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The Göncölszekér Ensemble is based in Budapest
and sets the poems of contemporary poets to music.
The International Context
What Sort of Music is This?

Poems have always been set to music, and poetry, in the form of songs, has always been closely linked to music. Within the genre of vocal music, as opposed to instrumental music, language – the lyrics – receives an important role. If the composer uses poems as raw material for vocal music, or choral music for that matter, they return to the eternal genre of song-writing. Some poets – Robert Burns, for instance – wrote their poems with existing melodies in mind, others – like Carl Michael Bellman – composed or edited music for their own poems, and François Villon, in one of his poems, asked his friend to set it to music.

There have been harsh debates on song-writing throughout history: let us just think of Monteverdi’s seconda pratica, as opposed to Palestrina’s prima pratica, with the former preferring a solo voice and submissive instrumental accompaniment to the polyphonic madrigals and the richly ornamented orchestration of the latter. Seconda pratica, also called stile moderno, following Giulio Caccini singer, songwriter and instrumentalist of his age, places a bigger emphasis on the text. As Caccini puts it, “I should not praise that kind of music which does not allow the words to be understood: which destroys the content and line of the verse, now lengthening, now shortening the syllables, to fit them to the counterpoint – an outrage to Poetry.”

If we explore setting poems to music in more depth, we find that it is not something unusual at all: it is the creation of a musical piece by a musician, based on lyrics created by a lyricist. There is one slight difference in the case of poems: strictly speaking, the composer and the lyricist do not work together, as often happens in popular music. Such duos are very common, perhaps in contrast to performers who write their own lyrics and music. The latter are called ‘singer-songwriters’ (and maybe more simply in Italian: cantautore, or German: Liedermacher), and many fine examples can be mentioned from Woody Guthrie through Bob Dylan, Paolo Conte and Vladimir Vysotsky to Hannes Wader and more, including the very early example of Peter Abélard, with his songs dedicated to Héloïse, and, interestingly enough, the very recent example of the Danish poet Benny Andersen, also regarded as a composer-pianist-songwriter, who sets his own poems to music.

Now let us just return to the classic set-up: lyrics created by one person and music composed by another. In popular music, they can usually change the lyrics and the music on the way, but in the case of poems, the lyrics are rigid. Such poet-composer collaborations include Petrarch and Cipriano de Rore, Petrarch and Palestrina, Petrarch and Monteverdi, Petrarch and Schubert, Petrarch and Schoenberg, or Goethe and Mozart, Goethe and Schubert, Goethe and Schumann, Goethe and Beethoven, Goethe and Hugo Wolf, to name just a few. (We may add some world-famous Hungarian examples: Bartók and Kodály, who set Endre Ady’s poems to music; György Ligeti, who used the poetry of Sándor Weöres on several occasions, and whom he called “Hungary’s Mozart, in a way of extreme virtuosity”; or Kurtág and Akhmatova.) These collaborations naturally reflect the composer’s style, and the poem is fitted into a musically and stylistically bound framework, enhancing the effect of the music. And it is not just classical music: a Hungarian composer excelling at combining folk music and poetry is Ferenc Sebő, but examples can also be quoted from popular music, and they usually appear in the form of concept albums. The most recent and excellent ones, which really succeeded in combining the elemental force of both the particular musical style and the poems set to music include such diverse records as Martha Redbone’s Garden of Love (William Blake), Luciana Souza’s Neruda, Michael Zilber’s The Billy Collins Project: Eleven on Turning Ten, and also non-English ones: Angelo Branduardi’s Branduardi canta Yeats, Georges Chelon’s Les Fleurs de Mal (Charles Baudelaire) and Fabrizio de Andrè’s Non al denaro, non all’amore né al cielo (Edgar Lee Masters).

What is probably unique about the genre of setting poems to music, as established in Hungary by the now widely-known Kaláka Ensemble in the 1970s and 1980s, is a special approach to the relationship between music and poetry, not only placing great emphasis on the text (as Caccini says, based on Plato, “music is nothing else but first the word, and second the poetic rhythm, and last the sound, not the reverse order, if you want the music to reach the hearer’s intellect”), but also trying to discover whatever musicality the poems transfer to them and translating that into songs. This requires a special sensitivity to and understanding of poems, the familiarity with several musical styles and genres, as well as a wide range of instruments.

Following this path, the Göncölszekér Ensemble focusses on contemporary poetry and brings it closer to audiences that might think of it as something too abstract and incomprehensible, in all its naturalness, spicing it up with the band’s own irony and humour and that which is inherent in the poems.


The genre of setting poems to music has acquired genuine connotations over the past few decades in Hungary: it turns up in the context of folk songs, hymns, love ditties and many have the inclination to sing poems alongside them. Although this phenomenon provides a safe position for the poems set to music within one culture, it tends to be slightly one-sided and imposes certain limits on the choice of poems and the style of their musical setting.

We, however, do not favour one particular style; on the contrary, everything can be done that the acoustic rendition, the quartet line-up, the sundry sources of music (classical, jazz, blues, bluegrass, French chansons, Irish, Scottish, Hungarian folk music and Yiddish folk songs) and the main principle, the character of the poems allow for.

When representatives of the genre define themselves, they often include the desire to encourage the public to read, and the need to make poetry more popular. This is a respectable and no doubt fruitful effort: thus, the performer has the mutual assistance of poetry and music in mind, as if they have tried to view things in a wider context and have been led by the dedication to education and culture as a whole. We do not purposely set out to pursue such a mission, so if somebody takes a fancy to poems in our concerts, they only have themselves to blame!