MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

RIP Philip Roth (1933-2018)

Philip Roth has always been such a constant in my literary landscape.

From Charles McGrath’s NY Times obituary:

And yet, almost against his will sometimes, he was drawn again and again to writing about themes of Jewish identity, anti-Semitism and the Jewish experience in America. He returned often, especially in his later work, to the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, where he had grown up and which became in his writing a kind of vanished Eden: a place of middle-class pride, frugality, diligence and aspiration.

Jason Diamond in Rolling Stone:

“What the Marx Brothers and Mad magazine were to comedy or the Ramones were to rock music, Roth was for American literature. He was a sly smile and smartass remark aimed at the establishment, rather than a middle finger or brick through its window.”

Here’s Roth’s own list (from 2016) of “the fifteen works of fiction he considers most significant to his life”:

“Citizen Tom Paine” by Howard Fast, first read at age 14
“Finnley Wren” by Philip Wylie, first read at age 16
“Look Homeward Angel” by Thomas Wolfe, first read at age 17
“Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, first read at age 20
“The Adventures of Augie March” by Saul Bellow, first read at age 21
“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway, first read at age 23
“The Assistant” by Bernard Malamud, first read at age 24
“Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert, first read at age 25
“The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner, first read at age 25
“The Trial” by Franz Kafka, first read at age 27
“The Fall” by Albert Camus, first read at age 30
“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, first read at age 35
“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, first read at age 37
“Cheri” by Colette, first read at age 40
“Street of Crocodiles” by Bruno Schulz, first read at age 41

Filed under: American literature

Alice Goodman: New York Times Profile


Alice Goodman in Fulbourn, England. Credit Nadine Ijewere for “The New York Times”

My New York Times story on the poet and librettist Alice Goodman is now online:

When “Nixon in China” had its premiere at Houston Grand Opera on Oct. 22, 1987, there had never been anything quite like it. No previous American opera — perhaps no opera, ever — had so boldly dealt with recent political history…


Filed under: Alice Goodman, American literature, American opera, John Adams, librettists, New York Times, Peter Sellars, Uncategorized

Time for Tenn


Suddenly what seems like a flood of Tennessee Williams-related material has been vying for my attention. First is the long-delayed but always expected new John Lahr biography, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which I’ve been devouring and don’t want to end. (It won last year’s National Book Critics Circle Award.)

An undated early horror story, “”The Eye That Saw Death,” was recently unearthed from the Williams Archives at the University of Texas at Austin and published in the spring issue of The Strand Magazine.

In March came news that Francesca Williams, the playwright’s niece (daughter of little brother Dakin), discovered a forgotten treasure of memorabilia in her parents’ Missouri basement, with letters going back to the 1920s.

James Grissom’s Follies of God — another project long in the making, and attended by some controversy (it’s Tenn Williams, after all) — has finally been published. From the excerpt Longreads has published of Grissom’s new book:

Tenn believed that writers, all artists, had several homes. There was the biological place of birth; the home in which one grew up, bore witness, fell apart. There was also the place where the “epiphanies” began—a school, a church, perhaps a bed. Rockets were launched and an identity began to be set.

There was the physical location where a writer sat each day and scribbled and hunted and pecked and dreamed and drank and cursed his way into a story or a play or a novel. Most importantly, however, there was the emotional, invisible, self-invented place where work began—what Tenn called his “mental theater,” a cerebral proscenium stage upon which his characters walked and stumbled and remained locked forever in his memory, ready, he felt, to be called into action and help him again.

And for National Poetry Month, here’s a podcast from the Poetry Foundation including Tennessee Williams reading his own poetry.

Filed under: American literature, Tennessee Williams, theater

“Time’s Friction”


The last day of the year, the eve of a new start. Not a bad moment to recall a key passage from The Hamlet, the first novel of William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy: the passage in which Mink Snopes, having murdered the landowner Jack Houston, is searching by night for the corpse he had hidden. Writes Faulkner:

So he [Mink] held himself still for the space of a hundred, trying to orient himself by looking back up the slope… Then he went back … trying to recognize by its shape and position the tree where eh had left the axe, standing in the roar not of silence now but of time’s friction. He thought of starting from some point which he knew was below the tree he sought and searching each tree as he came to it, but the sound of time was too loud.

In his essay “Faulkner’s Augustinian Sense of Time,” Seemee Ali argues that the famously fluid temporality in Faulkner is closer to the interweaving of past, present, and future elucidated by St. Augustine than it is to “Bergsonian” metaphysics:

Beginning with “The Hamlet,” the elasticity of time in Faulkner’s corpus is not simply a matter of personal perception for his characters. Time’s manifold variety is an ontological fact that they are forced to confront. In the “Confessions” Augustine puzzles over this ontological condition….

Faulkner intuits the complexity that Augustine articulates … that the apprehension of history, the attentionto the present, and hope for the future are all the work of the mind. Calling the mind to attention, to expectation, and to remembrance is the ambitious task that Faulkner’s fiction sets for itself at the very moment Mink Snopes murders his enemy and discovers his consioucness stymied by “time’s friction.”

But what about the sounds time is making — the noise of time?

Filed under: aesthetics, American literature

Whitman’s Lilacs and Hindemith’s American Requiem

Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith

This week’s National Symphony program features Paul Hindemith’s beautiful When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love in a program conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. This was one of the favorite works of Robert Shaw, who commissioned Hindemith’s remarkable setting of Walt Whitman’s eulogy for Lincoln. Here’s the essay I wrote for the NSO program (which opens with Joshua Bell in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto — hence the lede):

A descendant of one of Mendelssohn’s cousins, Arnold Mendelssohn, turned out to be the first composition teacher of another precociously gifted musician, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), who was born in Hanau (near Goethe’s city of Frankfurt). Hindemith came of age during a period of violent, revolutionary change in the early 20th century – the years that gave birth to modernism in its many forms. In the 1920s, Hindemith caused one scandal after another with his stage works and was considered a rebellious upstart who flirted with the avant-garde.

Like Shostakovich vis-à-vis Stalin, Hindemith managed to incur the personal displeasure of Hitler. The latter’s unyielding loathing of Hindemith was set in stone after seeing a scene from the satirical 1929 opera Neues vom Tage (“News of the Day”) featuring a “nude” soprano (actually, in a flesh-colored stocking) as she sings in the bathtub. Though he wasn’t Jewish, Hindemith gained a place of honor among the “degenerates” singled out by leading Nazis, who regarded him as “spiritually non-Aryan” and banned his music. The situation was actually more convoluted, however, with some pro-Hindemith voices among the hierarchy.

Hindemith may have hoped to influence cultural policy by finding a way to remain in Germany – in hindsight, his failure to express vociferous dissent from within the Third Reich has been criticized – but the situation grew intolerable and Hindemith, together with his wife (who was partially Jewish), emigrated first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where he influenced a new generation during his 13-year tenure teaching at Yale. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d ranks as the most significant creative legacy of this American period – Hindemith and his wife became U.S. citizens in 1946, the year of its premiere, although they returned to Europe in 1953 – and was acclaimed “a work of genius” by the legendary critic Paul Hume, writing of a performance at the National Cathedral in 1960.

Portrait of Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins, dated 1887-88

Portrait of Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins, dated 1887-88

“It is probable,” the great conductor Robert Shaw once declared, “that no foreign-born composer has made such a direct and healthy contribution to American music as Paul Hindemith.” Shaw was in fact the prime mover behind When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, which he commissioned for what was then known as his Collegiate Chorale in the winter of 1945. Shaw led the world premiere in New York on May 14, 1946 (featuring a young George London as the male soloist), and he championed the work for the rest of his career; according to Michael Steinberg, Shaw treasured Hindemith’s dedication of the score to him “as perhaps the most significant honor of his professional life.”

The immediate occasion that prompted Lilacs was the sudden death in office of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April 1945 – 80 years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln had plunged the nation into a period of prolonged mourning and soul-searching, the artistic fruit of which was one of Walt Whitman’s (1819-1892) most extraordinary poems. Hindemith had actually begun to cultivate a fascination with Whitman’s poetry long before: as far back as 1919 he had composed three “hymns from Whitman” (for baritone and piano, in German), including a setting of “Sing on, there in the swamp” (the fifth vocal section in Lilacs).

In his book New World Symphonies, Jack Sullivan reports that “Shaw initially took this single song to Hindemith, who had reworked it in 1943, with the proposal that it be used as a memorial to Roosevelt. Hindemith’s admiration for both President and poet was so great, however, that he responded, ‘No, we should do the whole thing.’ A two-minute song became an hour-long New World Requiem, an American epic set to European forms, including a sinfonia, a chorale, marches with trios, double fugues, arias, choruses, motets, fanfares, and much else.”

To undertake “the whole thing” entailed setting a text of 208 lines comprising more than 2200 words, arranged by the poet in 20 sections. In one of his commentaries, Robert Shaw refers to the “technical virtuosity” of setting such a lengthy text meaningfully within a musical span lasting about an hour (without, that is, resorting to “dry recitative”). He contrasts the first 20 minutes of Bach’s B minor Mass, which sets just three words, with the roughly 900 words Hindemith sets in the first 20 minutes of his work: “And these are words not lightly tossed into the composition heap. They are Walt Whitman words, burdened with emotional ponderosity and ponderability.”

By 1865, Whitman had already gathered a collection of poems inspired by his experiences nursing the wounded and dying in Washington, D.C., which he titled Drum-Taps (an excerpt from which can be seen engraved at the Q St. entrance to the DuPont Circle Metro station). Within weeks of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday in 1865, Whitman had completed a new addition to this, When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d (a “dooryard” refers to a yard adjacent to the door of a house). That poem was published in the Sequel to Drum-Taps by the D.C.-based Gibson Brothers.

Whitman weaves a complex network of imagery together to fashion the deeply moving reflections of his Lincoln elegy. He mines the evocative power of three dominant symbols, which recur but with ever-changing connotations throughout the poem: lilacs, the “Western star” (i.e., Venus), and the “gray-brown” wood thrush. The specific occasion of Lincoln’s death (the President is never referred to by name) and the spectacle of “the silent sea of faces” grieving as the coffin passes give way to further meditations on the cycle of mourning and the artist’s task. Whitman builds to a larger vision of loss and life’s journey, drawing on images from nature and American civilization alike. The poem reaches a climax with its epiphany of the “death carol” and compassion for the war dead, ending with an affirmation of “retrievements out of the night” and the work of memory.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d moreover incorporates much musical imagery (above all, references to “song”). Not surprisingly, it has appealed to a remarkable variety of composers, including Roger Sessions, George Crumb, George Walker (whose Lilacs won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and whose recent composition will be featured later this season in an NSO premiere), and, most recently, Jennifer Higdon. For his setting, Hindemith translates Whitman’s poetic elegy into a kind of combined oratorio-requiem, with the subtitle A Requiem “For Those We Love.”

Matthew Brady's photograph of Whitman

Matthew Brady’s photograph of Whitman

Hindemith always maintained a deep and also practical respect for musical tradition, despite his earlier reputation as a shocker (which by this time, in any case, had long since been overwritten by his image as an éminence grise). His emphasis on pragmatism might be seen as one manifestation of a general cultural rejection of Romanticism – including the cult of art for art’s sake and the idealized notion that musical inspiration should not be sullied by the contingencies of everyday reality. And Hindemith was also hearkening back to a pre-Romantic ethic of music as a craft to be plied. He had an affinity for Baroque counterpoint and other technical tricks of the trade, all of which are in evidence in the score of Lilacs (including his profound admiration of J.S. Bach).

Implicit in his division into arias, duets, choruses, arioso, and the like are references to Bach’s Passions. Aficionados of the St. Matthew Passion will recognize echoes in his use of particular instrumental timbres, meters, and even emotional pacing. And another, later model is also evident: Brahms’s A German Requiem, with its male and female soloists and symphonic use of orchestra. The Kurt Weill expert Kim Kowalke has pointed out that Hindemith originally considered using An American Requiem as his subtitle, thus drawing attention to the parallels with Brahms in a way that “seems to mirror the composer’s ambivalence about his own national identity at this crucial point in his career.”

Yet a further layer is encoded by the phrase Hindemith did choose: A Requiem “For Those We Love.” Kowalke’s research led to the discovery that the instrumental hymn that occurs in section 8 (a quotation of an Episcopal hymn in which that phrase occurs) was known to the composer to be based on a Jewish liturgical melody, thus conferring what musicologist Richard Taruskin describes as “a specifically post-Holocaust resonance.” Together, writes Philip Coleman-Hull, the music and the poetry of Hindemith’s Requiem “intertwine in a reciprocal relationship, so that the ‘Americanness’ of Whitman’s poetry infuses Hindemith’s musical response, and the music, in turn, illuminates Whitman’s text.”

That illumination of the pre-existing text indeed involves a good number of European imports – including the massive double fugue (i.e., fugue based on two different themes) in which section 7 culminates. Robert Shaw, in conjunction with his mentor, Julius Herford, incisively parsed the 11 sections into which Hindemith divides his Lilacs into a larger architectural scheme of four movements as follows. The purely instrumental Prelude establishes the fundamental key of C-sharp minor – first in the bass, against which the pregnant motif A-C-F-E is heard (each of whose notes defines key tonality governing the larger structures to follow). The first movement extends through section 3, ending with the choral march and a canon between solo baritone and orchestra.

Sections 4-7 comprise the second movement in Shaw’s analysis, in which Whitman’s poem depicts “the stage of receiving knowledge, the first understanding.” Hindemith’s tonal scheme shifts to A minor and culminates in the E minor/major double fugue. There is a darkening in the C minor beginning the third movement (sections 8-9) as the poet “moves from the state of receiving knowledge, with its shock and its ecstasy of tribute, to the state of possessing knowledge.” Following the duet between mezzo, who is closely associated with the bird’s voice, and the baritone, the Death Carol (in F minor) ends with a passacaglia at “Approach, strong deliveress.”

There follows “the panorama of death” in the fourth movement (sections 10-11), with the baritone evoking a terrifying vision of war. Hindemith’s counterpoint channels something of the restless, sardonic energy of a march Weimar era-style, while an off-stage bugle quotes Taps. The baritone also initiates the finale of Lilacs (section 11), where Whitman and Hindemith join hands to stage a sense of reconciliation, gathering together the poem’s principal symbols in the final chorus. In his one emendation to the poem, Hindemith has the soloists intone the opening line once again in a subdued monotone. The reiteration of the fundamental C-sharp minor underscores the convergence of journey and cycle.

The quietness of the ending makes perfect emotional sense for Shaw, who sums up Hindemith’s Lilacs as “a hymn for those he loved. It has nothing to do with proclamations of national mourning, the public beating of breasts, but with quiet private grief and a lonely broken heart.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American literature, poetry, program notes, requiem

New Uses for the Old Story: NBA Poetry Winner Mary Szybist


Congratulations to Mary Szybist, who was chosen last week as winner of the National Book Award for Poetry for Incarnadine, her second book of poetry, cited by the NBA jury as a collection that “probes the nuances of love, loss, and the struggle for religious faith in a world that seems to argue against it” and “a religious book for nonbelievers, or a book of necessary doubts for the faithful.”

Shara Lessley interviewed Szybist for the National Book Foundation, asking her about her imaginative reconsideration of the Annunciation motif and her ability “to locate the Virgin Mother in so many unlikely places.” Szybist responded:

The poem that most haunted me while writing the book is W. B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.” By emphasizing the terror of the event, the brutal indifference and power of the god, he suggested something about the character of the era that unfolded from it. It is with a nod to Yeats’s strange vision of history and his idea that every two thousand years the world’s temperament changes as the result of an encounter between human and divine that I am reflecting on the kinds of encounters happening around us. What counts as the sacred now? What kinds of encounters are we witnessing? And what are those encounters engendering? By offering a multitude of Annunciation possibilities, I wish to unsettle and, to some extent, take leave of the old story, even as I try to find new uses for it.

In an essay on Incarnadine and the work of the poet Charles Wright, Lisa Russ Spaar writes:

Smart, unflinching, beautiful, the poems in Incarnadine embrace the paradoxes of love: love of being beheld, of being beholden, of being “done unto,” and of what it means to care for what we make of what we are given, or not given, of what it means to “see annunciations everywhere,” in disasters, tragedies, moments of grace and miracle….

In “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary,” Szybist writes, “It’s not enough to say the heart wants what it wants.” Maybe not. But readers can be grateful to Wright and Szybist (two “solitaries…calling”) for believing that the world, with its hard news, its complicated incarnations, is nonetheless “made of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals.” Among that “more” is the work of these two important and soul-nourishing poets.

You can find a recent podcast about Szybist’s “On Wanting to Tell [] about a Girl Eating Fish Eyes” here.

Filed under: American literature, poetry

Melville Rejected

MS submission cover letter by Herman Melville: 9 May 1854

Cover letter for a short story submission by Herman Melville (dated 9 May 1854)

Herman Melville was 34, with Moby-Dick several years behind him, when he submitted the manuscript for his short story “The Two Temples” along with the cover letter pictured above to the publisher G.P. Putnam. His first novel, Typee, became a best-seller when it appeared in 1846, but the increasing ambition and complexity of Melville’s subsequent writings resulted in a decrescendo in sales and public interest – particularly starting with his third novel, the richly symbolic fantasy Mardi (1849).

Harper & Brothers, Melville’s publisher, rejected his (subsequently lost/destroyed) novel Isle of the Cross in the wake of Moby-Dick and the truly far-out Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, which had bombed commercially and critically.

That’s the context around his submission of “The Two Temples” to the monthly periodical Putnam’s, which began publication in January 1853. In fact founder George Palmer Putnam circulated a letter to prominent American authors, including Melville, announcing his plans to create a platform for American writers and pundits. So in May 1854, Melville submitted his manuscript for “The Two Temples.” Structured as a diptych, this story recounts the narrator’s cold rejection by a “beadle-faced man” when he attempts to enter a church; contrasting with this “excommunication” in his homeland, he takes comfort in the temple of the theater when he later finds himself a stranger in London.

Melville’s cover letter for the submission is currently being offered for $35,000. It reads:

Pittsfield May 9th [1854]

Dear Sir –

Herewith you have a M.S.

As it is short, and in time for your June number, therefore – in case it suits you to publish – you may as well send me your check for it at once, at the rate of $5 per printed page.

– If it don’t suit, I must beg you to trouble yourself so far, as to dispatch it back to me, thro my brother, Allan Melville, No. 14 Wall Street.


H. Melville

G.P. Putnam, Esq.

Booktryst contributor Stephen J. Gertz explains that Melville’s protagonist “reaches the conclusion that this theater is a true church, the other not at all.” He quotes the letter Putnam editor Charles F. Briggs sent to Melville to clarify why the magazine decided to reject this submission by such a recognized writer:

“I am very loth [sic] to reject the “Two Temples” as the article contains some exquisitely fine description, and some pungent satire, but my editorial experience compels me to be very cautious in offending the religious sensibilities of the public, and the moral of the “Two Temples” would array against us the whole power of the pulpit, to say nothing of Brown, and the congregation of Grace Church.”

Gertz believes that this very personal rejection letter was intended to minimize fallout, since Putnam’s “wanted to retain [Melville] as a contributor. Briggs is suggesting that to assuage Melville’s feelings they should buy another, more appropriate, piece from him.” As it happened, “The Two Temples” ended up with the writer’s private papers and was never published in his lifetime. Gertz further describes why this letter was important:

“Two Temples” represented the metaphysical path that Melville had begun to travel with Moby-Dick and had further bestrode, deepening his spirituality. His earlier works had been popular; $5 a page was top wage for a short story; he was still in demand. (And Melville desperately needed the money.) Beginning, however, with Moby-Dick, religious themes began to rapidly creep into his work. His readership began to slowly creep out, and from then on publishers became increasingly wary to publish Melville. “Two Temples,” so overtly theological and spiritually rebellious, was, if not the beginning of the end, a definite so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen to [the popular style of writing represented by the early] Omoo, amen.

Hat tip: Ted Goia (Twitter: @tedgoia)

Filed under: American literature, book news, literature, Melville, publishers

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