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

This month’s poetry journey ends with Britten and Auden and a piece (like several others this month) that “claimed” me years ago. I first heard Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia” to W. H. Auden’s text  in the late 80s, sung by a good amateur choir in DC. Britten’s sensitivity to words, capturing meaning and setting it in a way that deepens it and refracts it, is much discussed. But what caught me that night was that this piece of music also–for me at least–explained what the psychology of listening to music was like, and offered a philosophy of music, something I more or less thought impossible. A rara avis: words and music melded together into something truly new.

The poem has many turns of genius among its multiple “odes,” which is how the parts are organized, but it’s part II, the little fugue-like section that chases along, “I cannot grow/I have no shadow/to run away from” that I love best. To know that there is something other than striving, than growth through suffering, than Puritanism of any flavor, in fact, is to know a little what music is for.  “Dancing because you no longer need it for any deed.”

I also love “Wear your tribulation like a rose, like a rose, like a rose…”

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Auden (left) and Britten.

Thanks for spending this poetic April with me. Back to regular programming tomorrow of misc., mostly lit’ry bits and pieces, leavened with the occasional outcropping of nerdiness.

Hymn to St. Cecilia

Music by Benjamin Britten
Words by W. H. Auden

In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.

Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea;
At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing
Came out of their trance into time again,
And around the wicked in Hell’s abysses
The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.

I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.

I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
By suffering.

All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.

I shall never be
Different. Love me.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,
O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,
Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all
The gaucheness of her adolescent state,
Where Hope within the altogether strange
From every outworn image is released,
And Dread born whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of truths that never change:
Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange.

O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

O cry created as the bow of sin
Is drawn across our trembling violin.

O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain.

O law drummed out by hearts against the still
Long winter of our intellectual will.

That what has been may never be again.

O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath
Of convalescents on the shores of death.

O bless the freedom that you never chose.

O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.

O wear your tribulation like a rose.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 29 of 30

This is not, strictly, a poem about music and Hardy did write many fine ones. But this is the Hardy poem that first started me on his poetry, and has stayed with me: one that opened up a sensibility so in sync with my own that it left me a little shaken.

That it opens with family music around the piano, something I grew up with and still do, closed the deal. (See also “The Dead” by James Joyce)

They sing their dearest songs—
       He, she, all of them—yea,
       Treble and tenor and bass,
            And one to play;
      With the candles mooning each face. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!


       They clear the creeping moss—
       Elders and juniors—aye,
       Making the pathways neat
            And the garden gay;
       And they build a shady seat. . . .
            Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.


       They are blithely breakfasting all—
       Men and maidens—yea,
       Under the summer tree,
            With a glimpse of the bay,
       While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.


       They change to a high new house,
       He, she, all of them—aye,
       Clocks and carpets and chairs
          On the lawn all day,
       And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
          Ah, no; the years, the years
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.


National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 28 of 30

By Rita Doveholiday

for Michael S. Harper

Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.

(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)

Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.

If you can’t be free, be a mystery.


I’ve only had two “Billie Holiday” poems in this month of poetry (now down to its last few days). You could have a month of Billie Holiday poems with little difficulty, although a month of her singing might even be better:


National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 27 of 30

Krishna and his flute
From Fruit-Gathering
by Rabindranath Tagore

Listen, my heart,
in his flute is the music of the smell of wild flowers,
of the glistening leaves and gleaming water,
of shadows resonant with bee’s wings.

The flute steals his smile from my friend’s lips
and spreads it over my life.

Tagore, a Bengali author, Nobel Prize winner and friend of Yeats, is due for a revival of interest. Sometimes pigeonholed as a somewhat dated spiritual literary voice, his career was productive (not just poems, but plays, novels, stories, and non-fiction) and inspired works in many forms. To keep just to lieder, here’s a long list of composers who have set his texts (Karol Szymanowski, the cosmic Polish Romantic composer among them. He is near contemporary of Tagore, and is now undergoing something of a revival as well. They are perhaps kin aesthetically, and a century on we have a better sense of what to make of artists who worked in the afterglow of romanticism rather than high modernism.)

The flute Tagore refers to here might well be the Bansuri, a bamboo flute, used in Indian folk and classical music (like Orpheus’ lyre, myths relate its ability to enchant all who heard it). A modern enchanter is Hariprasad Chaurasia, with a tip of the hat to AA for introducing me to both the flute and this artist.

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:


National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 25 of 30

The routine of lessons and practicing would not, at first glance, seem to offer much for a poet (or a screen writer, or painter for that matter), but, in fact, its little drawer of poems isn’t empty. To wit, a few samples:

Piano Lessons
By Billy Collins

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One of many books of technical piano studies that evoke boredom unto dread.

My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back
off to the side of the piano.
I sit up straight on the stool.
He begins by telling me that every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture.
I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.

He tells me that every scale has a shape
and I have to learn how to hold
each one in my hands.
At home I practice with my eyes closed.
C is an open book.
D is a vase with two handles.
G flat is a black boot.
E has the legs of a bird.

He says the scale is the mother of the chords.
I can see her pacing the bedroom floor
waiting for her children to come home.
They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting
all the songs while couples dance slowly
or stare at one another across tables.
This is the way it must be. After all,
just the right chord can bring you to tears
but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.

I am doing my scales,
the familiar anthems of childhood.
My fingers climb the ladder of notes
and come back down without turning around.
Anyone walking under this open window
would picture a girl of about ten
sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,
not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,
like a white Horace Silver.

I am learning to play
“It Might As Well Be Spring”
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him in to the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.

Even when I am not playing, I think about the piano.
It is the largest, heaviest,
and most beautiful object in this house.
I pause in the doorway just to take it all in.
And late at night I picture it downstairs,
this hallucination standing on three legs,
this curious beast with its enormous moonlit smile.


Death of a Pianist

Adam Zagajewski

While others waged war
or sued for peace, or lay
in narrow beds in hospitals
or camps, for days on end

he practiced Beethoven’s sonatas,
and slim fingers, like a master’s,
touched great treasures
that weren’t his.


and on the lighter side:

Piano Tuner, Untune me That Tune

by Ogden Nash

I regret that before people can be reformed they have to be sinners,
And that before you have pianists in the family you have to have
When it comes to beginners’ music
I am not enthusic.
When listening to something called “An Evening in My Doll House,” or “Buzz,
Buzz, Said the Bee to the Clover,”
Why I’d like just once to hear it played all the way through, instead of that
hard part near the end over and over.
Have you noticed about little fingers?
When they hit a sour note, they lingers.
And another thing about little fingers, they are always strawberry-jammed or cranberry-jellied-y,
And “Chopsticks” is their favorite melody,
And if there is one man who I hope his dentist was a sadist and all his teeth
were brittle ones,
It is he who invented “Chopsticks” for the little ones.
My good wishes are less than frugal
For him who started the little ones going boggie-woogal,
But for him who started the little ones picking out “Chopsticks” on the ivories,
Well I wish him a thousand harems of a thousand wives apiece, and a
thousand little ones by each wife, and each little one playing “Chopsticks” twenty-four hours a day in all the nurseries of all his harems, or wiveries.

National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 24 of 30

Heine and Lieder
German classical song (known as lieder) contains a lot of musical glories to poems that might be charitably termed duds. Schubert wrote hundreds of songs, and his other 19th century peers, Schumann, Wolf, Brahms, were no slouches either.

If you are lover of the repertory, as I am, you do have to get past the “rather soggy poetry” as musical comedienne Anna Russell put it, to appreciate the work. (Although there are lot of songs from any style and era that have less that stellar lyrics on their own.) A few fine poets do show up, and one is Heinrich Heine.

Like many poets, he mined myth, folklore and legends for themes, and here is his setting of the legend of the beautiful maiden who lures sailors to their doom. (A story at least as old as The Odyssey.)

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Albert Pinkham Ryder’s painting of the fatal spot on the Rhine.

The Lorelei

What is it that fills me with sadness
And weighs down my spirits like lead?
An old story that drives me to madness
For I can’t get it out of my head.

Through the gorge, a deep river is flowing;
The air cools, soon day will be done;
Westwards, the cliff-tops are glowing
In the rays of the setting sun.

And then, if you lift your eyes higher.
You can pick out a figure up there:
Her jewels are shining like fire,
And she’s combing her long golden hair.

Her combing is slow and erotic,
And so is the flow of her song:
The melody’s strangely hypnotic,
And her voice is compellingly strong.

The man at the helm gives a shiver
As fear strikes his heart like a stone.
He’s now blind to the rocks in the river;
She transfixes his eyes with her own.

That then is the story’s sad ending.
And the helmsman’s as well, I’d surmise;
And if anyone’s case needs defending
It is the Lorelei’s.

Wikipedia has info (of course) on the legend and the location where this particular siren enthralled her prey. Among the many who have set this text, I’m particularly fond of Liszt’s version, particularly as beautifully sung by Diana Damrau which dramatizes the story. (We seem to be on a run of Liszt these days here. Revenge on me for considering him a mere showman when I was a callow youth.)

National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 23 of 30

Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther

By A. E. Stallings

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
The booze and the neon and Saturday night,
The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?
Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons
And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite?
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
The booze and the neon and Saturday night?


A few notes: a triolet is a form of 8 lines with only 2 rhymes.

Of that “Devil has the best tunes” quote…I’ve found it hard to run down, and hadn’t heard it associated with Martin Luther, but rather with an English cleric defending the right to use popular tunes in religious contexts (a practice that goes back centuries). Predictably, Terry Prachett has a fun twist on it: “It is said that the Devil has all the best tunes. This is broadly true. But Heaven has the best choreographers.” There’s quite the work exchange between both parties when it comes to the arts.

In any case, the tunes+devil thing is a cue for Liszt, considered demonic in his own time (as was Paganini, and in fact anybody whose level of musical virtuosity seems unexplainable.) Here is the Mephisto Waltz No. 1, played by the Baden-Baden Radio Symphony Orchestra with an exciting lack of restraint (plangent open strings, big crescendos, barely controlled frenzy.) This was written to accompany a stage version of Faust, and also exists in a ferocious piano solo version.

National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 22 of 30

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A Duet
By Kevin McFadden

Art was long.
Paul was short.
Art sang the song.
Paul was the sort

who made one up
as if from air.
Paul had more gift.
Art had more hair—

which isn’t to take
away from Arts.
Many sing well
if someone starts,

and it robs no Simon
to get paid like Paul.
Along was Art’s way
to be singing at all.

If Paul robbed some,
it’s harder revealing.
What stuck in his mind,
he stuck to concealing

so koo-koo-ka-choo
would stick in our heads.
It wasn’t Garfunkel,
someone said Simon said

when they parted acts.
Debts one forgets.
Acoustic is fraught
with strings over frets,

taken together,
taken apart.
Paul lifting from life.
Life lifting from Art.


Found via the Poetry Foundation’s nifty app. As I searched it for music poems, I was reminded that a few years back at WGBH, we made a Poetry Everywhere app, still available and still free, as well as a web site with videos for the general public and resources for students and teachers. (It is like me not to remember this until day 22 of my poetry month!)

National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 21 of 30

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Poet and Critic Stephen Spender

“Late Beethoven,” referring to the composer’s spiritual, unbounded and occasionally cryptic works of his last years, has become a phrase that serves as a metaphor for certain achievement in music or culture–the pushing of aesthetic ideas past any previous horizon.  In B’s case, this applies most directly to the late string quartets, and the last three piano sonatas, which press against press against the limits of form, harmonic conventions,  rhythmic ideas and much else. To me, they sort of bust what music is for, and still seem to be doing it. Not much in life really qualifies for the phrase sui generis, but this music does.

I heard Stephen Spender read this poem on late Beethoven when I was in college, and he prefaced it by saying that Stravinsky had resisted late Beethoven for much of his life until then. (A claim I can’t verify.) Spender was himself an old man when he gave the reading, and clearly the idea of a “late style” engaged him.

Late Stravinsky Listening to Late Beethoven

To Robert Craft

“At the end, he listened only to
Beethoven’s Posthumous Quartets.
Some we played so often
You could only hear the needle in the groove.”

(She said, and smiled through her locked tears,
Lightly touching her cheek.)

Yes, lying on your bed under the ceiling,
Weightless as a feather, you became
Free of every self but the transparent
Intelligence through which the music showed
Its furious machine. Delectable to you
Beethoven’s harsh growlings, hammerings,
Crashings on plucked strings, his mockery at
The noises in his head, imprisoning him
In shouting deafness.
What was sound outside
His socketed skull, he only knew
Through seeing things make sounds. For example,
Walking through fields one clear March day
He saw a shepherd playing on his pipe
And knew there was the tune because he saw it
Jigging white against the green
Hillside. Then, stumping down into the valley,
Saw colliding blocks of thawing floes,
Clash cymbals unheard between banks,
Saw too the wind high up pluck the dumb strings
Of willow harps.
Music became
The eye-hole of his skull through which he looked
Beyond the barred and shutting discords on
A landscape all of sound. It drew above
A bass of mountain crags, a bird, a violin,
In a vast sky, its flight the line
A diamond cuts on glass, parabola
Held in the hearing eye. Flew on flew on
Until the curving line at last dissolved
Into that space where the perceiver
Becomes one with the object of perception,
The hearer is reborn in what he hears,
The seer in the vision: Beethoven
Released from deafness into music,
Stravinsky from the prison of his dying.

The Yale Quartet playing the slow movement of the Opus 132 Beethoven Quartet, written in 1825, or yesterday, or 1000 years from now.

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A copyist’s manuscript of the first violin part.
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