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This report is taken from PN Review 80, Volume 17 Number 6, July - August 1991.

Where Words End Brian Morton
Music has long attracted a species of aesthetics-by-incantation, fine-sounding generalities that sit without apparent embarrassment alongside other and utterly contradictory generalities on the selfsame theme. There is though a rough consensus that words (in the sense of literary language, appropriately laden with meaning) and music (in the sense of organized sound with no a priori semantic entanglements) belong to different conceptual or ontological realms and touch, as spirits enter the material world, only fleetingly and disconcertingly.

It was Goethe's view, and Wagner's, that music begins only where words end. It is a curiously modern, not to say post-modern, notion and for that reason it seems odd that there has been so little theoretical exploration of word-setting in recent years. It is certainly the least understood relationship in any of the arts. Is a poem set to music two things, or a primary thing glossed by a secondary, or is it a single thing which transcends its components? Is it not possible that a piece of music can subvert a poem utterly, as it were from within? Nadia Boulanger argued that words create divergencies between things because semantics and the associative superstructure of language set up a wobble from which the clean transitions of music are entirely free; music is the 'purest' [sic] expression of an idea. Of course, set down thus baldly this skates over the inescapable fact that a word and a note or an interval are not comparable entities and that any interval or motive is absolutely ...


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