Lloyd Schwartz is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Classical Music Editor of The Boston Phoenix, and a regular commentator for NPR's Fresh Air. His most recent book of poems is Cairo Traffic (University of Chicago Press), and he is co-editor of Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters for the Library of America. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Pushcart Prize, and The Best American Poetry. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
Lloyd has agreed to post regularly over the next several weeks about the progress of the thrilling project he describes below. Thank you, Lloyd. -- sdh
June 25, 2008: Before
Last February, I received a delightful invitation from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Karen Leopardi, the Associate Director for Faculty and Guest Artists at the Tanglewood Music Center, sent me an email asking me to participate in a poetry project with the composition fellows at Tanglewood this summer. This year's composer in residence, Shulamit Ran, the Israeli-born Pulitzer Prize winning musician who has served as composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Lyric Opera, decided that she wanted the six composers working with her this summer to concentrate on vocal music—each of them setting a poem by the same poet. I was the poet she selected.
I would meet with the composers a couple of times to talk to them about my poems and answer any questions they might have for me. And one more thing. At the Contemporary Music Festival this summer, the featured events are works by Elliott Carter, celebrating his 100th birthday (this coming December). I’m a longstanding Carter aficionado. He’s done some fascinating and ambitious settings of contemporary poetry, including works by Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Ashbery, three major 20th century Italian poets (Ungaretti, Quasimodo, and Montale), and a symphony (his Symphony for Three Orchestras) inspired by Hart Crane. In college, he was an English major; early in his career he did evocative and shockingly tuneful settings of Frost and Emily Dickinson. I’m also something of an expert on Bishop (I just edited the Library of America volume Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters—virtually her collected works). So Tanglewood has also asked me to talk to the composer-fellows about Carter’s Bishop cycle, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, which will be performed at the festival. On July 29th, there’d be a concert at the Chamber Music Hall at which the settings of my poems would be performed. At the end of the concert, I’d also participate in a discussion about musical settings of poetry with Shulamit Ran and John Harbison (the director of the Contemporary Music Festival at Tanglewood, and a brilliant text-setter himself).
Would I be interested?
I suspect most poets would be thrilled—who wouldn't want to hear what one's poems sounded like to someone else? There’ve been some extraordinary, revelatory musical settings of poetry (also some terrible ones). It would be wonderful to be a “collaborator” in a new masterpiece. I’ve been traveling around the country speaking about Elizabeth Bishop and giving readings of her poems. It’s been a joy. But how satisfying in the midst of all these Bishop events to have something in which my own work was the center of attention. But maybe this invitation even meant something more to me. I’ve been writing poems seriously for nearly fifty years. But I’ve also been a music critic for more than thirty years. Rarely does a door ever open between these two compartments of my life. Now it has!