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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Musical Versions

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 06/11/09 at 10:47 AM

I was recently reminded of the Kate Bush song “Wuthering Heights.” I’ve learned, through the very scientific methods of chatting with friends and reading responses to posted videos on Facebook, that the song is haunting to some, unpleasantly whiny to others, and just plain weird to still others (actually, I expect all Kate Bush songs evoke at least this wide a range of responses). As it happens, I like “Wuthering Heights”, though I’m not altogether convinced it captures the mood of the novel:

Thinking about this song got me thinking also about the Loreena McKennit version of “The Lady of Shalott,” which I also like, but which I also know is not to everyone’s taste:

And thinking about these two songs made me wonder: what other musical adaptations are there of famous poems? Does anyone have any special favourites they’d like to recommend--or, for that matter, any they’d mention as particularly cringe-worthy?


It’s not a poem, but in Hedwig and the Angry Inch there’s the musical version of “The Origin of Love” told by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. It’s here: http://tinyurl.com/3csa24

And of course, there’s Cats.

By tomemos on 06/11/09 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Rohan, some of your fellow Canadians (Rush) have done an art-rock song called “Xanadu” that owes much of its imagery and language to “Kubla Khan.” Not exactly my taste in music, but there you have it, all ten minutes worth.

By Bill Benzon on 06/11/09 at 06:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s always the Iron Maiden version of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” (In case you’re wondering what the heck they’re singing, go here.)

You’ve posted the abridged McKennitt “Lady of Shalott"--the full version goes on for about ten minutes.  I’ve listened to it a few times, but even with her cuts, I still find it monotonous.

By Miriam on 06/11/09 at 09:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Richard Cory.

By on 06/12/09 at 07:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anuna (http://www.anuna.ie/) has done some beautiful work with Irish poems.  Great War poet Francis Ledwidge’s “August” is haunting (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4up_aimh42U), and they put Macdara Woods’s “Fire and Snow and Carneval” to music in “Winter, Fire and Snow.”

By on 06/12/09 at 09:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill; There’s more than one pop version of Xanadu.  What do you get if you cross Birmingham and Australia?  Coleridge, evidently.

By Adam Roberts on 06/12/09 at 01:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Björk has done this a couple of times: there’s a reading of E. E. Cummings’s “Impressions” on Vespertine (as “Sun in My Mouth"), and “Dull Flame of Desire”, from Volta is from a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev which appears in Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

Mark E. Smith of The Fall is another repeat offender: just to mention a couple, they have another version of Xanadu ("The Legend of Xanadu”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXN8Egn9dE4 ) and “Dog Is Life/Jerusalem” ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2vnioRqsSQ ), which starts out as a rant about what Mark thinks about dogs in the city and then turns into an aggressive rendition of William Blake.

By dan visel on 06/12/09 at 01:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d thought of that, Adam, but the only thing the song owes to Coleridge is the title. The lyrics have little or nothing to do with “Kubla Khan,” though Gene Kelly quotes the first five lines of the poem elsewhere in the movie. OTOH, the Rush song pirates lines and images from the poem. As you may recall, “Xanadu,” the word, turns up all over the place.

By Bill Benzon on 06/12/09 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Syd Barrett recorded one of James Joyce’s _Chamber Music_ poems as “Golden Hair”.

Joyce + Bush => “The Sensual World” (just excerpts, though).

By Ray Davis on 06/12/09 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is a famous hungarian poem (Walesi Bardok = The Bards of Wales) by Janos Arany.

As noted by Wikipedia,

“Arany was asked to write a poem of praise for the visit of Franz Joseph I of Austria, as were other Hungarian poets. Arany instead wrote a poem about the tale of the 500 Welsh bards sent to the stake by Edward I of England in 1277, as a metaphor to criticise the tyrannic Habsburg rule over Hungary after the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. “

The text with a parallel english translation can be found at

Here is a conventional recitation on youtube:

and here is an “epic folk metal” version by the Hungarian group, Echo of Dalriada,

By on 06/13/09 at 08:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Geez, there should be long list there, even if you’re not counting piece adaptations (e.g., Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” or Suzanne Vega’s “Calypso”, both from some Greek guy who doesn’t do much publicity these days).

Two at least from Ted Hughes: Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and the Pete Townshend “concept album” both from The Iron Giant: A Tale in Five Nights.

There are several albums out of Songs from Shakespeare, though many use Period instruments.

John Cale did an adaptation of Dylan Thomas on his album Words for the Dying.  (Thomas seems popular for adaptation; moreso than Yeats, who only gets referenced [e.g., Paul Simon’s] best solo album Hearts and Bones, rather than adapted.)

And how are you couting John Corigliano’s adaptation of seven poems by Bob Dylan. (Corigliano has also done an album of Dylan Thomas, not to mention Creations.

Or the more explicit work in the Classical Style field, where adaptations-to-music of poets such as John Hollander are common.

(Granted, you may consider Classical Style not to be in the same area as Kate Bush, but the Loreena McKennitt crowd is no less of a subgenre.)

By Ken Houghton on 06/13/09 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Duke Ellington did a whole suite inspired by Shakespeare. No lyrics in any of the pieces, though.

And here’s a page of Shakespeare texts that have been set to music as art songs (lieder).

By Bill Benzon on 06/13/09 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d vote that McKennitt’s version of “The Highwayman” is better than the unaccompanied poem and better than most of her other songs.

(It’s also better than most adaptations of poems, including, for example, Joan Baez’s unforgivable “Annabel Lee.")

By Joseph Kugelmass on 06/13/09 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Van Morrison recorded the Yeats poem “Crazy Jane on God,” music by William Mathieu (on Morrison’s album “The Philosopher’s Stone"). It’s lovely.

By peter ramus on 06/14/09 at 02:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for all the leads--or reminders--everyone! Some of these are definitely memorable...not always in a good way…

By Rohan Maitzen on 06/14/09 at 06:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Paul Hillier’s “Bitter Ballads” is actually a stunning album devoted to musical versions of poetry (his liner notes are worth reading for what he sees the relationship between words and music should be--very different from the views of most art song composers; he rejects “expressivity").  It contains musical versions of poems by Blake, Robert Lowell, Yeats, Brecht, Dickens, Gertrude Stein, etc.  Generally Hillier himself fits the poems to traditional melodies--for example, the Brecht to a troubadour melody, Blake’s “London” to a traditional English folk tune, and the album’s greatest triumph, Lowell’s very free “translation” of Villon’s “Great Testament” to a melody by Villon’s contemporary, 15th c. German poet and composer Oswald von Wolkenstein.


By Andrei on 06/15/09 at 02:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not a poem, but it’s too good (bad?) to go without mentioning that the irredeemable fluff-song “Yes" by Amber from a few years back comprises pretty much the last half-dozen lines to Ulysses.

By Jack Roy on 06/15/09 at 06:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Divine Comedy, though missing the trick of singing the Inferno, put Wordsworth’s Lucy poems to music and called it ‘Lucy.’ It’s good too, which I imagine Iron Maiden’s Rime isn’t.

By on 06/15/09 at 07:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Chris De Burgh has a song, “The Painter”, based on “My Last Duchess”.

By on 06/15/09 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow.  Just found a List of Songs That Retell a Work of Literature on Wiki.  Who knew Iron Maiden was so literary?  I’ll also mention my 15 year old wrote “Holden’s Thoughts” when his grade 10 class was reading Catcher in the Rye.

By on 06/15/09 at 11:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How could I have mentioned yet-another-rehash of Ulysses‘ “yeah yeah I said whatever OK” finale but forgotten Lulu’s cunning adaptation of one of my favorite passages, “Love Loves to Love Love“?

By Ray Davis on 06/23/09 at 10:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Phil Ochs:  “The Highwayman”, “The Bells”, “The Men Behind the Guns.” Also Rachmaninoff’s version of “The Bells.”

Greg Brown:  Songs of Innocence and Experience

Kris Delmhorst:  Strange Conversation.

Ricky Ian Gordon:  Only Heaven

Capathia Jenkins and Louis Rosen:  One Ounce of Truth.

By on 06/24/09 at 01:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ooh!  Ooh!  Pete Seeger, “The Bells of Rhymney.”

By tomemos on 06/24/09 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My all time favorite - Moving a song written and recorded by Kate Bush. It is the lead-off track on her first studio album The Kick Inside.

By fenell on 07/01/09 at 08:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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