Onomatopoeia and program music

On 8/31, e-mail from fellow shapenote singer Peter Ross, asking

whether onomatopoeia might apply to songs like the City of New Orleans, Bill Staines’s song River, the Carter family song Winding Stream, etc., where the music fits the meaning of the lyrics

These are wonderful, incredibly moving songs, and I’ll write about them below, but what Peter’s talking about is a relationship between the form of pieces of music (including their lyrics) and the images or stories the music might evoke — while onomatopoeia is a specifically linguistic relationship, having to do with an association between linguistic elements — lexical items — and their referents, turning on the phonetics of the lexical items and perceptible characteristics of the referents.

So they’re clearly related concepts, but not the same thing.

(Special thanks to Sue Lindner for her comments.)

And then I had a real answer for Peter, though not one he was entirely comfortable with:

As you probably know, in the canon of Western orchestral music, music that depicts a scene or tells a story is referred to as “program music” (because it has a program). The standard examples (Wikipedia actually has a pretty good survey) are almost all instrumental music, but some are cantatas or songs. My favorite is Schubert’s lovely song “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”), with the music mimicking the movement of the trout in the water — which Schubert then turned into one of his instrumental masterpieces, The Trout Quintet.

There’s a fair amount of programmatic instrumental jazz. But of course, folk and popular songs quite commonly have programmatic tunes.

A trout interlude. From Wikipedia:

“Die Forelle” (German for “The Trout”), Op. 32, D 550. is a lied, or song, composed in early 1817 for solo voice and piano with music by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797–1828). Schubert chose to set the text of a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, first published in the Schwäbischer Musenalmanach in 1783. The full poem tells the story of a trout being caught by a fisherman, but in its final stanza reveals its purpose as a moral piece warning young women to guard against young men. When Schubert set the poem to music, he removed the last verse, which contained the moral, changing the song’s focus and enabling it to be sung by male or female singers. Schubert produced six subsequent copies of the work, all with minor variations.

Cover for the 7/15/12 remastered 1990 versions of Schubert lieder performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) and Gerald Moore (piano); you can listen to their performance of Die Forelle here

… The song was popular with contemporary audiences, which led to Schubert being commissioned to write a piece of chamber music based on the song. This commission resulted in the Trout Quintet (D. 667), in which a set of variations of “Die Forelle” are present in the fourth movement.

(But the whole thing is shimmeringly watery (and joyous). I’m not rational about the Trout Quintet; it’s one of my favorite pieces of music in the whole world, something that will give me pleasure on the darkest days, and I have four different recordings of it. The trout are cool, but frankly I would adore the work in complete ignorance of the fish, and without a descriptive title. It’s a masterpiece of chamber music, period.)

Peter’s examples. From folk and country music. Beginning with another of my favorite pieces of music, in a very different genre, Arlo Guthrie’s recording of “City of New Orleans”, which you can listen to here.  From Wikipedia:

“City of New Orleans” is a country folk song written by Steve Goodman (and first recorded for Goodman’s self-titled 1971 album), describing a train ride from Chicago to New Orleans on the Illinois Central Railroad’s City of New Orleans in bittersweet and nostalgic terms.

(A very long time ago, I actually rode on this train, but just between Champaign and Chicago. And Jacques and I once got the chance to see Guthrie perform the song live, in DC. It was to weep with pleasure.)

Then Bill Staines. You can see him performing “River (Take Me Along)” here and read about him on Wikipedia here. Crucial lyrics from the song:

River, take me along in your sunshine, sing me a song
Ever moving and winding and free
You rolling old river, you changing old river
Let’s you and me, river, run down to the sea

And finally the Carter family and their 1932 recording of “The Winding Stream”,  which you can view here (absolutely disregard the pretty images — turn off your video if you can — and just listen to the song, which is stunning; if you’re not experienced with this kind of country music, please give it a chance; it is a little masterpiece, both beautiful and terribly sad). The chorus:

Do not disturb my waking dream
The splendor of that winding stream
Flower in my canoe, her eyes they looked me through
A maiden fair with golden hair
Is very much like you

(And of course more flowing water.)

Reservations. Peter wrote:

Maybe folk and/or pop music should have its own term, because “program music” sounds too formal, but then perhaps there’s no need for one!

This issue here is importing terminology from high culture to pop culture; the register of program music just seems too elevated for Peter. Actually, I’m in favor of exactly this terminological move: what we see in demotic culture is, in large part, just what we see in high culture and should then be discussed in the same ways. If you’ve got a good term, use it.



One Response to “Onomatopoeia and program music”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Peter Ross now adds a pointer to the Wikipedia article on word painting:

    Word painting (also known as tone painting or text painting) is the musical technique of composing music that reflects the literal meaning of a song’s lyrics. For example, ascending scales would accompany lyrics about going up; slow, dark music would accompany lyrics about death.
    Tone painting of words goes at least as far back as Gregorian chant. Little musical patterns are musical words that express not only emotive ideas such as joy but theological meanings as well in the Gregorian.

    The article provides examples from madrigals, Handel’s Messiah, and a variety of examples from popular music (Garth Brooks, Leonard Cohen, Justin Timberlake, Johnny Cash, Rodgers and Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Mary Poppins, Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito”, Secret Garden, Queen, and BTS).

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