Should a Composer Know How to Scan?

I have just heard John Adams’s piece “Harmonium” at the St. Louis Symphony. It is a lovely piece, and the Symphony and Chorus did a wonderful job with it. It sets three poems, Donne’s “Negative Love,” and Dickinson’s “Because I Would Not Stop for Death” and “Wild Nights.” It was a pleasure to hear “Because I Could Not Stop” sung to a tune that had nothing in common with “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” But the setting of the Donne bothered me.

That was not because the music didn’t capture the tone, spirit, or meaning of the poem. I thought this setting was an interesting interpretation of a knotty piece. What bothered me was that Adams didn’t get the meter right.

Here is the first stanza:

I never stoop’d so low, as they
Which on an eye, cheek, lip, can prey ;
    Seldom to them which soar no higher
    Than virtue, or the mind to admire.
For sense and understanding may
    Know what gives fuel to their fire ;
My love, though silly, is more brave ;
For may I miss, whene’er I crave,
If I know yet what I would have.

The poem is clearly in iambic tetrameter: eight syllables per line, every second one stressed (with expressive variations). To read the poem so that it makes metrical sense, there are two points were the reader cannot read it as a modern reader of prose would.

The first is in line four. For the meter to work, “to admire” must be pronounced as two syllables “t’ad-mire,” not three (“to ad-mire”) much less four (to ad-mi-re.) Adams sets it as three.

The second is two lines later. For the meter to work, “fuel” must be pronounced as one syllable, not two (“fyewl,” not “few-el”). Adams sets it as two.

Does this matter? Not much. But saddens me just a bit to see the composer ignoring the poet’s music and not hearing the poem’s rhythm.