Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Musical Interlude

I've been listening to an amazing feature on CBC radio all day today; it's called "Nine in 9", and is featuring Beethoven's 9 Symphonies, one after another, with commentary provided before each one by Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conductor Bramwell Tovey. It's wonderful, and you can go to the CBC site to find it and listen to it yourself if you are a Beethoven fan; you can even download each and listen when you can. The VSO performs them all, and it's a great 9 hours of listening!!!
(**Update: you can download the Commentaries from the CBC site, and the 9th is available in concert. But it is quite easy to find performances of Beethoven's Symphonies if you wish to listen to one after you've heard the commentary.)

The discussion of the emotional elements of Beethoven's music put me in mind of a poem by one of my favourite poets, Wallace Stevens. Dorothy has just mentioned Stevens, spurring me to dig up my old collected works to read through again. Here's one which talks about emotion and music:

Peter Quince at the Clavier


Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna;

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.


In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.

Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.

She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.

A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned --
A cymbal crashed,
Amid roaring horns.


Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.

They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;

And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.

Anon, their lamps' uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.

And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.


Beauty is momentary in the mind --
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden's choral.

Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death's ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

Wallace Stevens


  1. Wow, the "Nine in 9" sounds amazing. Admittedly, I'm usually not an active listener of classical music, but I do enjoy it from time to time, especially if I can have some context to go with it! I'll have to check this out.

  2. On a quick skim I can see that I will like the Stevens poem, when I get there! So far I'm enjoying his work, even if I don't always fully understand it.

  3. A brilliant poem, but I am such a dunce. I agree with Dorothy W.
    In the past, I have found Wallace Stevens to be very nearly incomprehensible. Have you ever read his "The Emperor of Ice Cream"?
    It's not about ice cream AT ALL!
    NOR emperors!

  4. That poem is absolutely breathtaking.

  5. I love Wallace Stevens, though just like you, Dorothy & Cipriano, I don't always understand what in heck he's talking about. Have you read his "Anecdote of the Jar"? That one is just plain strange to me. And I must say I was disappointed by the lack of ice cream in the one you mentioned!

  6. My! The "Nine in 9" sounds just delightful! What a wonderful way to spend time...all the indoor gardening I'm doing right now would just hum along.

    This is one of my favorite Stevens poems. But I like so many of them. And yes, most are thoroughly enjoyable if very tough nuts to crack--not that I've cracked them :) But what's not to love about someone who writes about music making "a constant sacrament of praise" (small 's' small 'p').

  7. I'd forgotten how much I love Wallace Stevens--used to read his work in college. Thanks for reminding me :)

  8. I was listening to those symphonies too last week -- they are incredible. Probably not enough to make the CBC recant their decision to dismantle the Vancouver Orchestra though. What are they thinking?


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