Even for the experienced musician, these songs may seem to go too far in terms of intricate vocal rhythms. This brief essay explains why I decided it was the best approach for the Brontë Ballads project.

I began under the assumption that songs composed to poems from the Romantic period—if they were going to reflect the innate speech rhythms used by the poet—would have vocal rhythms of a very simple character. When you read about scansion (that is, the analysis of language rhythm in poetry), the traditional framework for these descriptions is quite simplistic, and most poetry prior to the 20th century appears to be adequately described by such simple rhythmic patterns (iambic tetrameter, etc.).

This is further confirmed by songs composed up to that period, including folk songs and hymns. Vocal rhythms are typically confined to triplet figures in the former, and eighth notes in the latter. Art songs which used more elaborate vocal rhythms were only beginning to be written after the close of the Classical period (early 19th century, Emily's period), and even there, it was more the accompaniment than the vocal parts which were elaborated. In Western music, the only real exception to this was opera, with its tradition of florid vocal arias (coloratura style), but such music was far removed from natural speech rhythms. On the other hand, the recitative styles in opera were a gross simplification of natural speech rhythms.

If you search for information about musical notation applied to poetic scansion, inevitably Nabokov comes up, where he famously slams the use of musical notation to discuss poetry. (This is V. Nabokov the scandalous novelist, not N. Nabokov the composer.) From D. Rampton, Vladimir Nabokov: A Literary Life (2012):

XXX get these quoted correctly from the source; I'm only sure that the 2nd and 3rd quotes are even in the book cited, the first quote is from memory only, having read it someplace online...

V.N.: “Whenever I come across musical notation in a book about poetry, I close it immediately.”

But it seems doubtful that Nabokov understood musical notation:

V.N.: “I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly.”
and yet
V.N.: “My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.”
Really? It seems he would not have thought much of this project. But then, he is generally acknowledged to have been a poor poet, and seems to have been unaware of this himself, seeing as he wrote a lot of it.

In general I have noticed a tendency for novelists to write badly about music, and indeed to write disparagingly about it. This seems to be more than a reaction to the difficulty of describing music in prose: it seems to stem from a sort of envy of music's immediacy and transcendence of verbiage. The same attitude is rarely seen among (good) poets. In our day, many of the most esteemed poets are also musicians, and this has often been the case in history and across diverse cultures.

Anyways, as I have no intention of writing a research essay, let me leave it there and accept that some readers may disagree or object to the unsubstantiated sweeping statements. Other readers will have noticed these trends themselves, and can furnish their own examples.

My purpose in preparing this essay is to explain why musical rhythm notation (by which I mean that of Western staff notation) has been invaluable for arriving at what are, I think, really high quality readings of the poems of Emily Brontë.

At the outset, since this project sought to find expressions for Emily's poetry in songs similar to what she might have sung herself, and considering the sorts of songs she was likely to have heard, I was expecting to write simple vocal rhythms, and I did begin that way.

However, as I worked my way through a dozen or so of the shorter poems, it gradually dawned on me that the standard scansion analysis framework was inadequate to arrive at the best readings of these poems. It was not only that I was tired of writing ‘DUH-dee-Duh-tee-da-DOH-dee-Dum / dee-’ (trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee); such rhythms did not begin to do justice to the musicality in the texts. [Confirm that this is correct, and the best way to present it; maybe it would be better to use an actual line of a poem? But I think not, as the DUH-dee thing emphasises the genericness of this...] In fact, nearly all of Brontë’s poetry is technically in ‘common measure’.

So I began to get more daring with my rhythms. At first they remained simpler than natural speech and dramatic declamation. But by the 30th song or so, I had graded into the sorts of rhythms you see in the majority of the songs—i.e. complex rhythms such as you normally don't find in vocal music. In reading the poems according to these rhythms (leaving the tonal elements of the music aside), the further I went down this path, the better pleased I was with the results. I could not possibly go back to rudimentary scansion as a basis for vocal rhythms, nor can I believe that Emily would sing them in such a simplistic manner, since it discards a lot of the lyrical beauty of the poems.

As to the technical difficulties that this presents to the singer, there isn't much of a problem: If you sing the words according to natural speech patterns, you will come close to what is notated, making the music (and the texts!) easier to memorise, and the notated rhythmic figures easier to parse. Hopefully most readers will become interested in the notated rhythms on realising that they really do approach optimal deliveries of the poems.

One lingering objection is that the rhythms will clash with the accompaniment, unless the accompaniment is also complex, which would make the music overcomplicated and obscure the comprehensibility of the text. But this has not really been evident. The vocal nuances still respect the basic beat of the music. Sometimes notes are tied into the beat, but I eventually realised that this urge was usually due to a soft beginning of a word, so that the more sonorous part of the syllable comes on the beat. [Try to use the correct terminology.]

Another possible objection is that such nuances are not supposed to be notated, they are supposed to be ‘inferred’ by the singer, and should be in the realm of ‘interpretation’. However, is this realistic? Singers will not take a melody written in simple rhythms and interpret it like I am notating it. If they did, they'd be singing a different song. And it took careful study of the texts, and sustained, concentrated efforts to arrive at these scans; a musical ear and intuition were not enough. I've found such rich insights by being explicit about the rhythms, that I cannot give credence to the laissez-faire view. My own readings of the poems have become dramatically better as a direct result of working things out at this level of detail. Even if the music is not to everyone’s taste, I believe there is significant value in these rhythmic analyses.

Tuplets and Tick-Slurs

I have opted to use a nonstandard notation for tuplets (that is, triplets, and other metrical groups). Normally a tuplet is notated with a numeral over the ligature (beamed group of notes), or using a brace-with-numeral when the implicated notes/rests are not in a ligature. My notation uses a tick-slur (an arc with a short vertical stroke cutting across the middle). This serves as a hint that the group of notes is a tuplet, but omits the numeral.

Why this break from the norm? Because the vocal rhythms in the Ballads contain a lot of tuplets (mostly of the triplet variety), and I don't like to pepper my musical staves with numerals. The numerals are not really that useful. The rhythmic figures are still unambiguous without them, and their nature is best understood on a case-by-case basis by looking at the sequence of note values (that is, durations). Most of the figures are already familiar to musicians, and the less common will be instantly recognisable after a few encounters. Over 99% of tuplets (in this music) span exactly one beat. There are perhaps a dozen common figures, and another dozen which are used less often. The table below shows most of these, in approximate order of frequency.

One slight complication is when beats are linked by tied notes. This happens quite often in my scans, and inflates the number of possibilities if the ties are taken into account (and it seems like they should be). However, parsing and singing them is not more difficult, really, since the location of the beats is clear, both denotationally and musically, and a musician is always conscious of the pulse.

A similar diversification occurs where rests are involved, and these too partake of their own character, and should be considered as distinct figures. However, it is not nearly as clear where rests should be written when scanning poetry. Most rests occur between lines (which often include leading notes); and especially between stanzas. Sometimes a line of poetry feels like it begins after the beat, and sometimes rests occur mid-line (caesura in poetical terminology, indicated by a gap or dash in the text if you're lucky...). Sometimes a comma or other punctuation can be a hint that a rest is appropriate, but Emily seldom uses punctuation in her draft manuscripts.

[TABLE GOES HERE?] [Consider adding a column indicating whether the rhythm would be considered a dactyl, trochee, etc.?—however, this is a bit incompatible; see entry in ../000-readme, search for the topmost occurrence of SHORES to find it...]

Provided that the vocal rhythms of the songs do, mostly, scan the poems as intended by their author, there are interesting possibilities to compare poems, perhaps even to refine estimates of the composition dates (many of which are unknown), by analysing the frequencies of the various one-beat rhythmic figures. (A rhythmic figure spanning a single beat is known as a metrical foot in prosodic parlance, though we've moved beyond what is usually intended by the term.)

Part of the satisfaction of scanning the poems at this level of detail is the possibility of expressing shades of meaning, contexts that take us beyond syllable and stress. This makes it that much more challenging to obtain indisputably authorial rhythms, but to ignore the influence of semantics on extended scales would certainly fail to yield Emily's intended elocution. [M.-W.'s definitions of both elocution and declamation don't quite nail what I want; is there a better technical word for "poetical delivery"?...] It would be difficult to attain pure objectivity; prosody rarely does, and this is as much a tonic as an impediment to the study. It is definitely clear, where composition dates are known, that later poems offer a wider range of rhythms than earlier poems, and indeed it is impossible to scan most of the later poems in common measure using simplistic scansion—but they come out nicely when we embrace more sophisticated figures. For now that is ‘work in progress’...

Andrew G. Seniuk
July 2017