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No More Zombie Poets, Part 1:

Choosing Better Public Domain Texts

If a young composer is interested in writing for the voice, their composition teacher will usually encourage them to seek out and set poems in the public domain.


These texts come with no strings attached; a composer doesn’t have to obtain rights to work with them. Given this advice, many composers gravitate toward setting several very-settable, well-known poets: think Sara Teasdale, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. What’s more, beginning composers often decide to set the same most popular poems by these poets, choosing texts that have already been set to music ten or even one hundred times. I think of these much-set public domain — and very dead — authors as “zombie poets.” Teasdale, Dickinson, et al. are brought back to life, over and over again, in new pieces setting these author’s most popular poems.

Most composers are never told — as an undergraduate, in grad school, at any point in life — that perhaps they should stop seeking out the most obvious, set-to-death texts in the public domain. Beginning composers are not told that if theirs is the twelfth setting of Sara Teasdale’s “I Am Not Yours” that a conductor sees, theirs will likely be lost as a snowflake in the sea among those other settings. Composers are rarely encouraged to take a fresh approach in looking for public domain texts: to look for excerpts of prose, fiction or non-fiction, that have never been set before, yet lend themselves easy and beautifully to musical settings.

I wish every composer would ask when choosing a public domain text to set to music:


Why will your setting be better?

If you’re working with a text that has been set before, ask yourself the following before you write a single note:

  • How many settings of this text already exist? Are you familiar with them?

  • If there are already several extremely popular settings of that text, why should anyone choose to program yours?

  • How will your setting be different that the others?

  • Why will your setting be better than the others?


If you can’t answer these questions with solid reasons why — in your opinion — your piece will be better than those that have come before, I beg you — don’t set that text. If you, the creator of this new piece, can’t vouch for your setting, then why should anyone else choose to program it? If you don’t think that your setting will better, or at least significantly different, from existing settings of that same text, then why are you writing it in the first place?

If you’re working with a “zombie poet,” have they written any lesser-known, lesser-set poems?

If you are planning to set Sara Teasdale, don’t be lazy about it; don’t choose to set a text simply because you know another composer has used it. Take the time to look into an author’s extended catalogue for lesser-known gems. It is easy to find the original publications of many public-domain writers on Project Gutenberg and Google Books. These collections of poetry extend far beyond an author’s most well-known poems.


Have you considered setting prose?

If you’re dead-set on sticking with public domain text, consider excerpting a prose text and setting that to music. What was your favorite (public domain) novel or play from high school or college? Can you excerpt a brief section from one of those works? Did that author write other books that you can excerpt? Does a favorite public domain poet of yours have prose works — fiction, non-fiction, or letters of correspondence — that you should look into setting?

The lack of a rhyme scheme or poetic form can be intimidating at first to a composer who is used to working with only poems. Once you’ve chosen an excerpt of prose to set, though, you can structure it however you’d like. You can even insert line breaks and structure the words into stanzas; no one has to see this pre-composing process but you. Play with the format of the text until it starts to musically resonate. Scan for the text for any recurring words or images; will the music accompanying this similar imagery be the same, too? Look for any text that suggests a refrain and could repeat later on in the piece.

There’s one more question that every composer should ask when they’re looking for a text to set, and it has nothing to do with works in the public domain:

Do you know any writers?

You do, or you know someone who does.

Here’s the secret composers aren’t told in undergrad: it’s not hard to find living poets whose work you want to set. Once you’ve found them, it’s not hard to seek out their permission to set their works.

There is a common misconception among composers that obtaining permission from contemporary authors is terrifyingly difficult, if not impossible. Living authors are not scary, though; you should be more scared of setting a text that ten other composers have already set this year. If you approach the author directly, before you start writing the piece — and if they are not, say, the current Poet Laureate — the entire process can be easy and painless.

I’m a firm believer that new texts bring out something better in us as composers. Contemporary written language generally inspires a forward-looking tonal language to match. As in setting prose, a lack of a traditional form or rhyme scheme in a text forces us to discover new ways to shape a composition. In a contest or call for scores, too, your piece is much more likely to stand out if it sets an engaging text that the judges have never before seen set to music.

So where do you find these elusive, very-much-alive future collaborators? They’re out there, I promise, and I’m going to tell you how to work with them in Part 2.

.  .  .  .  .

This post was originally published on the MusicSpoke blog, April 2016.

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