Studying the boundaries between literature and music

Axel Englund intends to scrutinize the works of three modernist writers in order to explore the boundaries between literature and music. He is driven by the pleasure of being able to familiarize himself with works that mean a great deal to him personally. His aim is to increase our understanding of ourselves, and the world around us.

Axel Englund

Associate Professor in literature

Wallenberg Academy Fellow 2013

Stockholm University

Research field:
The role of music in modernistic lyricism

“I grew up believing that art makes a difference, that it is an important part of the world. For me, art plays a key role in how we understand ourselves and the world around us,” Axel explains.

After upper secondary school, Axel studied composition at the Malmö Academy of Music, and in Leipzig, Germany. Having completed these programs it was obvious to him that all music he wrote was in some way related to literature: the vocal music he composed was based on texts he had read, and when he composed instrumental pieces, he derived inspiration from literary sources.

“When I moved from the artistic world to the academic one, my interests changed places. My main focus shifted to literature, although I remained in touch with music.”

With one degree in music and one in literature, Axel began to consider doing a PhD. For him, the boundaries between his two specialist fields seemed a natural choice of subject for his doctorate. But the question was exactly what should he study? The answer came one day when he was idly leafing through an anthology and found a poem called “Death Fugue” by the Romanian Holocaust survivor and modernist poet Paul Celan.

“It was an incredibly powerful experience. Reading it was like being kicked in the stomach. I felt straight away that I needed to read more. I wanted to get to know the author better, and learn more about this way of writing.”

“Death Fugue” is about the trauma of the Holocaust, and is typical of the late modernist era. This cultural movement arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe. Modernist literature was more experimental, verse was freer and narrative structure more advanced. Another characteristic feature of modernism is an increasing interplay between different artistic forms.

When Axel then delved deeper, he realized there was a gap in the research into Celan’s relationship to music, and music’s relationship to Celan. This was to be the subject of Axel’s PhD.


Axel is passionate about whatever he decides to do. In his research, he always chooses material that affects him emotionally and intellectually, and once he has come to a decision, he pushes every subject to the limit. When he has finished a project, he also often feels a need to start anew.

“Since my doctoral thesis I have devoted some time to a project about opera – nothing to do with Paul Celan at all. That project concerns sexualized power, fetishist aesthetics and sadomasochism in contemporary opera productions.”

Studying three writers in close-up

As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, Axel will continue to examine the role played by music in modernistic poetry. The three writers he has chosen to study are Stéphane Mallarmé, Rainer Maria Rilke and T. S. Eliot.

“I feel it is a great privilege to be part of this program. It gives me enormous scope to explore my intellectual impulses, and to write about exactly the things in which I most believe. Bolstered by this grant, I will also find it easier to establish contact with key members of the research community.”

“To each poet and each poem the following questions may be put: How does this poem portray the concept of music? In what way does this poem understand music? And to what extent does the poem use music as a model to understand what the poem itself should do?”

There is a stereotype of language as something that communicates meaning. That stereotype has a counterpart in the perception of music as something abstract and emotional that does not mean anything.

“At certain points in cultural history – and the breakthrough of modernism is one such point – these two art forms began to interact and influence one another. More meaning began to be imparted to music, while language was drained of meaning and reduced to sounds.”

“Close reading”

In his studies, Axel will be using “close reading”, which means that individual works are read thoroughly and near-sightedly to examine the relationships of the words to each other, and how the sounds and meanings of the language are composed and fit together. He will also be looking at the works in a broader perspective to understand them in their cultural and historical context.

Axel believes that the present day has much in common with the era he is studying, which means that its literature and music can still give us new perspectives on ourselves and the world.

“During the period around the turn of the twentieth century people were very worried about the future. They felt that changes were occurring at breakneck speed, and that things would be destroyed and lost. Since then the process has accelerated enormously, and in many ways, we are still living in a modernistic age. One might say that these writers wrote from the roots of what we are currently experiencing.”

Text Anders Esselin
Translation Maxwell Arding
Photo Magnus Bergström