Where poetry begins

When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer, not a musician. The problem was that I had nothing much to write about, so I went into music instead.

Aside from a few awful adolescent attempts, I’ve never written poetry, but I’m a passionate reader of other people’s. When I’m sitting down at my computer to attempt an article, usually wondering what on earth I’m going to say, I find myself thinking of Sir Philip Sidney’s Sonnet No. 34 from Astrophel and Stella:

Come, let me write. And to what end? To ease
A burthened heart. How can words ease, which are
The glasses of thy daily vexing care?

Poetry provokes ideas in me when I’m learning music, too. It’s hard, in the practice room, to inspire oneself with the energy of the concert hall–the quickness of response, the flash of fire in the blood, the feeling that time has slowed down and every tiny movement is crucially important. That’s where the powerfully suggestive magic of poetry comes in.

Among the stacks of scores in my binder of music to learn for the coming year are Bloch’s Cello Suites Nos. 1, 2, and 3. Some days ago I was having trouble finding the right mood for the third movement of the third; the compound time signature and terraced dynamics seemed to suggest a sort of neo-Baroque gigue, but my attempts at jaunty phrasing didn’t work. Frustrated, I took myself for a walk around the garden. Out of nowhere I thought of some lines from Dylan Thomas:

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

I had a sudden vision of the dying Bloch, exiled to the wild Oregon coast, his frail body ravaged with cancer. Was he resigned, or furious with his fate? I rushed back to the cello and played the forte sections with as much “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” as I could manage. The contrasting piano sections I thought of as going “gentle into that good night,” only to be interrupted savagely by the “rage.” (I even scrawled “Rage, rage!” above the staff.) Would this flight of wild imagining stand up in a court of law, much less a court of musicology? Probably not, but it made me play better.

On another occasion, I found myself making pretty heavy weather of the last few bars of the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata. It’s hard to find something new to say about a piece that some feel has degenerated, through generations of sentimental performances, into hackneyed schmaltz. A work of Rachmaninoff’s late twenties, he wrote it after recovering from a serious depressive episode during which he felt that he couldn’t compose. The third movement should be a thing of beauty and nobility–a sort of Russian Heiliger Dankgesang, not a piece of light music to accompany distracted tea-parties.

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It wasn’t until I read Milton’s Lycidas that I really figured out what I wanted to say in Rachmaninoff. A line,

Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth

seemed to jump out of the book at me, as such lines usually do. (“Ruth,” a word that doesn’t exist in modern English, originally meant the opposite of “ruthless.”) These days, whenever I play the end of this movement, I try to make my sound “melt.” Sometimes I even sing the last four notes in my head: “…now, melt…with ru-u-u-u-uth.”

I’m pretty sure Beethoven would look askance at the lines from The Waste Land that I wrote above the last line of his Piano Trio op. 1 no. 1 (“I sat upon the shore/Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”), but they help me to convey the way the cello line simply trails off, after a long and turbulent movement, into silence. And what an intriguingly ambiguous way to do it, with the violin on the dominant and the cello on the mediant of the chord, rather than on the tonic, which conveys more of a sense of finality. Who on earth would end a piece like this in the polite aristocratic drawing rooms of 1795? What, Herr Beethoven, no perfect authentic cadence? No crash to let us know it’s finished? (You might even say it ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.)

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