Music and Modern Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Music and Modern Literature

Music and literature have existed in collaborative form since ancient times, and have invited comparison because of their fundamental similarity in form: unlike the visual arts, which exist in space, music and literature are primarily temporal in nature—dependent on the medium of time for their meaning. Scholars believe that performance of music and recitation of literature first arose as a single activity with the tradition of oral storytelling that was accompanied by music. However, as music and literature began to develop into separate art forms—with the predominance of written text over the oral tradition—the connection between them lessened, and throughout history their interrelationship has varied depending on time period and geographic locale. Poets have always cast their verses into structures with musical origins, such as the sonnet, the hymn, the ballad, the ode, and the lyric. In addition, they have attempted to use language to emulate the cadences of music. This is particularly true of the Symbolist poets, for whom the sound of words was much more important than the sense. Prose writers, although to a lesser extent than poets, also have adopted musical structures, such as the sonata and the leitmotiv, and their works have been inspired by or based on musical compositions and subjects. Additionally, music and musical performance often appear in works of prose fiction as elements of plot, setting, character, and theme, particularly in works of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. More recently, the Beat poets of the 1950s and 1960s infused their works with the rhythms and improvisational nature of the bebop jazz pioneered by such musicians as John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie, and rock musicians such as the Beatles and Led Zeppelin added poetic and operatic elements to their music. Both literary critics and musicologists acknowledge the historical and aesthetic importance of the relationship of the two art forms, frequently citing the continued popular appeal of the music-literature union as evidence of its social influence as well.