The reader of the above title is no doubt wondering, “alternative to what?” The short answer to that question is the following: Contrary to the long-held view that the musical aspect of a vocal work “captures” the text, the contention here is that music, full of its own meanings and conventions acquired over centuries of cultural development, works with the text along “parallel” lines. Rather than the musical meanings being directly — one might say, inexorably — dependent on those of the words, the music complements the words; hence the “alternative” relationship.
Proceeding on the basis of this parallel principle, our aim is to explore the tremendous diversity with which European composers across the centuries approached their task of setting pre-existing texts to music. We will begin with five examples of the Kyrie Eleison from the Christian Mass, moving from Gregorian Chant to Josquin des Pres to J.S. Bach, Haydn, and finally Stravinsky. The rest of the course will be devoted to secular song, beginning with the ballades and virelais of the poet-composer genius of 14th-century France, Guillaume de Machaut, followed by a cappella and continuo madrigals of Monteverdi, the “Ode to Joy” movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, and two song cycles of the early 20th century: the Histoires Naturelles of Ravel and the Das Lied von der Erde of Mahler.