel Books, 1984.

Sessions will focus on student discussion and classroom critique. In the course of this eight-day intensive workshop, students will learn how to analyze poetry for its musical elements, begin an opera libretto, create characters and voices, compose arias, select texts for oratorio, compose successful song lyrics in several styles. The class will listen closely to archival recordings of recited poetry, opera, oratorio, and song.

Advance assignment: Select a poem written in English since 1900 that makes use of a strongly musical style, which is to say one rich in assonance, consonance, alliteration, rhyme (internal or terminal), and rhythm. Select another poem that displays use of a plainer style, closer to prose, with less emphasis on the named qualities. Now do these poems succeed or fail? How much is too much? How little is too little?

M, 7/16
Topic: Introduction
a)    Opening remarks, aspects of aesthetics, ancient uses of sung poetry. Aristotle’s concepts of tragedy, reversal, recognition, and mimetic poetry differentiated from verse.
b)    Audit of archival recordings: Dylan Thomas reciting “Fern Hill” and William Carlos Williams “The Road to the Contagious Hospital.” Whitman as symphonic poet (excerpt from “Song of Myself”) vs. Emily Dickinson as hymnist (“My life closed twice before its close”). Free verse and syntactical parallelism vs. common meter and hymnody.
c)    Handouts for following class: (1) Arthur Symonds, “Is Music the Type or Measure of All Art?” from Essays Speculative and Suggestive, (2) Robert Bridges, “A Letter to a Musician on English Prosody” from Musical Antiquary I, and (3) J.D. McClatchy short essay on the role of the librettist.
d)    Assignment for following class: invent a setting, story, and three principal characters for a short opera. Be prepared to discuss character personality and motivation within the story and justify choice of setting.

Workshop: Audit of recordings will be followed by discussion with the instructor. Discussion of musical vs. plain poems selected by students.

T, 7/17
Topic: Opera 1
a)    Live Skype session with composer Stella Sung, who will discuss the collaborative and purely musical aspects of opera composition.
b)    Examples of tightly-controlled writing for music (Gilbert and Sullivan, “Major-General’s Song” from Pirates of Penzance), melisma (Mark Adamo, “I Love You” aria from Little Women) and the ways in which music and text inform each other.
c)    Parts of libretto: Recitative, aria/air, duet/trio/quartet, accompagnato. Patter song. Melisma. Scanning dipodic verse. Solfège and spoken text. Voices in canon. Sprechstimme. Repetitive sequences.
d)    Narrative vs. symbolic, episodic style vs. portraiture.
e)    Finding a suitable topic. Historical vs. modern, adaptation (Mason/Gioia) vs. original work (Hilbert/Yezzi). Recognizable characters and stories. Locating principal themes. Use of particular language for character (Mason). Discussion of “pocket” or “chamber” opera.
f)    Short remarks on opera in English, major examples of modern opera in the language.
g)    Handout: (1) David Mason on “Opera Language” from The Scarlet Libretto, (2) Ernest Hilbert’s essay on modern opera “An Otherwise Threatening World,” (3) and “Aspects of the Later Twentieth-century Libretto” from Smith’s Tenth Muse: A Historical Study of the Opera Libretto.
h)    Assignment: Prepare arias for each of the three characters created: one each as exposition of character, exposition of situation, pivotal scene displaying plot twist or emotional transformation.

Read: Handouts from Session 1
Workshop: Students will discuss choices made for their operas: period piece or modern, adaptation or original, characters. Students will be asked to give examples of language appropriate for a given character.

W, 7/18
Topic:    Opera 2
a)    Finding and working with a composer. Rights and properties. Green opera.
b)    Writing a key scene. Establishing setting (sing of what is physically present). Recitative/dialog.
c)    Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate, Dido and Aeneas, settings and styles of early opera in English.
d)    Discussion of assigned readings. Audit of scene one from Yezzi’s Firebird Motel. Yezzi’s use of couplets written-through as recitative, deployment of modern stage technology (radios) and traditional hymnody to create sense of alienation and suspension, lyric poem as aria, aria as poem.
e)    Handouts of (1) excerpt from Auden’s libretto for Rake’s Progress, two readings from Sound and Poetry: (2) “Lexis and Melos” by Northrop Frye and (3) “Words into Music: The Composer’s Approach to the Text” by Edward T. Cone,” and, from Virgil Thompson’s Music with Words, (4) “Nature of Opera” and (5) “After All.”
f)    Assignment: Prepare a duet between two characters. Also, select a known literary property to adapt into an opera. What would you change? Is it in the public domain?
Read: Handouts from Session 2
Workshop: Students will read out three arias written for characters.

Th, 7/19
Topic: Opera 3
a)    Examination of the aria/lyric. Discussion of the notion of pivotal song (expression of character). Discussion of ways in which Stravinsky set Auden’s libretto. Audit of first two scenes of Act I of The Rake’s Progress. Scan for examples of terms discussed.
b)    Discussion of assigned readings.
c)    Practical examples of techniques for setting contemporary opera. “FaceBook Poem” from Vignettes of Two Lovers (LaRossa/Hilbert), aria from Last of Manhattan, “Of All Those Who Held it Would Come” from The Bridge (Felsenfeld/Hilbert).
d)    Handouts of (1) “Liturgy and Trope in the War Requiem” by Philip Rupprecht, (2) “On Writing English Opera” by Benjamin Britten, and (3) Dana Gioia’s “Sotto Voce: The Libretto as Literary Form,”
e)    Assignment: Prepare text for oratorio/art song sequence/found opera using three to five texts of existing poems, liturgy, prose, or other writings to be arranged in a meaningful way for musical setting.

Read: Handouts from Session 3
Workshop: Student reading of arias and critique.

F, 7/20
Topic: Opera 4 / Oratorio
a)    Discussion of Britten’s use of trope in War Requiem and thoughts on English opera. Britten’s use of Latin Mass and lyric poems of Wilfred Owen. Abstract libretto, Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thompson’s Four Saints in Three Acts.
b)    Handouts of liner notes from (1) Ned Rorem’s “Evidence of Things Not Seen” and (2) Philip Glass’s Hydrogen Jukebox, and (3) “An Opening Perspective” by Gary Schmidgall, from Literature as Opera.
c)    Assignment: Write an opening chorus for your opera.

Read: Handouts from Session 4
Workshop: Students to explain text selection for oratorio or “found opera.”

M, 7/23
Topic: Art Song
a)    Discussion of art song, song cycles. Archival recordings of poets followed by songs. How are lyric poems and songs different?
b)    Discussion of “found opera” derived from existing poems. Archival recordings of Allen Ginsberg followed by audit of Philip Glass’s setting of poems in Hydrogen Jukebox. Discussion of Ned Rorem’s long cycle Evidence of Things Not Seen.
c)    Handouts from (1) David Lehman’s A Fine Romance and (2) “Whistle While You Read,” David Yezzi’s New York Times review of Reading Lyrics.
d)    Assignment: Prepare a hymn using traditional hymn form and also a popular song in s style of your choosing.

Read: Handouts from Session 5
Workshop: Students will explain their text selections for oratorio. What story is told? What is juxtaposed meaningfully? Discussion of opening choruses.

W, 7/25
Topic: Hymn and Popular Song
a)    Students will explain the ways in which they have used particular musical elements in composition for emphasis or mimesis. Consideration of the musical qualities of poetry.
b)    Examples of air and madrigal from John Dowland.
c)    Discussion of poems set as hymns, William Blake.
d)    Richard Wilbur’s songs for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.
e)    Reading free verse over music. Example: Jack Kerouac. Bop prosody. Improvisation. Hilbert’s poems with backing rock band and orchestra from Elegies & Laments album.
f)    Handout: “Initial Synthesis and Separation” by H.T. Kirby-Smith, from Celestial Twins.

Read: Handouts from Session 6
Workshop: Student reading of song lyrics and critique.

Th, 7/26
Topic: Presenting the opera, hearing the songs
a)    Discussion Kirby-Smith theories (time permitting).
b)    General review of topics covered.

Workshop: A reading of polished versions of recitative, arias, lyric poems, and song lyrics from course.

Poetry with a Focus on Versecraft

(Visit the program’s blog site dedicated to the poetry concentration)

“Writing in a new form every week challenges my growth as a poet, and immersion into the history of form and innovation constantly renews my sensibilities about what a poem is – and does.” – Laura Stuckey, MFA Student, 2010

Study in the only program that teaches a full range of versescraft, including free verse
Learn under highly acclaimed poets
Connect with prestigious editors and publishers

Students come to Western with something to say – the curriculum of the MFA poetry concentration helps poets master how to say it.

Verse is not only a way of saying something; it is also a way of doing something that prose cannot do. That is why, in this program, students study the greatest possible range of how to do these things, from meters to stanzas, sonnet to ghazal, aubade to serenade, verse drama to verse satire.

Inspired by the vision of award winning poet, David Rothman, this concentration strives for a level of excellent rare in many MFA programs. Through exhaustive study of the masters and of multiple styles, forms, and rhythms, students are able to realize their own unique voice, exploring new ways to compose and inspire the art of poetics.

As a poetry concentration student, you can expect to achieve demonstrable mastery of a wide range of poetic forms and techniques while acquiring historical and analytical knowledge about them. You learn how to compose language, utilizing multiple forms and techniques from stanzas to free verse. You participate fully in the literary world, sharing your vision through public speaking and relevant prose. You learn how to write for your audience, how to communicate your vision and voice in a way that will be shared and remembered. And, finally, you learn how to live as a poet, how to turn your passion for language and your love of these forms into your career.

The MFA Concentration in Poetry requires 60 credits:
CRWR 600     Summer Orientation 3 credits
CRWR 631     Scansion Immersion 2 credits
CRWR 632     Public Performance 2 credits
CRWR 633     Poetry and Music 2 credits
CRWR 636     Metrical Traditions  & Versification I 6 credits
CRWR 637     History of the English Language  and Teaching Poetry 6 credits
CRWR 641     Metrical Traditions  & Versification II 6 credits
CRWR 642     Poetry Book Reviewing and Translation 6 credits
CRWR 646*   Narrative Forms in Poetry 6 credits
CRWR 647*   The Satirical Tradition and Dramatic Verse 6 credits
CRWR 651     Advanced Poetry Genres in Particular Forms 6 credits
CRWR 652     Rhyme 6 credits
CRWR 694     Thesis 3 credits
*In place of either CRWR 646 or CRWR 647, choose one of the following:
CRWR 606     What Do You Know (about Fiction)? 6 credits
CRWR 607     The Truth and a Good Story: Research for the Fiction Writer 6 credits
CRWR 665     The Narrative in Picture Form 6 credits
CRWR 667     Screenwriting Genre 6 credits
Poetry as a Second Area of Emphasis

Students pursuing this concentration as a second area of emphasis must earn 30 credits within the concentration as follows:
All four of the following:
CRWR 600     Summer Orientation 1 credit
CRWR 636     Metrical Traditions  & Versification I 6 credits
CRWR 637     History of the English Language  and Teaching Poetry 6 credits
CRWR 694     Thesis 3 credits
Supporting courses in consultation with advisor, 12  credits
One of the following:
CRWR 631     Scansion Immersion 2 credits
CRWR 632     Public Performance 2 credits
CRWR 633     Poetry and Music 2 credits

Students may count CRWR 636 if taken already to fulfill the out-of-concentration course required by the primary area of emphasis.


Ernest Hilbert

Ernest Hilbert is founder of E-Verse Radio.

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