Word Painting

by jaeyoungshin

Our class is about how music evolved during thousand years and often focuses on how earlier music is different from music of recent era. Although difference is usually more notable than similarity, I thought it was interesting to point out how similar technique was used throughout the history of music. As music evolved from simple, monotonic chant to symphony music, the word painting, this idea of describing the text’s meaning with music had been continued.

The first time we encountered the word painting was from genre Madrigal. The best example is Thomas Weelkes’ music. As shown in “As vesta was from latmos hill descending,” his music literally interprets the lyric and tries his best to convey it with music. The rapid, turnover of polyphonic voices seemed to illustrate how the music climbs down the hill. He also uses bright, joyful homophony to express the lyric of the song. This word painting became very popular during renaissance era, but it died out in baroque era as many composers thought it was artificial and childish way to express emotions.

Then we saw this technique again in Bach’s music. Bach adopts word painting in order to help people to reflect on the divine. He uses music to emphasize certain words. He would use crunchy violin sound to express words like “death” while he uses joyful, bright homophonic sound and brass instruments for words such as “faith” and “grace.”

Then we listened to two versions of Die Erlkonig, Reichardt’s one and Schubert’s one. Both versions seem to adopt the technique that is similar to word painting. The word painting of Romanticism’s music is definitely different from the word painting of 16th century’s one. It tries to express the atmosphere of the song rather than focuses on details of the text. However, we can see the trace of word painting when the composers use the rhythmic sound of piano to show that father and son are riding horses or minor, dissonant accompaniment for Erlking’s whispering.

To sum up, this principle of word painting has been used by composers from different periods, even though it clearly has become less popular and less powerful in later era. What do you think? Do you think this is a childish, artificial way to express emotions like Caccini once said? Or do you see it as a proper complement that can make music more understandable and interesting to listeners?