Beckett and Contemporary Music

The text of a talk by musicologist Dr Catherine Laws which examines the influence of Samuel Beckett on contemporary composers. The talk was given during a seminar organised by CMC on Samuel Beckett and music in 2006 as part of the Beckett Centenary Festival.

Copyright ©2006 Catherine Laws.

The musical examples are kindly reproduced by Universal Edition.


I'VE been asked to talk this evening about Beckett's influence on composers internationally. This is of course a vast subject, and one to which it is hard to do justice in so short a time. So my approach will be to start with a general overview, attempting to give some indication of the breadth and nature of Beckett's influence, before moving on to look in a little more detail at two examples of what I consider to be some of the most interesting work in this field.

In preparing this talk, I decide to make a quick list, off the top of my head, of all the composers I could think of who have produced compositions with an explicit link to Beckett. I came up with: Luciano Berio, Philip Glass, Marcel Mihalovici, Wolfgang Fortner, Bernard Rands, Roger Marsh, György Kurtág, Mark Anthony Turnage, Morton Feldman, Bill Hopkins, Richard Barrett, Earl Kim, Roger Reynolds, Heinz Holliger, Richard Rijnvos, Kenneth Gaburo, Donnacha Dennehy, Gerald Barry, Charles Amirkhanian, Henry Crowder, Guus Janssen, Humphrey Searle, Sylvano Bussotti, William Kraft, Charles Dodge, Clarence Barlow, Paul Rhys, Barry Guy, and Michael Mantler. This list is by no means a carefully researched or exhaustive -- I apologise to those who have been missed -- but the fact that it is so long and covers such a wide range of musical styles and compositional approaches is in itself testament to the extent of Beckett's legacy. It is hard to think of any other twentieth-century writer who has made such an impact.

It is perhaps unsurprising that so many composers have been attracted to Beckett's work. However, the reasons for this, and the nature of the subsequent musical responses, are many and varied. For some composers the interest relates to a perception of Beckett's language as particularly musical, due to his sensitivity to the sounding qualities and the rhythmic patterns of words and silences (and this is something that is frequently commented upon by actors and directorsi). For others it has more to do with the ideas and images explored in Beckett's work, most particularly his concern with the difficulty, even impossibility, of making sense of one's experience of being in the world, along with the impossibility of abandoning that attempt ("The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express" ii; "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." iii). For me, these two things are very much tied together -- I would argue that Beckett's breakdown of traditional linguistic structures, and his ever-increasing sensitivity to the rhythmic and sounding qualities of his phrases is a consequence of his struggle to find a means of representing in language the fragmentation and chaos of the self in the world.

Traditionally, there have always been two alternatives for word-setting: the composer either aims to serve the text, preserving the words' own meaning and construction in the belief that the music may underline particular dimensions of that work, or else asserts the right to create an entirely different work, using the text simply as a starting point, recasting its rhythms in line with the new context, and respecting the original solely from the point of view of its relevance to the composition.

In the Beckett context, Korean-American composer Earl Kim is a good example of first approach. In Kim's Beckett settings, individual instrumental lines often closely map the delivery of the text, with chords frequently placed so as to emphasise certain words. The rhythm of the text usually, therefore, becomes that of the piece; Kim does nothing to change the patterns of Beckett's texts, but uses the musical line as a counterpart to it, aiming to create what he described "one-dimensional" music. iv

Mark Anthony Turnage's Your Rockaby (for saxophone and orchestra)v provides an example of the second approach. In composing this work, Turnage examined the rhythmic structure of Beckett's playRockaby and used the results as the starting point for an extended, purely instrumental composition. Here the link to Beckett is not apparent to the listener -- it is made explicit only through the title -- but the genesis of the composition is very much bound up with the writer's work.

In some respects, though, Beckett is actually quite a strange choice for composers, precisely (if ironically) because of the musicality of his texts. The increasing concentration and rhythmic precision of his work is such that no individual aspect of meaning or expression can be separated from another. To highlight a chosen dimension can only be detrimental to the whole, and adding a further layer of musical rhythm is likely to undermine rather than enhance the text as it stands. Thus the first method is problematic, yet to choose a Beckett text for the second approach can seem perverse: if the words are to be set in such a way as to create an entirely new work, then why choose a text that is already so complete?

Given this, it is not surprising that some composers have sought different approaches to Beckett's work, setting the words in unconventional ways or sometimes choosing not to actually 'set' the words at all. It is these approaches that particularly interest me; to my mind, these works are often more successful in relation to the Beckett original. Essentially, these composers attempt to 'translate' into musical terms the effects of Beckett's text. Of course, translation always implies difference; translating from one language to another necessarily involves both some loss of meaning and the development of some additional, different meanings (as we know only too well from the substantial re-writing involved in Beckett's own translations of his texts). So in this respect the change of medium from language to music is significant not just in terms of the material form, but also because it opens up broader comparative questions about what happens when ideas or effects move between one art form and another.

In order to explore this more fully, I want to look briefly at Beckett-related works by two very different composers: Morton Feldman and György Kurtág.

I will begin with the American composer Morton Feldman's one-act opera for a single soprano and orchestra, Neither vi. This work, first performed in May 1977 by Rome Opera, was composed upon a text sent to Feldman by Beckett in 1976 vii:

to and fro in shadow from inner to outershadow

from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself

by way of neither

as between two lit refuges whose doors once

neared gently close, once turned away from

gently part again

beckoned back and forth and turned away

heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or

the other

unheard footfalls only sound

till at last halt for good, absent for good

from self and other

then no sound

then gently light unfading on that unheeded


unspeakable home viii


The text is hardly a typical libretto; it has no specific named characters, places or events, and evokes nothing more substantial than motion back and forth. The sense is of a dislocated state of 'in-betweenness'; a ghostly movement to and fro, as if in search of a stable central location, or as if the subject is in search of the self. But such absolute presence remains beyond reach; we seem to circle endlessly around a central position that cannot ever be found (if it exists at all)). Feldman described his reaction to the text as follows: "I'm reading it. There's something peculiar. I can't catch it. Finally I see that every line is really the same thought said in another way. And yet the continuity acts as if something else is happening. Nothing else is happening. What you're doing in an almost Proustian way is getting deeper and deeper saturated into the thought." ix.

So we have an 'opera' (if it can truly be called that), with no characterisation, no narrative, and no drama, and while Feldman does set Beckett's words, his concern seems to lie more with creating a musical parallel to the shadowy text. He ignores the conventions of opera and seems to have no concern for the audibility of the words; for much of the opera the soprano remains in her very highest register, yet she is required to sing pianissimo throughout. Moreover, Feldman splits up the text and often divides words syllabically, placing individual words or syllables in isolation, such that the rhythms of the text are obscured and the listener is highly unlikely to understand the words at all. As in most of Feldman's work, the music is lyrical without ever being truly melodic, the dynamics are understated throughout, there are no musical events as such (no identifiable themes or contrasts) nor any sense of ideas growing or developing. Instead, one idea simply supersedes another. Feldman is interested in the unmediated contemplation of sound, and as such he is determined to avoid dramatic gestures or any other devices that might point beyond the immediacy of the musical surface; he seems to want us to be drawn into that surface, and to be completely involved in experiencing the minutiae of how it changes through time.


In creating a musical version of Beckett's text, Feldman deploys metre, rhythm, orchestration, pitch and harmony so as to suggest pendular movement to and fro, mimicking the action of the text. The metres and rhythms are superimposed so as to create layers of almost-pulses; sounds are repeated in almost but not quite regular patterns, giving the impression of music in search of a regular metre, as if an unlocatable common pulse lies beneath. This can be heard at the opening of the work, for example, and can be seen in example 1 [PDF] from the score. Harmonically, everything is generated from pairs of semitones and clusters of three semitones (as in example 2 [PDF]) that are often transposed to form open chords made up of sevenths and ninths; the different kinds of chords are therefore close reflections of one another -- almost the same, but not quite. Related harmonic materials are transposed in and out from clusters to open intervals and are passed back and forth between pairs of instruments, giving several types of motion to and fro, in and out. example 3 [PDF], from just over a minute into the piece, shows these open chords of sevenths and ninths (each a transposition of the other) being swung back and forth between pairs of instruments, one from the strings and one from the winds. In addition, other instruments reiterate semitonal pairs or three-note clusters, usually in almost, but not quite, regular rhythmic patterns (due to the constantly shifting time signatures and/or the slight shifts in the positions of the chords within the bars). Patterns and systems of repetition are constantly on the verge of forming but never achieve true regularity. x

Overall, then, Feldman creates a musical version of Beckett's wandering, searching subject, and as a listener one is drawn into that same process -- a process of following the circling round and round, through endless permutations of musical material that are almost the same, within which we are forever on the verge of finding symmetry and regularity, but that in the end always deny us that final security and solace.

It is interesting to compare this music to that which Feldman wrote in 1987 (ten years after Neither) for a new production of Beckett's radio play Words and Music xi. In this play, Beckett deploys Music (named Bob) as an actual 'character', cast alongside Words (Joe) in a dramatic examination of their relative powers of expression. Feldman might seem a totally inappropriate composer for Words and Music in that his compositional concern was always to let sounds be 'themselves', whereas this commission required him to respond musically to specific words. Beckett gives instructions regarding the character of the music, asking for responses to the specific topics and demanding music of 'great expression', 'Love and soul music' and 'spreading and subsiding music' -- and the fact that many of these involved emotional concepts must have made the job even more strange for a composer whose music challenges absolutely the notion that the prime function of music is the direct evocation of emotions.

The context is very different to that of Neither -- rather than an hour-long opera for a large symphony orchestra, here Feldman had to compose thirty-three brief snippets of music (each lasting from only a few seconds up to about 3 minutes) for an ensemble of seven players: two flutes, vibraphone, piano, violin, viola and 'cello. However, the snippets make use of techniques of 'almost-patterning' that are similar in effect to those of Neither: the harmonic materials have very similar roots and are often swing back and forth between pairs of instruments, while melodic lines rise and fall in almost, but never quite, even rhythmic patterns. As in Neither, patterns are thereby implied but undermined: we are again left with a kind of "crippled symmetry" (to use Feldman's own phrase xii) which gives the impression of limping around an unidentifiable, maybe absent, central position. There are of course differences; the scale of Neitherallows for much more complex internal relationships. In particular, through the deployment of a full orchestra Feldman's music for Neither involves a much denser use of pitch space and hence a more complex spatial relationship between pitch, harmony and orchestration. This, combined with a far more complicated superimposition of metres, rhythms and not-quite-regular pulse effects, generates a stronger sense of each element of the material forming the shadow of another. Overall, though, the music for Words and Music encourages a similar sense of encountering the material repeatedly but slightly differently each time -- of being taken further into the thought and working at it from different perspectives, but perhaps without conclusion; this is happening at the levels of composition (of both text and music), performance and audition, such that the listener experiences that same absorption into the attempt to capture the idea.

What is striking about Feldman's music for Words and Music, though, is the relative warmth and consonance of much of the harmony (especially towards the end of the play). Any true sense of harmonic progression is still avoided, but the effect is more conventionally sensual and expressive than one would expect from Feldman. A good example can be heard towards the end of the piece (at figure 33 in the score, just after 37 minutes into the Ensemble Recherche recording), where Feldman takes an oscillating minor seventh that has been heard throughout the piece but here creates a more obviously expressive sound world through the use of major harmonies and by modulating more quickly than usual through two further transpositions of the same melodic phrase. The phrase still hardly conforms to any conventional notion of a 'tune' but achieves an unusual degree of expressivity (as Feldman himself admitted), and he attributed this to his desire to "meet Beckett half-way in the sentiment" xiii.

The music for Words and Music was one of Feldman's last compositions -- he died later in 1987, having completed two more works, one of which is the haunting For Samuel Beckett. The relative warmth of Feldman's harmonic world in parts of Words and Music not only had considerable impact upon those final works, but also leaves one wondering what the future direction of Feldman's work might have been. Surprising as it may seem, given Beckett's general (if over-simplified and undeserved) reputation as a depressing pessimist, this increased warmth and expressivity is a direct result of Feldman's encounter with Beckett's play.

The second composer whose Beckett-related work I wish to diiscuss briefly this evening is the Hungarian György Kurtág (born in 1926). Kurtág has long expressed a love of the work of Beckett, and has to date completed three compositions using Beckett texts. The first two of these are different versions of the same work; his opus 30a and opus 30b (1990 and 1991 respectively) are both settings of What is the Word, the first for voice and piano only, while the second reworks this material for reciter, voices and chamber ensemble xiv. (Both are usually listed with the title Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, though the initial title of the first setting was the unwieldy but more evocativeSamuel Beckett Sends a Message Through Ildikó Monyók in István Siklós's translation.) The more recent Beckett-based composition, ...pas à pas - nulle part... (1993-8), sets a number of Beckett'sMirlitonnades (sometimes in both French and English translation), along with two of his early poems in French (Dieppe and elles viennent) and nine of his translations of the maxims of Sebastian Chamfort. Here, the setting is for baritone with string trio and percussion (including some less conventional instruments, such as water gongs, rattles, and a saw) xv.

In broad terms, Kurtág shares something of Beckett's attitude towards artistic creativity. In particular, Kurtág's struggle to create and his tendency towards small-scale, splintered forms are reminiscent of Beckett: Kurtág's output spans a considerable period -- over fifty years -- but the number of compositions is small; he did not consider his early pieces to be worth cataloguing, and as a result it took until his String Quartet No. 1 of 1959 for the designation 'opus 1' to be made. In the period through to 1970 only eight works appeared, and many are extremely short; whole pieces can last no more than a few minutes, and individual movements sometimes even less than one minute. Since 1997, Kurtág's output has increased, relatively speaking, but despite the appearance of a few pieces for larger forces and of longer overall length, there is still a tendency for these works to comprise many very short, fragmented miniatures. Similarly, Kurtág's attitude towards his material has been retained, with its concentrated, gestural style. The relationship between sound and silence in this music is complex; at times, individual gestures can be quite dramatic, other times very subtle, but either way sound events are often dropped into pauses, as if from nowhere. Kurtág sees the problem of the artist in the modern world as that of a communicator who can never find a common language with the majority of his fellow creatures; the composer is left making statements in the face of meaninglessness and futility. It's hard not to relate this to Beckett's statements about the obligation to express in the face of its futility, and of the need to go on when one can't. Just as Beckett evolves his fragmented late texts from the most basic monosyllables -- Worstward Ho is a good example -- so Kurtág's compositions are often built from small, self-contained cells of notes, with patterns forming out of these, or gestures growing from a central note. Like Beckett, Kurtág absorbs a range of influences (musical, literary, and personal), but in both cases these penetrate deeply into the materials, distilled into a language broken by silence.

Kurtág's struggle to compose is sometimes directly reflected in the texts he chooses to set; this is the case in his setting of Beckett'sWhat is the Word. Beckett's work is always concerned with the difficulty of finding the 'right' words, but this late poem is perhaps the most concise expression of this eternal problem:

  folly - 
folly for to - 
for to - 
what is the word -
folly from this - 
all this - 
folly from all this - 
given - 
folly given all this - 
seeing - 
folly seeing all this - 
this - 
what is the word - 
this this - 
this this here - 
all this this here - 
folly given all this - 
seeing - 
folly seeing all this this here - 
for to - 
what is the word - 
see - 
glimpse - 
seem to glimpse - 
need to seem to glimpse - 
folly for to need to seem to glimpse - 
what - 
what is the word - 
and where - 
folly for to need to seem to glimpse what where - 
where - 
what is the word - 
there - 
over there -
away over there - 
afar - 
afar away over there - 
afaint - 
afaint afar away over there what - 
what - 
what is the word - 
seeing all this - 
all this this - 
all this this here -
folly for to see what - 
glimpse - 
seem to glimpse - 
need to seem to glimpse - 
afaint afar away over there what - 
folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar
away over there what -
  what - 
what is the word - 

what is the word xvi

The context for the composition of Kurtág's setting shadows that of the writing of Beckett's text. Beckett produced the English translation (at the suggestion of Ruby Cohn) for actor and director Joseph Chaikin, following the stroke that left him with aphasia, and Kurtág composed his settings for the actor Ildikó Monyók, whose car accident left her with speech problems.


The text itself has a performative quality -- it is about the experience of groping through language in search of meaningful expression, but also enacts that process itself through its compositional structure, and in reading the text one experiences that same attempt to pin down meaning. Chaikin's readings of Beckett's texts were often described as musical; his difficulty with enunciation often drew attention to the sounding quality of the words and their relationships. Additionally, though, while the text articulates the struggle for effective expression, Chaikin's condition was such that he was not 'acting' the attempt to find the 'right' words that is articulated in the text, but was truly experiencing it with every utterance. This presented audiences with a doubling of Beckett's struggle with language in Chaikin's struggle for control over his speech.

Kurtág's setting is for a total of 34 musicians, spaced in five groups around the auditorium, and six of these are vocal parts; Kurtág simultaneously presents a Hungarian translation of the text and the English original, the former being used for the part of a reciter (originally performed by Monyok), while the latter is taken up by five solo singers. In listening to the opening of the work, one hears the interplay between the reciter, speaking the Hungarian translation of "what is the word" ("mi is a szó"), and the chorus that uses the English version of the text. Kurtág employs a full range of vocal articulations (singing, whispering, speech, spoken), as if working through different attempts to find an effective form of linguistic expression xvii. The vocal lines are always doubled instrumentally, sometimes with further added harmonies, the delicate use of timbral and textural colour matching the tentative attempts to find a voice. Here, then, we are faced with not just a linguistic translation (which in itself highlights the elusiveness of absolute meaning), but also a translation between media.

Feldman and Kurtág therefore provide examples of two striking and somewhat unusual approaches to text, but ones that I find fascinating in relation to Beckett. Each, in very different ways, creates a kind of musical parallel to Beckett's world, recreating a similar effect in musical contexts.

Dr Catherine Laws is a musicologist and pianist. She lectures at Dartington College of the Arts. This talk was originally given on 4 April 2006 in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin.

Discography of works cited

Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman, Words and Music, directed and produced by Everett Frost, with David Warrilow and Alvin Epstein (voices) and the Bowery Ensemble, conducted by Nils Vigelund (New York: Pacifica Radio Archive/ Voices International BE-89-04-16, 1988).

-------, Words and Music, with Omar Ebrahim and Stephen Lind (voices) and Ensemble Recherche (Westdeutscher Rundfunk/ Audvidis MO 782084, 1996).

Morton Feldman, Neither, Sarah Leonard (soprano) and Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt, conducted by Zoltán Peskó (hat[now]ART102, 1998).

Earl Kim, Exercises on Route, Jean de Mart, Peggy Pearson, et al (New World Records 80561-2, 2001).

-------, Violin Concerto, Cecylia Arzewski (violin) and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Scott Yoo (Naxos 8.779226, 2005).

György Kurtág, "Samuel Beckett: What is the Word" on György Kurtág Portraitkonzert Salzburg 10.8.1993, Ildikó Monyók (reciter), Solisten des Tomkins Vokalensemble, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Peter Eötvös (Col Legno 31870, 1994).

-------, "...pas à pas - nulle part..." on Signs, Games and Messages, Kurt Widmer et al, (ECM 1730, 2003).

Mark Anthony Turnage, Your Rockaby, Martin Robertson (saxophone) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Colin Davis (Argo 452 598-2, 1996).


i For an overview of the musicality of Beckett's language and the role of music in his work, see Catherine Laws, "The Music of Beckett's Theatre", Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd'hui (Rodopi) XIII: Three Dialogues Revisited (2003), 121-136.
ii Samuel Beckett, Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (London: John Calder, 1965 [1931, 1949]), 103.
iii Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (London: John Calder, 1983), 7.
iv   Kim used this phrase during a talk given at the symposium "Beckett in the 1990s" in The Hague, April 1992. Kim's Beckett-based pieces include: Exercises on Route for soprano and chamber orchestra (1971); Earthlight (1973); Eh Joe (1974);Violin Concerto (1979); Footfalls, a one-act opera (1981); Now and Then (1981). Kim's works are published by Theodor Presser.
v Mark Anthony Turnage, Your Rockaby (London: Schott, 1993).
vi Morton Feldman, Neither (London: Universal Edition, 1977).
vii For an account of Feldman's meeting with Beckett see James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett(London: Bloomsbury, 1996), 631.
viii Samuel Beckett, "neither" in The Complete Short Prose 1929-1989 (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 258. The text was originally published by John Calder in the collection As the Story was Told: Uncollected and Late Prose (London: John Calder, 1990), 108-9; here the text is laid out slightly differently, and the word "neared" is missing from the third line, with the preceding word ("once") followed by a question mark. However, Feldman's version is as given in the Grove collection.
ix Morton Feldman, "Darmstadt-Lecture" in Morton Feldman,Essays, ed. Walter Zimmerman (Kerpen: Beginner Press, 1985), 185.
x For a more detailed consideration of Feldman's music for Beckett's text, see Catherine Laws, "Morton Feldman's Neither" in Mary Bryden (ed.) Samuel Beckett and Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 57-86.
xi Morton Feldman, Samuel Beckett, Words and Music (London: Universal Edition, 1987). It was Beckett who suggested Morton Feldman to producer Everett Frost as a possible composer for the American radio production of Words and Music. For more details of this project, see Everett Frost, "The Note Man on the Word Man: Morton Feldman on Composing the Music for Samuel Beckett's Words and Music in The Beckett Festival of Radio Plays" in Mary Bryden, op. cit., pp.47-55. Also see Everett C. Frost, "Fundamental Sounds: Recording Beckett's Radio Plays",Theatre Journal XLIII/3 (October 1991), 361-376.
xii Morton Feldman, "Crippled Symmetry" in Morton Feldman,Essays, op. cit., 124-137. Reprinted in B. H. Friedman (ed.),Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (Cambridge, Mass.: Exact Change, 2000), 134-149.
xiii Feldman said, "What's like me is the technical devices or the construction, just the way I would layer something. What's not like me is that I tried to meet Beckett half-way in the sentiment". Quoted in Everett Frost, "The Note Man on the Word Man: Morton Feldman on Composing the Music for Samuel Beckett's Words and Music in The Beckett Festival of Radio Plays", op. cit., 53. Feldman also comments on the unusual "beauty" of this music (ibid., 54-5). For further discussion of Feldman's music for the play, see Catherine Laws, "Music in Words and Music: Feldman's Response to Beckett's Play",Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd'hui (Rodopi) XI: Endlessness is the Year 2000 (2001), 279-290.
xiv György Kurtág, Samuel Beckett: What is the Word Op. 30a (Budapest: Editio Musico Budapest, 1990); Samuel Beckett: What is the Word Op. 30b (Budapest: Editio Musico Budapest, 1991).
xv György Kurtág, ...pas à pas - nulle part... (poèmes de Samuel Beckett) Op.36 (Budapest: Editio Musico Budapest, 1993-8).
xvi Samuel Beckett, "What is the word" in As the Story was Told: Uncollected and Late Prose (London: John Calder, 1990), 131-4.
xvii For an analysis of this work see Michael Kunkel, "'... folly for t[w]o ....' Samuel Beckett's What is the Word and György Kurtág's mi is a szó Op. 30.", trans. Alan E. Williams, Contemporary Music Review, XX/2-3, 2001, 109-128. For further discussion of Kurtág's relationship to Beckett, see Catherine Laws, "Beckett and Kurtag", Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd'hui(Rodopi), XV (2005), 241-256.