I enjoy coming across examples of cross-fertilization between music and literature - which is why I got excited when I heard about Natalie Merchant's newest album. "Leave Your Sleep".
This collection of 26 songs are all based on various poems that center around the experiences of childhood and motherhood Some are recurrent favorites ("The Blind Men and The Elephant" by John Godfrey Saxe); some are not so well-known. Some of the poets were so obscure that when Merchant wanted to provide a biography of their lives she had to go to their descendents to get information about them.
I really enjoyed this album. I never felt that the music detracted from the poems, which surprised me. Reactions to poetry can be so subjective that I wouldn't have been at all surprised to find I didn't care for a musical interpretation here and there. In every song, however, the music seemed to fit the spirit and rhythm of the poet's original intent. In fact, I'd have to say that the music didn't just correspond well with the words; the music added density and meaning to the poems, expanding my understanding and appreciation of them.
Laurence Alma-Tadema's "If No One Ever Marries Me" caught my attention right away. The music is appropriately haunting for a poem that starts, "If no-one ever marries me-- / And I don't see why they should, / For nurse says I am not pretty / And I'm seldom very good--" (Does anyone else want to grab "Nurse" and shake her hard?)
"The Adventures of Isabel" by Ogden Nash had a cheerful, bouncy tune, well suited to the intrepid heroine. I think Isabel and Cimorene would get along very well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry.
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.
My overall favorite though, has to be "Sweet and a Lullaby" The words and the music together hit me like a forgotten scent. I was vividly reminded of the bewildered wonder I felt holding my oldest in those first few hours after her birth, marvelling at how soft her skin was.
"No silk was ever spun so fine
As is the hair of baby mine.
My baby smells more sweet to me
Than smells in spring the elder tree."
If you're interesting in listening to more of this before you buy it, you can hear a generous sample of each song on Natalie Merchant's site, as well as read the full text of each poem and find out the poets. If you buy "Leave Your Sleep" the 2 disc CD set includes an 80 page book with information about each of the poets who authored the included poems, so you might want to consider buying that, instead of simply downloading.
Music: Leave Your Sleep, Natalie Merchant
Books/Authors: John Godfrey Saxe