Poetry Meets Music

Bonnie Godas

One of the things that I love most about being a student at UMass Boston is the privilege of getting to know (and perhaps experiencing first-hand) the exceptional professors that teach here. English professor Lloyd Schwartz, Pulitzer Prize winner and the Frederick Troy Professor of English, is one of these individuals. His area of expertise is poetry but he is also a classical music critic for The Boston Phoenix. With the combination of two of his passions, an amazing collaboration was born.

Professor Schwartz was asked to work with six young student- singers and pianists who were chosen from thousands of applicants from all over the world, at the educational section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood Music Center. Each student was instructed to take one of Professor Schwartz’s selected poems and set it to music. “It was great to combine the two halves of my brain,” Professor Schwartz says of the experience. The project was to pair vocalists, pianists and composers with the resident composer Shulamit Ran and, in just a short couple of weeks, complete their compositions.

During the production, Professor Schwartz trekked back and forth to Tanglewood to get involved in a number of workshops, to advise, and to answer questions from eager students. The students, however, were free to form their own conclusions about Schwartz’s work. The poems varied in subject, each presumably taken with different points of interpretation. One of the poems that I was particularly interested in (“Six Words”) was one of Professor Schwartz’s more interesting poems, formally called a sestina. “That was a very different interpretation,” he recalls.” I didn’t want to force my interpretation on the composer.” The poem, which Schwartz reveals was a “response from a challenge from my students”, is a dialogue between two people though the composer had a different interpretation. “They considered it,” Schwartz began, more of an inner conversation”. Another student combined Schwartz’s poem “Leaves” with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.

The composition of “Leaves” by Matt Kovner, an introduction of his poems by Professor Schwartz himself, and an introduction by Pulitzer Prize -winning composer-in residence at Tanglewood, Shulamit Ran, can all be viewed at www.youtube.com.

Professor Schwartz says UMass students are the best and loves teaching here and inspiring people to learn and create. He sees his students as unique, all with equally extraordinary stories to tell. And his students feel the love-two students that met in his class ended up getting married because of his class and the passion with which that he taught. “They must have really loved the class.”