John Jacob Niles's Settings of the Early Poetry of Thomas Merton in "The Niles-Merton Songs", Opp. 171 and 172.
Date of Award
Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)
John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) is renowned as a composer and performer of music in the folk style of his native Appalachia. However, his body of work also includes forays into opera, oratorio, symphony, and art song. In fact, Niles's final compositional endeavor was the setting of twenty-two poems by the poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968), who resided at Our Lady of Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky. The Niles-Merton Songs, Opp. 171-172 were composed between 1967 and 1970. This study focuses on text-music relations in seven settings of poems from Merton's first two poetry publications, Thirty Poems (1944) and A Man in the Divided Sea (1946). They are "The Messenger," "The Nativity," and "Evening" from Op. 171, and "For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943," "The Greek Women," "Cana," and "The Ohio River--Louisville" from Op. 172. These songs are examined with regard to Niles's use of melody, harmony, text painting, text alteration, dynamics, rhythm, tempo, range, motivic repetition, and accompaniment to express the texts. Conclusions from this study include: (1) Niles constructed these songs in conformity to the formal divisions of Merton's text. The shapes and rhythms of the phrases preserve the natural flow of Merton's poems as they would be spoken; (2) minor text alterations were made only when Niles thought the music could thus be made more beautiful; (3) while examples of text painting are found in each of the songs studied, Niles placed more importance upon a subtler musical elicitation of the moods and images of the text, in which the piano plays a key role; (4) there are repeated motivic patterns that recur throughout the songs of both sets, but they perform no unifying "cyclic" function; and (5) the influence of Niles's friend and colleague, Charles Ives, is evident in Niles's harmonic treatment. Niles's folk background is reflected in the modal harmonies, broken chord accompaniments, and syllabic text setting of these songs.
Williams, Melanie Boney, "John Jacob Niles's Settings of the Early Poetry of Thomas Merton in "The Niles-Merton Songs", Opp. 171 and 172." (1998). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 6715.