Poems are more than song lyrics, often more complex and certainly more independent—take the music away from most pop song lyrics and they collapse into someting very thin, almost transparent. But that is not to say that a poem can’t be remade into a good song, and since there have been poems, composers and songwriters have set them to music. Here is a selection of the best contemporary CDs on which classic poems are set to music, old poems made into new songs.
(Nonesuch 2-CD set with booklet, 2010) Natalie Merchant, a new mother in her 40s, began a collection of lullabies for her baby daughter and ended up spending five years researching and recording this album of 19th and 20th century American and British poems, making songs that draw on world-ranging musical traditions—reggae, jazz, old-fashioned music hall, contemporary pop—and working with 130 different musicians. Her take on the project: “It was an exciting, new approach for me to work with rhythm and rhyme schemes created by other writers. The poems inspired vastly different musical settings with their themes that ranged from humorous and absurd to tragic, romantic, and deeply spiritual.” She talks about the album in an interview on her Web site.
(Signature Sounds, 2006) Kris Delmhorst takes definitive ownership of the poems she has made into songs here, adding a sweet country-folk lilt to Lord Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” adapting poems by Rumi, Robert Herrick, Robert Browning, Walt Whitman and e.e. cummings, and writing her own lyrics “inspired” by Virgil for the title song on the album.
(Sunnyside, 2004) Brazilian-born jazz singer Luciana Souza sings English translations of Pablo Neruda’s poems, with elegantly spare orchestrations, in her lovely, pure alto voice. Some listeners have complained about her use of translations—poetry translation is inevitably a focus of contention—but this undeniably beautiful recording is a good approach to Neruda’s work for English-speaking listeners. Visit Souza’s Web site to view a YouTube video of her breathtaking performance of Neruda’s Sonnet 49, accompanied only by her own karimba (African thumb piano).
(The Speakers, 2005) The Speakers are Brian Miller and Peter Musselman, a duo now living in the San Francisco Bay area who’ve been making music together since their boyhood in Pennsylvanis and who’ve been described as “low-fi, new-folk,” and “subdued alt-country.” The two thought William Butler Yeats’ poems sounded like country songs and were inspired to create this dreamy collection of poems set to music—about half the album is Yeats; the other half their own poems.
(Thirsty Ear Recordings, 1996) Former punk rocker (he was the bassist in Johnny Rotten’s Public Image Ltd.) Jah Wobble (his adopted name, taken from Sid Vicious’ malaprop introduction—his given name was John Wardle) gave up drinking, studied poetry and philosophy (“all the stuff I’d dismissed as sentimental shit”)—and now he’s reclaiming William Blake from the Tories and collaborating with the Royal Symphony Orchestra. He recites some of the poems in The Inspiration of William Blake over background music, sings others, and embellishes them all with lushly atmospheric electronica, ambient, experimental sounds.
(Manimal Vinyl Digi-Pak, 2009) “Edna” is, of course, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and in her first solo recording, Caroline Weeks honors Millay’s poems with simple, lovely interpretations. She recorded the album in three nights at her home in Brighton, England, limiting the instrumentation “to allow the music [and the poems] space to breathe”—and they do, quite beautifully, breathe.
(EMI Classics, 2002) When Love Speaks is a compilation album featuring Shakespeare’s love sonnets read by famous actors—Brits, mostly from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Alan Rickman, Sir Richard Attenborough, Fiona Shaw, Joseph Fiennes and John Hurt, for example. These are simple recordings of the spoken poems, but the reasons for the inclusion of the CD on this list of poems set to music are the eight original songs made from the sonnets by Rufus Wainright, Barbara Bonney, Des’ree, Bryan Ferry, Keb Mo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Annie Lennox, and John Potter.
(Verve, 2010) For this recording, which includes his adaptations of Shakespeare’s sonnets 10, 20 and 43, Wainwright pared down to voice and piano, no orchestra, and the result is impressively intimate and lovely.
(Verve, 2007) Canadian Celtic folkie Loreena McKennitt recorded this album at the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, including among her own songs and traditional ballads several settings of classic poems: W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” and the funeral song from Act IV, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.
(Downtown, 2007) Heiress and supermodel Carla Bruni left the fashion world to devote herself to music in 1997 and married French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008. After a hit album of French songs, she devoted No Promises, her second album, entirely to English and American poets of the 19th and 20th centuries—W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Walter de la Mare and Dorothy Parker. Some of the poems don’t survive their conversion to pop songs on this CD, but others are surprisingly vibrant, incarnated in Bruni’s sweetly breathy Continental-accented singing voice.