National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 26 of 30

Place and Time

By Lisel Mueller

History is your own heartbeat.
—Michael Harper

Last night a man on the radio,
a still young man, said the business district
of his hometown had been plowed under.
The town was in North Dakota.
Grass, where the red-and-gold
Woolworth sign used to be,
where the revolving doors
took him inside Sears;
gone the sweaty seats
of the Roxy—or was it the Princess—
of countless Friday nights
that whipped his heart to a gallop
when a girl touched him, as the gun
on the screen flashed in the moonlight.
Grass, that egalitarian green,
pulling its sheet over rubble,
over his barely cold childhood,
on which he walks as others walk
over a buried Mayan temple
or a Roman aqueduct beneath
a remote sheep pasture
in the British Isles. Yet his voice,
the modest voice on the radio,
was almost apologetic,
as if to say, what’s one small town,
even if it is one’s own,
in an age of mass destruction,
and never mind the streets and stones
of a grown man’s childhood—
as if to say, the lives we live
before the present moment
are graves we walk away from.

Except we don’t. We’re all
pillars of salt. My life began
with Beethoven and Schubert
on my mother’s grand piano,
the shiny Bechstein on which she played
the famous symphonies
in piano reductions. But they were no
reductions for me, the child
who now remembers nothing
earlier than that music,
a weather I was born into,
a jubilant light or dusky sadness
struck up by my mother’s hands.
Where does music come from
and where does it go when it’s over—
the child’s unanswered question
about more than music.

My mother is dead, and the piano
she could not take with her into exile
burned with our city in World War II.
That is the half-truth. The other half
is that it’s still her black Bechstein
each concert pianist plays for me
and that her self-taught fingers
are behind each virtuoso performance
on the stereo, giving me back
my prewar childhood city
intact and real. I don’t know
if the man from North Dakota has
some music that brings back
his town to him, but something does,
and whatever he remembers
is durable and instantly
retrievable and lit
by a sky or streetlight
which does not change. That must be why
he sounded casual about
the mindless wreckage, clumsy
as an empty threat.

Early years listening to my mother playing the piano as my father sang shaped me, and this poem lights up something about how that works, and why those memories stay. Leaving aside that my memories are more often show tunes than Schubert, for me as for the poet, music was “a weather I was born into.”

Mueller’s particular weather–born in 1924 in Hamburg, fleeing Germany at age 15–was entirely different than my benign early years in the 1960s in Chicago. But it comes to life as I read, just like the North Dakota of the poem, or the other places and times evoked, (the Princess Theater as a stand in for vanished palaces, a brilliant stroke). Memory as music, music as memory. “As” becoming “is” perhaps…

A mundane note: the poem refers to piano reductions. This means versions of symphonic works that were arranged for piano (solo or duet). The piano (which was at its absolutely peak in the 19th century) was the only means many people had to hear the orchestral works of Beethoven or Schubert or anybody else for that matter. A piano served as the “jukebox” of the era, and you had to learn to operate it (playing the keys) if you wanted to hear this music and didn’t live near (or couldn’t go) to a venue with live music.

Among others, Liszt (him again!) transcribed the Beethoven Symphonies. Here is his version of the famous Allegretto of the 7th; perhaps the very music that Mueller’s mother was playing.

No idea who the pianist is, but the comments suggest a conductor which seems right, as the style of playing reflects the ways the orchestral textures play out. (Although I guess it could be somebody who just listened to it a lot or studied the full score assiduously). Liszt, of course, cannot resist egging the cream by pushing Beethoven’s big moments just that little bit extra. Probably a good idea, as otherwise the scale is just off for a solo piano piece. Ideas are too repetitious and take too long to unfold without the color that the orchestra imbues them with. The opening of this movement is the essence of what low strings can do as they rumble on to the musical stage and set the scene. Piano, love it as I do, just can’t match those vibrating double basses.

To hear what I’m talking about: Riccardo Muti with the real thing in full orchestral garb, with the La Scala orchestra, not known as a particularly deluxe band, but acquitting themselves admirably:

If you want a treat listen to the whole symphony, and imagine you are sitting here:


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