As Virginia Woolf famously observed, the best writing often begins with a rhythmical “wave in the mind,” an inner tempo around which syntax and diction are arranged, a guiding beat of artistic intuition that, when struck upon, makes it nearly impossible to set down the wrong word. Other writers have similarly expressed the importance of heeding the aural resonance of language, of prioritizing sound over sense and music over meaning, and ceding control to the mysterious cadence that can string together words so that they beg to be spoken aloud. Poetry, of course, is chief among literary forms for its emphasis on rhythm, a relationship overtly celebrated in illustrious works such as John Berryman’s Dream Songs, or Whitman’s polytonic verse. John Taggart, a poet greatly influenced by the composer John Cage, even argued that the very goal of poetry is to create “sound objects” where poems cease to pursue metaphor and become more like mini-operas, arrangements that achieve the effect of compositional scores.
Unsurprisingly, the interrelation between music and literature also flows in the opposite direction, with composers taking inspiration from authors. Consider The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (The Master and the Margarita), Guns N’ Roses’ “Holden Caulfield” (The Catcher in the Rye), or Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath). Instances are equally prevalent among classical works—to cite examples from just one career, the Welsh composer Donald Ibrahím Swann (1956-1967) wrote a full-length opera of C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, set music to J.R.R. Tolkien’s poems from The Lord of the Rings, and wrote scores to accompany the words of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and Oscar Wilde. Indeed, the list of music inspired by literature is predictably vast and continually expanding, often in innovative ways. Here are four recent compositions that, though notably diverse, are united in holding words as their muse:
1. The Trial, by Philip Glass
An icon of postmodern symphony and arguably the most popular living composer, Philip Glass grew up steeped in literature, the son of a professional librarian. It is somewhat expected, therefore, that Glass draws significant influence from writers—to date, he has composed 25 operas with a literary basis, including works inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, Doris Lessing, and Allen Ginsberg. His most recent, The Trial, is an adaptation of the 1925 novel by Franz Kafka. Released as part of the 2014/2015 season at the Music Theater Wales, the opera features eight singers who play multiple roles, an orchestra of only 12 instruments, and a libretto by playwright Christopher Hampton that closely adheres to Kafka’s text while still leaving room for interpretation. “[Kafka] saw the political and social world we are involved in with a clarity that very few writers have ever seen,” says Glass in a video produced by the London Royal Opera House. “He could see what was happening, and he could describe it. Sometimes the music can follow the picture exactly; the music is right on top of the image. But if we start moving away from it—and that’s what we do in the theater—it allows the spectator to help invent the story.” With this emphasis on collaboration, Glass adds a new layer of life to The Trial, lending the sense that Kafka’s compelling yet unfinished novel is, in a way, still in the process of being written.