Monday, 30 May 2011


Atsuko Seta plays Beethoven für Elise


It was those long melodic lines that held them together,
chords wound about the limbs of the expected.
When they were falling apart it was what protected
their fragile heads from turning into lather.

They wanted passions they recognized in their sleep
because their sleep had never been unbroken.
There were too many mornings they had woken
to ice, fire, exhaustion, filth; to the cheap

music others referred to, that they themselves held dear,
their clichés priceless and dark as their own lives:
Songs without Words, Für Elise, the long knives
of aspiration sharpening in the ear.

A draft, a note to self, remembering my parents and my own hours at the piano practising this.


Alfred Corn said...

Well-written poem: spoken, economical, formal without giving the impression of strain. It's the premise that needs discussion, esp. if we bring in your current Facebook comments about Coward's potent "cheap music." Surely NC was referring to American-influenced popular music, not the lighter pieces in the classical repertory. At a greater distance, and having seen the genre vanish, we're able to give the brilliant old "standards" composed by Gershwin, Berlin, Carmichael, Hammerstein, Coward, =et al.= as achieved and stirring works of art. It's an error to underrate them. To return to the classical realm, uncomplexity isn't always a fault. Horowitz said the Schumann =Kinderszenen= were the most difficult pieces to play, precisely because their apparent simplicity brutally exposed any failure of feeling or taste. And we may conclude, as Nerval did, that some folk tunes possess as much of beauty as we need. See this stanza from his "Fantaisie":

Il est un air pour qui je donnerais
Tout Rossini, tout Mozart et tout Weber,
Un air très vieux, languissant et funèbre,
Qui pour moi seul a des charmes secrets!

Songs like, say, "Greensleeves," "Danny Boy," "Oh Shenandoah," and "Steal Away," all of them having been adapted by trained composers.

George S said...

No, absolutely not, Alfred. I was thinking of transferring the term 'cheap music' into another realm, the realm of the middlebrow music that was undoubtedly to my parents' taste. Think of Disney's Fantasia.

I also have memories of a fellow music student of my brother's coming to visit when I was seventeen or so, looking at the music on the piano (Mendelsohnn's Songs without Words, as it doesn't just happen) and sneering about it, in much the way as Wagner of course was to sneered about Mendelsohnn and 'Jewish' music generally.

The underlying subject here is the distinction between aesthetics and life as lived by those whose tastes are deprecated by people who are more high-minded. At an even deeper level it is about the nature of difficulty within music and difficulty brought to the music by the listener.

I don't mean I intended to put all this into a poem that was written very quickly this morning. I mean that was the kind of feeling and question stirring around in me after hearing some music on the radio this morning. I immediately thought: That's just the kind of music my parents liked. And then: Yes, but it's not the kind of music serious people allow to be high art. But then, if the music was shallow (thats if it was) it wasn't because my parents' lives were shallow. And these relatively simple melodies and dramas meant a lot to them.

So I suppose the poem is a kind of argument with those who'd dismiss the music as second rate. And I fully agree with your view on Gershwin, Porter, Coward et al.

But to think of Porter and Coward etc is to return to the notion of cheapness, albeit in a different sphere. Or you could transfer this to Victorian drawing room songs. Or the Ketelbey, 'In a Monastery Garden' and such things.

How nice to meet you here again. I'll send you an email letter.