Has Anyone Preferred The Words To The Music?
April 20, 2012 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Settle A Couple's Fight: Has there ever seen a case , in a situation where the composer of the music and the writer of the words are separate people, the librettist is more famous and his contribution is popularly viewed as superior to the composer?
posted by The Whelk to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Some would say Gilbert and Sullivan meet the second condition, but I think they're equally famous.
posted by in278s at 10:24 AM on April 20, 2012

....It may depend on what you mean by "famous" or "superior" or "popular," and on who's doing the judging.

For instance, I'm certain a fair number of Sting fans think he vastly improved Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite, but classicists would probably beg to differ.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:24 AM on April 20, 2012

Well, Gilbert and Sullivan come to mind. Gilbert, the librettist, gets first billing and his lyrics are, to me, most of the appeal. Although, since they're always mentioned together, i guess they're equally famous.
posted by Quietgal at 10:25 AM on April 20, 2012

Yeah, Gilbert and Sullivan is the only example I could think of, but I don't think there's really a popular consensus on that. For my money I do think the libretto of Pirates of Penzance is superior the music, but only just (i.e. the music is just fine, but on it's own istn't terribly impressive. The lyrics, however, are).
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:27 AM on April 20, 2012

One could argue one writing team for the Grateful Dead, John Perry Barlow and Bob Weir, that Barlow is more famous albeit for other things than his lyrics. (Electronic Frontier Foundation mainly.)
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:27 AM on April 20, 2012

@Quietgal: but does Gilbert get first billing because he's better or because it rolls off the tongue better?
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:28 AM on April 20, 2012

Brecht/Weill? Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen?
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:29 AM on April 20, 2012

By the 20th century some librettists became recognized as part of famous collaborations, as with Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Today the composer (past or present) of the musical score to an opera or operetta is usually given top billing for the completed work, and the writer of the lyrics relegated to second place or a mere footnote, a notable exception being Gertrude Stein, who received top billing for Four Saints in Three Acts. Another exception was Alberto Franchetti's 1906 opera La figlia di Iorio which was a close rendering of a highly successful play by its librettist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, a celebrated Italian poet, novelist, and dramatist of the day. . . .

The question of which is more important in opera — the music or the words — has been debated over time, and forms the basis of at least two operas, Richard Strauss's Capriccio, and Antonio Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole.
posted by John Cohen at 10:29 AM on April 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

Gilbert got first billing because he demanded it. At the time he and Sullivan began working together, he was a very well-known comic poet and Sullivan was a fairly obscure composer mostly of hymns and organ music.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:30 AM on April 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Do you mean librettist or lyricist? If you mean lyricist, Stephen Sondheim's contributions to Gypsy are more critically lauded than Jule Styne's score.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:31 AM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, good one, John Cohen. Four Saints in Three Acts is always thought of as "the Gertrude Stein opera" not "the Virgil Thomson opera."
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:31 AM on April 20, 2012

I thought of Brecht/Weill, but Weill was well-regarded as well. I think The Whelk is looking for situations like "Brecht wrote the words and....some yutz wrote the music."

I wonder if maybe there were situations in the Brill Building that may apply? You know, maybe there was some song that Neil Diamond or Carole King worked on where the music was by someone we don't even know?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:31 AM on April 20, 2012

Sondheim frequently gets credit for Gypsy for which he was only the lyricist. He was also the lyricist for West Side Story, but I don't think he is nearly as associated with it as Bernstein. And obviously, Sondheim is best known for his other plays for which he was both lyricist and composer. If that hadn't happened, perhaps more folks would know that Jule Styne composed for Gypsy.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:31 AM on April 20, 2012

Best answer: I don't know whether this fits what you're thinking of, since the music and the lyrics were written many years apart rather than by a songwriting team. But Francis Scott Key is widely known for writing the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner," which was set to the tune of a little-known (at least now) English song called "To Anacreon in Heaven."
posted by Siobhan at 10:37 AM on April 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

Well, there is T.S. Elliot, the lyricist for Cats...

But (more seriously), while Andrew Lloyd Webber is more famous, my dad always thought Tim Rice was more talented and only liked Webber musicals that Rice wrote the lyrics for.
posted by jb at 10:38 AM on April 20, 2012

Best answer: Metastasio, the 18th century librettist. One of his works, Didone Abbandonata was used in more than 50 musical works by different composers.

In very early opera it was usually the story/libretto more than the music that would attract audiences. Everything changed with Mozart.
posted by effigy at 10:44 AM on April 20, 2012

Well, in a lot of pop music, the lyricist is the lead singer, and more famous for that reason. Morrissey's better know than than Johnny Marr.
posted by neroli at 10:52 AM on April 20, 2012

Samuel Beckett wrote two radio plays in which "Music" is a character with "dialogue"; several composers of varying stature have contributed music for that character. Words and Music had a score provided by Morton Feldman, who is relatively well-known; Cascando has had music created by composers like William Kraft and Elaine Barkin, who are not especially well-known outside the contemporary music scene.

On the other hand, these aren't Beckett's best-known plays, so maybe they're not the example you're looking for. (I just got done writing my dissertation on Words and Music, which is why it came to mind, and also why this comment sounds like a thesis abstract.)
posted by daisystomper at 11:06 AM on April 20, 2012

what about Sondheim?
posted by PinkMoose at 11:11 AM on April 20, 2012

Best answer: In the world of musical theater I would imagine that lyricist Tim Rice was better known than composers (and former ABBA members) Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaaus when they collaborated on Chess. I don't know if Rice's contribution was viewed as "superior."
posted by Clustercuss at 11:19 AM on April 20, 2012

Ulvaeus, rather
posted by Clustercuss at 11:20 AM on April 20, 2012

How about the very earliest surviving English opera, Albion and Albanius? -- text by John Dryden, music by a nonentity? Luckily, for his second opera, Dryden found someone rather more talented to help out with the music.

Goethe wrote a lot of opera libretti (including a sequel to The Magic Flute) but never found a good composer to set them. Schiller shrewdly advised him that there was no point writing libretti unless he had a really good collaborator, as 'no text will save the performance if the music is not successful, and what's more, the author is held responsible for the failure'. Goethe's chosen collaborator on the Magic Flute sequel, Paul Wranitzky, has his admirers but is hardly a household name today.
posted by verstegan at 11:24 AM on April 20, 2012

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman? I mean, sure, Menken has survived another two decades and done a lot of work since, but everyone I share an opinion with...
posted by straw at 11:34 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're talking about pop songwriters, a lot of the songs for which Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics fall into that category.
posted by ROTFL at 11:50 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Came in here to say Four Saints in Three Acts, and am pretty sure that's a definitive answer.

P.G. Wodehouse might also fit the bill, though I don't know any of the musicals he wrote, only that he did write (lyrics for) some.
posted by dizziest at 12:28 PM on April 20, 2012

Chiming back in on Johnny Mercer -- if you are referring only to musicals, Mercer wrote lyrics for the musicals Li'l Abner and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; Gene de Paul wrote the music for the former and collaborated with Saul Chaplin on the music for the latter. I'd say Mercer is better remembered and better regarded than either composer.
posted by ROTFL at 1:04 PM on April 20, 2012

Best answer: There is an apocryphal story about Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein at a social event some years after the death of her husband. Another guest, upon learning who she was, said, "Ah, 'Old Man River'. That was such a beautiful song that Mr. Rodgers wrote."

"Excuse me," Mrs. Hammerstein is reported to have said. "My husband wrote 'Old Man River'. Mr. Rodgers wrote dum-dum-da-dum."
posted by John Borrowman at 1:28 PM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is rock and not opera or a musical, but ... Eddie Vedder as lyricist to Pearl Jam?
posted by onlyconnect at 2:12 PM on April 20, 2012

I don't think Eddie Vedder counts (even if the OP is looking for examples outside of opera, which is unclear from the question). I don't know what Pearl Jam's exact composition process is like, but my understanding is that Eddie Vedder is a full-fledged songwriter who sits down and comes up with vocal parts and possibly guitar parts. (Yes, he plays guitar, even though he often doesn't have a guitar on stage.)
posted by John Cohen at 4:47 PM on April 20, 2012

Eddie Vedder regularly has a guitar on stage during all the shows I've seen in the past while. Not all the time, but several songs a show, he's there with an instrument.

Anyway, Pearl Jam has been doing songs written by all the band members for several albums now, probably more than a decade, with any song perhaps being written by a single member or created by any combination of those in the band.

Vedder is better known because he's the front man and remains the "personality" of the band in public, but Pearl Jam is much more complex than just being those guys who learn songs Vedder writes, and has been since day one.

Tim Rice was NOT better known than Andersson/Ulvaeus when Chess was created. Well, maybe with your qualifier "among musical theater circles", but in 1984, at the time Chess came out as a concept album, Rice hadn't had a serious hit in the theater since Evita nearly a decade before, and A/U had been active with ABBA up until 1983 when they were promoting their The Singles collection and working on Chess in the background.

My brain is telling me that this situation probably exists within the world of jazz / Tin Pan Alley but is failing to come up with any actual examples right now.
posted by hippybear at 6:37 PM on April 20, 2012

Best answer: If non-collaborations count, as in someone writes words or music for an extant tune or poem/whatever, then the answer is sure, thousands of times; as an easy example, the list of people who set "Ode to Joy" to music besides Beethoven and Tchaikovsky could be titled "People less famous than Schiller". Tons of the hymns one sees in modern hymnals were words set to much older, sometimes secular songtunes, and surviving folk songs were re-written multiple times, while usually preserving the old tunes. If you count this type of thing, then The Beggar's Opera would be the most famous example I could think of.

If you don't, some operatic possibilities:
Paul Bunyan; Auden would probably win against Britten, but I'm not sure whether they would have considered it winning in that case.
E.M. Forster contributed to the libretto (based on Melville) for Billy Budd, Britten again.
Cocteau is a good bet, having written a few libretti: Antigone, composed by Honegger; Oedipus Rex by Stravinsky; La voix humaine by Poulenc; Le pauvre matelot by Milhaud.
d'Annunzio probably more well-known than Mascagni (Parisina, and that was adapted itself from Byron) or Franchetti (La figlia di Iorio).
Hugo adapted his own The Hunchback of Notre Dame for an opera, La Esmeralda, composed by Louise Bertin.
Zola's libretto for Bruneau's Messidor and L'ouragan.
Moliere and Lully, Voltaire and Rameau, collaborations on masquey proto-operatic works
Zeffirelli adapted Shakespeare for Barber's Antony and Cleopatra.

If it comes down to the last point, popular opinion of pre-eminence, I'm going to say the composers have it when it comes to opera.
posted by notquitemaryann at 6:51 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

poor Schubert, didn't mean to skip him in the Ode to Joy list. But other than that. Yes.
posted by notquitemaryann at 6:53 PM on April 20, 2012

Well, in Bollywood film, the lyricists were generally well-respected poets, certainly through the 50s and 60s. The composers are not nearly as well-known. Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, and Kaifi Azmi are examples that come immediately to mind.
posted by bardophile at 6:13 AM on April 21, 2012

Eddie Vedder regularly has a guitar on stage during all the shows I've seen in the past while. Not all the time, but several songs a show, he's there with an instrument.

I know, that's why I said "even though he often doesn't have a guitar on stage." I didn't say "he doesn't often…" I was just trying to clarify for the sake of people who might have seen clips of the band playing where Eddie Vedder doesn't have a guitar.
posted by John Cohen at 4:49 PM on April 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, not only did I learn a bunch of crap, I won the argument.

*Basks in reflected glory*
posted by The Whelk at 9:27 AM on April 26, 2012

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