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Music Memories: Edgar Allan Poe in Music

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Music inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's poems and stories

In Monday’s “Week to Remember” post, we looked at the life and literary career of Edgar Allan Poe, and some of the books inspired by his work. Today, we took a look at Poe in music, and the many musicians who have been inspired by his poems and stories.

We start in the world of popular music, with a few full albums devoted to Poe. Trombonist and big-band leader Buddy Morrow came late enough in the big-band era that his music straddled the fields of jazz, pop, and R&B; his 1960 album Poe for Moderns is a collection of tunes inspired by several different Poe works. Similar Poe-pourris are offered by the psychedelic band The Glass Prism, on 1969’s Poe Through the Glass Prism, and by British art-rockers The Alan Parsons Project, whose 1976 Tales of Mystery and Imagination produced a pair of minor pop hits in “The Raven” and “(The System of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether.”

Several poems and stories have inspired multiple musical versions. “Annabel Lee,” in which the narrator mourns his long-dead love, has been sung by Frankie Laine, Stevie Nicks, and Joan Baez; the Baez version was covered by the Spanish rock band Radio Futura. The classic poem of midnight dread, “The Raven,” inspired songs by Queen (their version was called “Nevermore”) and by the Greek metal band Rotting Christ. The story of a murderer’s guilt, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” was turned to music by New Found Glory and by the Argentinian rock band Soda Stereo (as “Corazón Delator”). And though it might seem an awfully specific musical niche, two different Norwegian metal bands were moved to write musical versions of Poe’s lament of isolation, “Alone,” Arcturus and Circus Maximus (as “From Childhood’s Hour”).

3 albums related to Edgar Allen Poe

Folksinger Phil Ochs wrote music for the onomatopoetic “The Bells,” and Canadian metal band Annihilator produced a musical version of “Ligeia,” a story of love mysteriously reincarnated. The Smithereens adapted the doppelganger story “William Wilson,” and Thrice turned “The Masque of the Red Death” into the song “The Red Death.” On her album Gemme, French singer-songwriter Nolwenn Leroy gave us musical versions of two Poe poems, “A Dream” and “The Lake;” punk rockers Finch also offered a pair of Poe on Say Hello to Sunshine, turning the stories “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Berenice” into the songs “The Casket of Roderick Usher” and “Reduced to Teeth.”

There are a few songs inspired not by specific Poe works, but by the author himself. Canadian singer-songwriter Jean Leloup’s “Edgar” offers one possible version of Poe’s mysterious final days; the French singer Mylène Farmer’s album Ainsi Soit Je is a collection of songs inspired by her favorite literary figures, including the Poe homage “Allan.” And in the 1975 musical Snoopy!!!, the Peanuts kids are stressed out after being assigned a book report on “Edgar Allan Poe.”

Straddling the line between popular and classical is the 2000 opera/theatrical event POEtry, conceived and written by Robert Ashley and Lou Reed; Reed’s 2003 album The Raven gathers highlights from that event, in both song and spoken word, and features guest appearances by Laurie Anderson, Anohni, the Blind Boys of Alabama, David Bowie, Steve Buscemi, Ornette Coleman, and Willem Dafoe.

In the classical world, “The Masque of the Red Death” has inspired several composers. In the story, Prince Prospero and some of his noble friends gather in his castle, hoping to remain safe from the plague that has infected the city outside. It’s inspired André Caplet’s Conte fantastique (Fantastic tale) for harp and string quartet, and ballet suites by Edward Collins and David Baker. Christopher Rouse contemplated writing an operatic version before deciding that the story wasn’t long enough; instead, he wrote Prospero’s Rooms as an imaginary overture to the opera that never was.

Philip Glass did write a Poe opera. In The Fall of the House of Usher, the moral and spiritual decline of a family is mirrored in the gradual deterioration of their family home.

Sergei Rachmaninoff and Darius Milhaud took two different approaches to Poe’s poem The Bells, which depicts the ringing of several different bells, from the bright cheer of wedding bells to the somber gloom of funeral bells. Rachmaninoff sets the poems, in Russian translation, for a choral symphony; Milhaud goes for a purely musical depiction in his symphonic suite.

Stephen Rush uses singers and synthesizers to tell the classic murder mystery Murders in the Rue Morgue; Arcady Dubensky sets The Raven for narrator and orchestra; and Glenn Levesque offers a brief guitar trio inspired by “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Poe’s horrifying (though historically inaccurate) imagining of the tortures unleashed by the Spanish Inquisition.