Monday, 22 August 2011

Songs without words

Music can express things that cannot be captured by words. This is what Felix Mendelssohn meant when he said: ‘Music represents a higher form of language, one that communicates its meaning with a precision unmatched by the ambiguities of mere words’. In last Saturday’s music feature The Shorthand of Emotion on Radio 3, Katie Derham used the word spiritual to describe how the famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy experienced the expressivity of music. She even suggested that Tolstoy might have found it easier to describe emotions through music than through words.  

Mendelssohn was an expert in communicating emotions through music and each of his 48 songs without words expresses a particular atmosphere or feeling. Songs without words are short lyrical character pieces for piano. As textless piano songs, their melodies makes them easy to listen to. In expressing one mood only, they are very similar to folk songs in which the melody of the verses repeats itself and doesn’t respond to the content of the lyrics. 

The very fact that songs without words express one atmosphere or feeling only, is their very strength. As the verse is repeated there is a sense of calm and time to really experience, and reflect on, the music. That this is a special quality becomes even clearer when we compare a song without words with Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Especially in the first movements of his piano sonatas, Beethoven embarks on an emotional journey in which we encounter  a range of strongly contrasting emotions in quick succession. This makes the listening experience very intense and requires full attention.  

What I appreciate in Mendelssohn’s songs without words (and similar songlike pieces by other composers) is that they allow for a less intense listening experience. Their lyricism makes them attractive even as background music. 

If you want to explore this for yourself, you’re welcome to visit the cafe at Newton Dee (in Bieldside, Aberdeen) on Tuesdsay 6 September at 2.30pm when I’ll play a number of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words alongside similar mood pictures by other composers.

Copyright text Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Singing the fishing

As the project Parallel Lives with Arts Development in Aberdeen is gathering pace I thought I’d give a brief update. Our taster session with Torry Arts Forum last June helped us to set up the song-writing sessions for Torry residents in September. Our current focus therefore is on engaging people from Central and Eastern Europe living in Torry. Fortunately, we’ve been given a few leads so we hope to get in contact with them over the next week or two. We hope to be able to set up a number of meetings to talk about the project and share experiences about moving to Scotland to work. The song lyrics for the song about migrant workers’ experiences will be based on those conversations. Over the next few weeks I also hope to find some violin, viola and cello players who can accompany the singers during the final event. It will be great to arrange an accompaniment for strings. At the moment, our attention is, however, focused on our preparations for Torry Gala where we hope to promote the project by making herring mobiles together.

Talking to people about the project often helps to shed new light on elements of it. A few weeks ago  Aberdeenshire youth music coordinator Lorna McLaren told me about the background of The Song Of The Fish Gutters. The song was written in 1966 by Ewan MacColl as part of a radio ballad about Britain’s fishing communities called Singing The Fishing. Together with Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl visited Great Yarmouth and Gardenstown (Gamrie) along the Moray coast to record traditional songs and speak to people who used work in the fast declining herring industry. In this light, it is interesting that The Song of the Fish Gutters is about young women from Northeast Scotland who travel to Yarmouth to work in the herring industry, connecting the two areas the radio ballad focused on. 
In the video below I’ve added the lyrics to the music, so you can sing along with The Song of the Fish Gutters.

If you live in Torry and want to be involved in the project, please register your interest with Mandy Clarke, community arts officer with Arts Development, at 01224 814738 or

Torry Gala will take place on Saturday 27 October and the project will be promoted between 12 and 2 pm. The song-writing workshops will take place on Friday 16 and 23 September from 9.30 to 11.30 am. The final event, in which we’ll sing the three songs with all those who have been involved with the project, will take place on Saturday 29 October from 11 am to 1 pm.

Copyright text, images and video Petra Vergunst

Monday, 8 August 2011

Writing folk songs

In folks songs people like you and me tell about the events, experiences and feelings that they feel are important. There is thus scope for adding new songs to the folk song repertoire. This is what I’ll be doing in the Parallel Lives project and in a workshop for the Aberdeen Maritime Museum.

Though I’ve thus far mainly worked with maritime themes, most songs have a love theme. This can entail expressions of love as in The Gallant Weaver, but more often it seems to be about unrequited love or broken promises. There are also ample descriptions of natural beauty such as Flow Gently, Sweet Afton. On the less idyllic side there are political folk songs like those about Jacobite cause. A category of folk songs that I particularly enjoy is those describing occupations like weavers, coopers, millers, and of course herring gutters and whalers.

The songs often use a place, object or person as a peg to construct the narrative around. For example, in This Is No My Plaid a young woman sings about how she finds out that her lover is betraying her through finding a plaid that is not hers. Pegs can also be used symbolically. In A Rosebud By My Early Walk, the rosebud stands for a much younger girl for whom Robert Burns has amorous feelings.   

Different voices can be used to tell the story. What Auld Lang Syne and The Song of the Fish Gutters have in common is that they let us take ownership of the song by describing it as a shared experience. Songs like The Gallant Weaver tell the story in the eyes of one person. An exception is My Donald in which we listen in to a personal conversation between a husband and wife. More common are descriptive songs that share a narrative without personal involvement. Flow Gently Sweet Afton is a good example of this.

One may think that writing song lyrics is a difficult task, but we forget that many of the people who did so in the past were not trained as songwriters either. Instead, I’d like to think that song writing is a creative challenge that is achievable so long as we make some conscious decisions about the theme, the peg to construct the story around, and the voice we want to use in telling our story.

The song writing workshops that are part of the Parallel Lives (or herring gutters) project will be held on Friday 16 and 23 September 2011. For more information and to register contact Mandy Clarke, community arts officer with Arts Development at 01224 814738 or

The workshop Rewriting Our History in which we’ll write our own texts for a contemporary whaling song will be held at Aberdeen Maritime Museum on Saturday 24 September. For more information and to register contact Aberdeen Maritime Museum at 01224 337700. 

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst