MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

An Auden Birthday

Auden portrait

Today marks the 109th anniversary of Wystan Hugh’s birth. I managed to find a link to an early poem Auden wrote for his friend Christopher Isherwood’s birthday here [pdf, p. 7]:

TO A WRITER ON HIS BIRTHDAY

August for the people and their favourite islands.                                                                           Daily the steamers sidle up to meet                                                                                                           The effusive welcome of the pier…

And here’s an interview  Aidan Wasley (author of THE AGE OF AUDEN: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene) conducted with John Ashbery:

John Ashbery: I first met [Auden] when he gave a reading at Harvard, I think in the spring of ’47, perhaps … He said he preferred America, though he preferred the English countryside because it was much tidier looking… I was always a bit intimidated by him, as I think many people were.

 

 

 

Filed under: anniversary, Auden, poetry

Poem for the New Year

Filed under: poetry

Guten Rutsch!

For my non-German-speaking friends, here’s a quickie intro to this NYE idiom: “In English, the phrase would be ‘Happy New Year,’ but Guten Rutsch literally translates to ‘Good jump’ or ‘Good slide.'”

I suppose a leap of faith always is involved in trying to brush aside the bad memories of a year just passed and to greet the new one as a “blank slate.”

On the other hand, the nostalgic tendency to think about old friends, old times, is a quintessential part of the New Year’s experience. Here’s Matthew Iglesias on the connection between Robert Burns’s beloved “Auld Lang Syne” and NYE:

The speaker is asking whether old friends should be forgotten, as a way of stating that obviously one should not forget one’s old friends. The version of the song we sing today is based on a poem published by Robert Burns, which he attributed to “an old man’s singing,” noting that it was a traditional Scottish song

[…]

One reason a random Scottish folk song has come to be synonymous with the new year is that New Year’s celebrations (known as Hogmanay) loom unusually large in Scottish folk culture … Presbyterianism put down deeper roots in Scotland, leading Hogmanay to displace Christmas as the number one midwinter celebration.

[…]

An 18th-century Scottish ballad … became a midcentury American television ritual, and from there became a worldwide phenomenon — even though almost nobody understands the song.

 

 

Filed under: miscellaneous, poetry

Remembering Auden

W.H. Auden died on this day in 1973 in Vienna. And just in time to mark the great poet’s legacy: Edward Mendelson’s splendidly edited series of Auden’s complete prose writings has been completed with volumes V and VI.

“This is what scholarly publishing is meant to be,” writes the critic Michael Dirda. His review continues:

Over the years I’ve collected Auden’s books — both his own and the works he edited — and so I feel reasonably familiar with his writing. But there’s much here I’d never seen before. At the same time, these pages refresh our appreciation of, say, the poet’s introduction to Anne Fremantle’s “The Protestant Mystics” or to his own selection of Dryden’s verse by showing them as products of a busy professional life.

Moreover, Mendelson’s notes and appendices contribute illuminating, and sometimes amusing, extra-textual detail….

[E]verything [Auden] says about poetry is sharp and authoritative: “In judging a poem, one looks for two things: craftsmanship — it should be a well-made verbal object; and uniqueness of perspective — nobody but the author could have written it.”

Filed under: anniversary, Auden, poetry

Half Through the Year

half-veil

Today’s position in the annual calendar makes me think of Friedrich Hölderlin’s most-famous poem, Hälfte des Lebens. Here’s the original, followed by my inelegantly functional translation (in which I deliberately stick close to Hölderlin’s word order/syntax):

Hälfte des Lebens

Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und trunken von Küssen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heilignüchterne Wasser.

Weh mir, wo nehm’ ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Den Sonnenschein,
Und Schatten der Erde?
Die Mauern stehn
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.

Halfway Through Life

With its yellow pears
And laden with roses,
The shore hangs right into the lake,
O lovely swans,
And drunk with kisses
You dip your heads
Into the holy sobering water.

Alas, where shall I, come
Winter, [find] flowers, and where
The sunshine,
And shade of the earth?
The walls are standing
Speechless and cold, in the wind
The weathervanes rattle.

And Benjamin Britten’s setting:

Filed under: Hölderlin, poetry

Hughes, Shakespeare, and the Goddess

Goddess

There’s no shortage of “upstart crows” when it comes to Shakespeare studies: scholar-mavericks who challenge the self-appointed gatekeepers in academia. And it’s no surprise that (after discounting the obvious crackpots) many of these turn out to offer little more than half-baked theories that crumble under closer scrutiny.

But one of the most significant unconventional readings of Shakespeare of recent years belongs to a class of its own: the poet Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Is this a truly paradigm-shifting vision or an absurdly reductive idea that sacrifices too much to in pursuit of a “hedgehog” theory?

Ann Skea offers a sympathetic portrayal of the scope of Hughs’ great project:

In his long introduction, Ted outlined the religious and psychological conflict caused by the Calvinist Puritan suppression of Old Catholicism in which the goddess of earlier pagan beliefs still flourished. The religious aspect of this conflict was particularly relevant during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but the universal psychological aspect of the suppression of natural human energies, especially sexual and imaginative energies, is clear to see.

It was in Ted’s writing on Shakespeare that what he called “the tragic equation” was explicated: the love goddess, enraged by the puritanical suppression of sexual energies, becomes the ‘Queen of Hell’ – the demonised boar who destroys the hero.

[…]

Much of Ted’s discussion of Shakespeare’s ‘great theme’ can be traced back to [Robert] Graves’ arguments in “The White Goddess,” but the psychological aspect of Ted’s “tragic equation” shows just how much he was also influenced by the work of Carl Jung.

[…]

Ted was well aware that Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being was a difficult book: difficult to write and, for some readers, difficult to read… Ted’s own knot of obsessions meant he was uniquely qualified to recognise an underlying theme that others had never noticed…Most importantly, he was a poet bringing his poetic sensibilities to the work of another poet; and in the whole body of Shakespeare’s work he recognised a progressive exploration of many of his own beliefs, difficulties and questions.

Filed under: poetry, Shakespeare, theater

Lacrimae Rerum

veiled

Yet however much we may like
The stoic manner in which
The classical authors wrote,
Only the young and the rich
Have the nerve or the figure to strike
The lacrimae rerum note.

–from A Walk After Dark, W.H. Auden

Filed under: classical art, photography, poetry

Poem for the Day

That Nature Is a Herclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection

CLOUD-PUFFBALL, torn tufts, tossed pillows ‘ flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs ‘ they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, ‘ wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long ‘ lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ‘ ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare         5
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed ‘ dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks ‘ treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, ‘ nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest ‘ to her, her clearest-selvèd spark         10
Man, how fast his firedint, ‘ his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig ‘ nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, ‘ death blots black out; nor mark
                Is any of him at all so stark         15
But vastness blurs and time ‘ beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, ‘ joyless days, dejection.
                Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ‘ Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:         20
                In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                Is immortal diamond.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Filed under: poetry

Orpheus Ascending: Mohammed Fairouz’s New CD

follow-poet

Mohammed Fairouz’s Follow, Poet is among the most inspiring CDs I’ve encountered in quite a while. For one thing, it documents two recent works by a composer who brings to the new-music scene not just a fresh voice but a powerful intellect and — most significantly — an unclouded vision of art’s potential for our jaded age. A vision that is ambitious without being naive.

Fairouz, still just south of 30, has already channeled his imagination into an astonishing gamut of genres, from intimate chamber works to concertos and major-scale symphonies (four to date!), choral pieces, and opera and other theater works. And with Follow, Poet, he is the youngest composer in the history of Deutsche Grammophon to have an entire album devoted to his works.

Such ample gifts could easily run aground with compromised or even downright hackwork production just to fulfill the commissions that seem to be piling up from all sides. (Alas, not an uncommon phenomenon.) But start listening to the song cycle Audenesque, one of the gems featured on Follow, Poet, and you find yourself in the hands of an artist who crafts the musical equivalent of a page-turner: the first song sets the stage for W.H. Auden’s masterful elegy In Memory of W.B. Yeats with a gripping blend of musical images, a mix of restless churning and numb melancholy.

In place of mere accompaniment or wallpaper “illustration” of Auden’s own images, Fairouz builds a sound world that vividly engages with the elegy’s aesthetic agenda, which is organized into three stages as three separate but interlinked songs. First is the despairing indifference of the “real world” in response to the artist’s death, followed by a reflection on the actual difference poetry can make. The elegy culminates in the moving breakthrough of renewal in the third song, with its promise of “the healing fountain.”

Fairouz’s music beautifully amplifies the oracular-in-the-ordinary tone characteristic of Auden. An additional layer enriches the cycle by bridging Auden’s elegy with the present era as Fairouz appends a fourth song, his setting of the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s Audensque.

Auden paid homage to Yeats as the exemplary poet, and Heaney’s poem feelingly, and with humor, eulogizes fellow poet Joseph Brodsky (who died in 1996 — on the same date on which Yeats had died). The music forges still another link in this chain of connection, becoming the composer’s elegy for Heaney (the poet had befriended Fairouz near the end of his life).

In a short booklet essay, the conductor/musicologist Leon Botstein provides an eloquent appraisal of Fairouz’s musical pedigree and approach. You can hear the sensibility he shares with Samuel Barber (the unforced lyricism, with its elegiac undertow), Kurt Weill (the accessibility that nevertheless forces you to listen actively, without the crutch of easy sentiment), and Gustav Mahler (the narrative punch, along with the pointed details of Fairouz’s chamber orchestration); an arresting harmonic pattern at the climax of the Auden poem meanwhile casts its Philip Glass-like spell. Yet the perspective Fairouz brings to his influences is strongly individual, never sounding eclectic.

The other musical work is Sadat, a chamber ballet being released here ahead of its stage premiere (to be given in late May 2015 by the Mimesis Ensemble at Carnegie Hall). Cast in five brief but representative scenes, Sadat distills a portrait of the slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.

Like Audenesque, the wordless ballet score manifests the theatrical and narrative instincts that figure so prominently in Fairouz’s compositions. Whether the scene is of public mourning or an intimate encounter between the young army officer and his fiancée, a minimum of musical gestures is needed to establish the atmosphere.

Sadat‘s chamber orchestration centers around a characterful array of tuned and untuned percussion (including highly colorful writing for xylophone). Fairouz’s use of these instruments alludes more directly to the Middle Eastern sound world that contributes important elements to the Arab-American composer’s palette — he even calls for the sound of a shofar — though similar gestures are subtly present in his scoring of Audenesque as well.

The performances are sympathetic, alluring, dramatically crisp. Evan Rogister leads the Ensemble LPR, a group of 14 musicians associated with New York’s admired “alternative” performance venue, Le Poisson Rouge. With its warmth, variety of colors, and flexibility, Kate Lindsey’s mezzo is ideally suited to Fairouz’s vocal writing. His lines trace their own musical sense while remaining alert to the sounds and rhythmic life of the words.

Follow, Poet is also the inaugural release in an innovative series — Return to Language — that Elizabeth Sobol, the president of Universal Music Classics, has launched to explore the synergy between music and words.

To that end, the album includes separate tracks of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon reciting the poems set to music by Fairouz, along with a couple of brief excerpts from speeches by President John F. Kennedy extolling the power of poetry.

“I believe in cultivating a respect and love for depth of language and reflection and expression, even in the age of Twitter and YouTube, when some of that seems in danger of being eroded,” says Sobol. “And it has always been the interrelatedness of literature and music that has touched me most deeply in art — the exponential power of storytelling when you join words and music.”

It’s a highly laudable effort that deserves to have a widespread audience — and the choice of music by Mohammed Fairouz to kick it off shows that UMC is on the right track.

–(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: CD reviews, Mohammed Fairouz, new music, poetry, programming, review

“The Sun Kept Setting, Setting Still”

set

XXV
THE SUN kept setting, setting still;
No hue of afternoon
Upon the village I perceived,—
From house to house ’t was noon.

The dusk kept dropping, dropping still;
No dew upon the grass,
But only on my forehead stopped,
And wandered in my face.

My feet kept drowsing, drowsing still,
My fingers were awake;
Yet why so little sound myself
Unto my seeming make?

How well I knew the light before!
I could not see it now.
’T is dying, I am doing; but
I ’m not afraid to know

–Emily Dickinson

Filed under: photography, poetry

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