Monthly Archives: November 2007

November 27, 2007

786.4 again

Part one and part two of this horrifically open-ended exercise.

Samuel Adler (1928-): The Sense of Touch (1981) (age 53)
Subtitle: “Eight short pieces introducing the young pianist to techniques used in twentieth-century music.” Commissioned by Clavier magazine. Samuel Adler is not the only composer who thought to try his luck at the Mikrokosmos game – a potentially lucrative game, I guess – relatively speaking – but it is a harder game than it might seem at first and he does not win. Each piece is preceded by a list of descriptives (like “Mixed staccato and legato, single notes in both hands, variable dynamics between hands, time changes, many accidentals”) – hey, just like in Mikrokosmos! – which pretends to some kind of pedagogical planning. But naming characteristics of a piece does not the piece of any educational value make. Or of musical value make either. These are some seriously sense-and-form-deprived twiddles. I know well the composing trap of losing your sense of the pacing and sticking all your moments so close to one another that they don’t register – Adler seems to be deep in that trap at all times. Things just happen and then other things happen. It’s really remarkable how little a sense of rhythm he has for someone who obsessively writes all these meter changes. Seems like a smokescreen. I hope no young pianist ever had to play these. 12 minutes in all. No recording.

Samuel Adler: Thy Song Expands My Spirit (1980) (age 52)
Subtitle: “A tribute to Aaron Copland on his 80th birthday.” This is the best of the three Adler scores on the shelf, but none of them is any good. But this is the best. It makes some I think explicit references to textures and sounds from Copland’s music, albeit in a totally scattershot way that adds up to nothing. One could also point out that Adler generally uses textures vaguely stolen from Copland so maybe we shouldn’t even give him credit for that, but there’s a big high bell-ringing 10th in octaves at the beginning and end that’s pretty unmistakable. After a slow introduction that almost has some potential (because it’s imitating Copland), it devolves into bip bip bip dibby dibby dibby like all his other pieces, which I have a really hard time reconciling with that lame-ass inspirational title. (Yes, I see, it’s from Leaves of Grass.) Then at the end, very suddenly, thy Copland bells again. Incoherent. I could make a seriously tasteless comment about Alzheimer’s but I’m not going to. I certainly hope that’s not what Samuel Adler was going for! This is about 4 minutes (marked c. 3’30”). No recording.

I recognize Adler’s compositional style; I’ve composed this way too: Sometimes I feel lazy but still want to be “composing” – I don’t want to think hard about harmony, which doesn’t flow naturally to me, and I don’t want to have to keep track of structure, which doesn’t fall into place naturally for me. But I still want to be making stuff up, so I just let my brain do what it’s willing to do and no more. This yields a lot of goofy junk but at least I’m writing, right? Right. So Samuel Adler seems to have no other mode of composition, and his brain is even lazier (and/or less fluent in anything) than mine, which is no good because who am I and then who is he? These scores smell strongly of “don’t look back.” I would be shocked if there was a single note in these pieces that he took serious time weighing against alternatives. If he did, if this is all conscientious and I’m being a dick about it, I must say it is completely opaque to me. What could he possibly be trying to say with this language of endless twiddling? I guess that thy song expands his spirit.

Enough bashing Samuel Adler. Of all people.

Denes Agay (1911-2007): Mosaics: Six Piano Pieces on Hebrew Folk Themes (pub. 1968) (age 57)
Agay’s name is familiar from a thousand books like “The Joy Of Best-Loved Student Anthology Recital Favorite Piano Classics For Best-Loved Students compiled and edited by Denes Agay.” Born in Hungary, moved to the US during the war, lived in New York. Reported to have been the best daddy in the world. His work as an anthology editor far overshadows his compositions at most libraries, but here’s a little stash of Agay originals. The style of this set is first and foremost that of the Bartók “For Children” arrangements, second and secondmost that of, um, sixties sub-classical. By which I mean, like, Harvey Schmidt. I have no problem with either aspect, though the latter has dated more than the former. The writing is pleasantly straightforward to play, and the music is always doing something good-natured. The semi-commercial quality is, to me, charming. Musically, they feel and sound like children’s pieces but they’re a little harder technically than you’d expect from the extremely innocent affect. Just as Bartók’s pieces were a refinement of the standard pedagogical fare, these feel like a refinement (but less so than Bartók) of the standard 60s pedagogical fare, with folk tunes again, appropriately enough. Yes, there are a few scattered “Hebrew” touches but for the most part this is American divided by Bartók. Looks like there was once an obscure LP recording of this and some other Agay piano music, but long gone and good luck finding it. I clock it at about 10 minutes.

Denes Agay: Serenata Burlesca (pub. 1968) (age 57)
Again, totally unpretentious, innocent, plain and simple piece, but not inane. Has aged perfectly well. Sort of a “Till Eulenspiegel” type thing but with very simple textures. This music is by a “classical music” guy and has nothing particularly slick about it, but nonetheless feels to be from that “other” stream of composition in the 20th century, the commercial one that produced movie and TV scores and The Fantasticks etc. I hate it when people say that this commercial music is “just borrowing” ideas from classical music. It is what it is, I think, perfectly sincerely; “real” classical music borrows just as often. The difference is not the degree of authenticity, it’s the degree of artistic ambition. The ambition of movie music is just to be what it needs to be; so too this kind of piece aims only to be what it says it is, a Serenata Burlesca, using the sounds that struck its composer as appealing. Very easy ones, and why not? 2.5 minutes. Also on that LP.

Okay, fine, so the title is a little affected. But that’s just the way these things are done. Take it up with the culture at large.

Denes Agay: Seven Pieces (pub. 1969) (age 58)
These are even better. They’re actually simple enough for students, and have even greater charm than the preceding pieces. Similar in style and content to the Kabalevsky children’s pieces, and I would say just about as good. These in fact sound a lot more like Kabalevsky than like Bartók. They get harder as they go until the last one is genuinely intermediate; the last two pieces are also the best. About 8 minutes of music here. This one’s not even on that LP.

Denes Agay: Sonatina Hungarica (pub. 1967) (age 56)
More Bartók. I’m reminded of the Christmas Carols. I would say it’s derivative of them, but again, it doesn’t feel like it’s claiming otherwise. Who would waste their time pointing out that, you know, Harry Potter is derivative?* The fact that this stuff is all 100% good-natured simple fun is, however, a little more of a liability when he’s aspiring to a longer form – yes, even a sonatina counts as a longer form – and there are parts here where it starts to feel a little too dippy for a little too long. But of course that’s very subjective – all these pieces are constantly wobbling on the thin line around dippy-town. It depends on your mood. When I first set these on the piano the other day, when I wasn’t in as good a mood, they all seemed deeply, hopelessly dippy. But now I’ve opened my heart to it and found that they’re actually all pretty good, dippiness be damned. I wish there were more Denes Agays out there writing music that just aimed to be, you know, some fun music. Actually, I think there were and are lots of them. But the only way to dredge them up is to grind through every score on the shelf, apparently. These scores had never even been entered into the electronic catalog and caused some trouble at the checkout. The Sonatina is on the LP, by the way. Also about 8 minutes.

François Dagincourt [d’Agincourt] (1684-1758): Pièces de clavecin (1733) (age 49)
edited by Howard Ferguson (pub. 1969)
There is a rather unlikely choice in alphabetization at play here; most catalogs and reference sources list him under D. Your choices, in order of google popularity, are: d’Agincour, d’Agincourt, Dagincour, Dagincourt. Grove gives preference to Dagincourt. This volume is the complete extant harpsichord works – four “ordres” (like Couperin) of short pieces, mostly on dance forms. Also like Couperin, they are very heavily ornamented. 18th century ornaments are a real challenge for me – they give the music its character and yet also obscure it. They have to be handled exactly exactly right. Managing them is a bit like the trick of imparting just the right inflection to a jazz lick so that it reads as characteristic; getting the whole genre to “sound” depends on very very fine details of execution. Each of the four ordres takes about half an hour, and after my two hours or so playing through all these, I had become entirely drawn into their world of antique charm. It took some doing but I surprised myself, seeing as this isn’t really my usual fare. Once accustomed to the limitations and tendencies of this genre, you hear that Dagincourt is quite playful and has a fine sense of how to lightly shake a conventional phrase into being distinctive and flavorful. There are some more ambitious numbers but the range of ambition isn’t as broad as with Couperin (or with Bach, of course). I offer here a single very modest piece (“La Courtisane”) to give a sense. Aren’t the shifting phrase lengths delightful? Also included is the all-important table des agréments. Not until dealing with this book did I really process the idea that 18th-century trills begin on the upper tone – i.e. not the written tone. The complete collection of pieces has recently been recorded in its entirety by a woman who lives near me, in two volumes, one and two. You can listen to quite a few samples there. Her playing is intelligent, but many of the quirky charms I found as I played through it seem to disappear into the folds of “harpsichord rubato,” at least to my ears. I think I have a particularly low tolerance for rubato – what she does is quite restrained as these things go.

Maria Teresa Agnesi (1720-1795): Sonata in G
Maybe 3 minutes, single movement. This is one of the many publications of the Hildegard Publishing Company, dedicated to reprinting works by women composers, regardless of quality. Hard to say whether this ends up working for or against prejudice. Maria’s little sonata movement is totally undistinguished and rather inelegant, like a passing job of the “write a classical sonata movement” exercise from a beginning music theory course. Could be worse, I guess. Hildegard has the first page of the score online for your perusal. Peruse and see for yourself. Also someone has made a midi file of it. And look, there actually is a recording.

Roy E. Agnew (1891-1944): Fantasie Sonata (1927) (age 36)
Grove on Roy Agnew: “one of the few Australian composers to achieve international recognition in the first half of the 20th century.” This piece, a single-movement sonata, is 90% Scriabin and 10% Debussy; the hybrid is not particularly convincing. Scriabin’s late music only works because of its fanatical rigor – imitations, and there are many, tend to be loose and stringy by comparison, as is the case here. Chord spelling in this score is confusing and/or confused and there are almost no cancellation accidentals, so it’s not a pleasant read. The notation also adds to an impression that the sounds were arrived at haphazardly. It’s not a terrible impression of Scriabin – a good performance could be pleasant. But I’m not sure what you can get here that isn’t better in the real thing. My favorite bits are the parts that deviate the furthest from Scriabin, like the top of the development. I estimate about 11 minutes but who knows. Thanks to the National Library of Australia, the score (to this and all the subsequent Agnew pieces) is available here! For all of them, you can browse the pages, or click on “Print” to get a PDF of the whole thing.

And wait – this added later – I just found out it gets better! Hear the composer’s own performance, in its entirety! Here! It comes out just under 10 minutes, so I wasn’t too far off.

Roy E. Agnew: Sonata Poeme (1935) (age 44)
This and the next two pieces are bound into a single volume, presented to the library by Mr. Andor Foldes (pianist and conductor, 1913-1992). To my ears this is, quite explicitly, Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4 translated into British. With some Hollywood thrown in. And a little erratic. And not entirely pianistic. If that sounds good to you, you may enjoy it. Score at National Library of Australia is here.

Oop, and this one has a recorded performance too. So I can say with confidence that this piece is about 8 minutes long.

Listening to the man perform his own pieces, they seem different to me than when I played through them – a good deal vaguer about what they’re saying. He seems to subscribe to the “habitually frantic” school of romantic pianism, which I guess makes sense of some of the writing – maybe sense should be in quotes – but this kind of flailing-as-poetry leaves me pretty cold. He sounds like he was a good enough pianist to know what he was doing, so I’m going to assume these are definitive interpretations and that my problem is with the compositions themselves.

Roy Agnew: Toccata Tragica (1921) (age 30)
Score here. More flailing-as-poetry. This time there’s not even much of a motivic justification for what’s going on – it all seems fairly directionless and improvisatory. A very basic ABAB structure and only 5 minutes of music makes the flailing A section sound all the more arbitrary. The B section just sort of sits and simmers in its own juices. I’m not sure I buy “Toccata” or “Tragica.” Maybe Toccata in the old sense of an improvisation. I don’t think this one has a recording out there.

Roy Agnew: Dance of the Wild Men (1919) (age 28)
The score. At least one recording exists. It says about 3 minutes and I concur. This was my favorite of the Agnew; his spastic tendencies are at least partially justified by the title, and it builds up to a satisfying “primitive” refrain right out of Max Steiner, with the delightful indication “bang.” Seems like the title indicates an imitation of Ornstein, whose “Wild Men’s Dance” is supposed to have made a big splash in the teens. But Ornstein’s flailing is really, murderously, machine-gun brutal, whereas Agnew can only manage King Kong. So if there’s an influence, it doesn’t reflect well on Agnew, who has drastically diluted it. If there’s not a connection… well, the criticism still holds.

Miguel del Aguila (1957-): Conga (1993) (age 36)
Miguel del Aguila has a MySpace page where you can hear some clips. He also has a homepage. You can email him if you want. At this page, which may soon cease to exist, you can hear clips from an orchestral version of the present work, retitled Conga-Line in Hell, in which the piano part is essentially intact. Both versions, and another one, have been recorded; see the composer’s pages for details. This is an obsessive post-minimalist breakdown on several standard conga figures. Hearing them shuffled together, and with a beat taken out or added here and there, is fun enough, but that’s a pretty superficial kind of fun for 10 minutes of music. Maybe it’s more interesting in the orchestrated version, but for solo piano it runs thin by the end, which is a shame because there are cute ideas here. Including (the guy at that page linked above agrees with me on this) a recurrent overt reference to the West Side Story Mambo. Well, almost cute. I want to like it because why not, but nothing about it quite works well enough. Post-minimalist anything-goes is actually a pretty tough gig to impress with, and many pieces from the past 20 years strike me as flimsy in the same ways: the materials seem artificially, frustratingly limited, despite the fact that the composer also shows himself to be almost indiscriminately open to whimsy. When a work manages to seem both disconcertingly free and disconcertingly constrained, that to me is a sure sign of insufficient craft. That really sums up the compositional shortcomings of pretty much all my various musical peers, too. And let’s not forget myself.

If you can’t be true to the logic either of rigor or of fantasy, what are you being true to? I think you have to be true to something or nobody’s going to want to listen.

Added later: I’ve now heard the recording off this CD. Good performance but didn’t change my impression of the piece.

Miguel del Aguila: Sonata No. 2 (1988) (age 31)
Recording available, samples (and the possibility of purchasing mp3s for download) at amazon. That guy doesn’t seem to be playing it very well though. This is, by my estimation, a slightly better piece, but still marred by the same problems as the above, particularly the first movement, which runs out its little idea on the first two pages and then expands it needlessly into 7 minutes (or 8 on that CD). It’s sort of a stilted Latin ostinato (there are names for these things) that reminded me a little of Camargo Guarnieri, but with much less color. Again, the materials seem to have been intentionally drained of any real fantasy, despite being essentially fantastic. The second movement isn’t particularly Latin at all – it’s some kind of Porgy and Bess blues material spun out lazily in ways that seem to aspire to bitonal weirdness but are actually pretty dull and/or gawky. The third movement is the best and is pretty much a conceptual retread, or a pretread, of the Conga above. It’s mostly better, and certainly better scaled. He chooses to throw in a little “12th Street Rag” thing at the top. None of it is brilliant exactly but I had some fun playing through the shifting meters. Not sure I’d care to listen. In total this is about 15 minutes.

In every movement I get the sense that his ear for the idiom he’s riffing on is actually much less sophisticated than the act of riffing would suggest. Which is often my impression with John Adams, who eventually proved me right with that really embarrassing, unacceptable “pop musical theater” thing he wrote. I think Aaron Copland admitted that for all his “jazz-derived” pieces, he knew very well he didn’t have a sense for actual jazz, and had to get Leonard Bernstein to write the 8 bars of jazzy piano in Rodeo for him. You can hear that in his Piano Concerto and other pieces – he knows exactly what he’s talking about, but that’s genuinely as close as he can get to it. Whereas music like this present piece seems to me to claim a more knowing, post-modern relationship to its sources, more akin to ownership. I don’t think it lives up to that.

Let me take this thought a step further: why do so many “serious composers” seem to be such terrible musicians? You know what I mean. Like why do they have such a tin ear for the vernacular? I love Copland, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like the fact about him that he couldn’t work out how to write a jazz piano part shows through in every bar he wrote. Shostakovich is given all kinds of credit for being fluent at writing light music – doing that arrangement of “Tea for Two” and all that – and certainly he could do it better than most 20th century serious composers probably could have, but his light music is frequently stiff in a snarky way. People might savor that now but is it really because he wanted to imbue everything he did with “artistic distinction,” which is the opposite of naturalness? I don’t buy that. I think he was a little stiff at his craft. Like that “Tea for Two” arrangement, let’s admit it, wouldn’t pass muster in Hollywood; it’s too blocky. The fact that William Bolcom can actually write, with musicianly understanding, in a variety of popular styles, to me shows through in his serious music as a kind of marked confidence and fluency. Gershwin was the king of his popular styles and then had to struggle uphill from there to gain any kind of comparable skill in a very closely related “serious” style; it takes a lot of work to attain mastery of any given musical language. Why do so many composers of the twentieth century get away with attaining mastery only of, as it were, their own domains, and no actual human languages at all? I don’t mean they should have to master classical counterpoint before they write twelve-tone; I mean they should be versed in a living musical tradition before they pursue mastery of dead ones, or try to concoct their own.

This goes for performers, too. Doubly. To take an example that I’ve encountered several times – if a classical pianist can’t play jazz-inflected rhythms like he actually speaks the language – jazz rhythms being a ubiquitous, living, genuinely human language, as easily picked up as, say, English – why on earth should I trust him to play the dead language of Mozart, or the minotaur half-languages of so many 20th century composers? A person who never had occasion to learn any human language is the wrong person to hire as a translator! Or as an author.

There’s a flip side to this argument but it makes itself; “…far from dead…” “…it is their first language…” etc. That side is a lot weaker. The reader is free to construct his/her own counterarguments. I suggest Klingon and/or Gertrude Stein as cases, but that’s me, and I’m going to let this drop.

Miguel del Aguila: Toccata (1988) (age 31)
Don’t think it’s been recorded. 5 minutes-ish. A bangy alternating-hands figure – like the other pieces, reminiscent of Ginastera – that drifts up and down the keyboard, flipping from one dynamic level to another, failing to cohere into anything dramatic. The most purely minimalist of these pieces. Pretty much just an exercise in steering a certain type of energy as it gallops forward. Could have steered it better. But at least it’s only 5 minutes, so the single not-quite-idea can sustain your superficial attention for the whole piece, pretty much.

Basically: these Aguila pieces are fun, but fun so ill-crafted that it’s not really that fun. From his list of upcoming performances and commissions, it seems like his career is going reasonably well. I guess these pieces are “accessible,” in the sense of “safely programmable.” They reveal themselves immediately and thrash rather than grow. So what’s to access?

Okay, there’s only one more, and then we’re done. I pushed through this far because after this one we hit the expanse of Albéniz, into which I may or may not continue. In any case he obviously calls for a separate entry, so this last piece seemed like the proper demarcation.

Tor Ahlberg (1913-): Liten Svit (1943) (age 30)
Onlly bio of Tor Ahlberg I can find. This seems to be the most uncommon score thus far – only a very few copies in worldcat; I don’t think Tor Ahlberg’s music has ever reached very far outside Sweden. No recordings as far as the internet can see. Basically, you will never encounter this piece. You know what I say to that? You wanna know what I say to that? Here you go. This is a violation of Swedish copyright. If you like this piece, buy it. It’s not obvious how you would go about doing that. I dare you to buy it. I think someone on this page might be able to help you. Maybe.

I have to assume – and yes, a Swedish-English dictionary just bore me out on this – that “Liten Svit” means “Little Suite.” Each of the four movements is only two pages and lasts about 2 minutes, for a total of about 8. The latter three are after the style of what I suppose is the Hindemith school, though I don’t know enough about Swedish composers to know how the chain of influence might actually have worked. They’re superficially neoclassical but the angularity of the sound is “tart” a la Busoni (say) rather than “dry” a la Stravinsky; Ahlberg’s various quirks seem to have been arrived at intuitively and are fairly raw. But it’s the first movement that’s the oddest of all – the right hand spins out pentatonic hanging gardens while the left leads it through several inexplicably awkward harmonic excursions. Is the opulent effect being intentionally subverted or does he not know what he’s doing? Or is the effect not supposed to be opulent at all, but something even weirder? It ends with undeniable crystal sparkles, so some degree of opulence seems intentional. Perhaps the right hand is supposed to hover somewhere in between the wash of Debussy and the filigree of Chopin. I’m not sure it succeeds because I’m not sure what it’s doing – which I guess is itself an indication that it’s not succeeding – but in any case, it’s certainly an interesting little slice of obscurity.

Okay! Back to the library with the lot of you.

* Oh, did I?

November 3, 2007

Rainer Maria Rilke: Selected Poetry

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell (1982; this edition Vintage, 1989)

Roll #8 gives me 1645, which is the last of four Rilke selections. I fall back to the first: “Selected Poetry (including the Duino Elegies).” Bloom specifies that he means the collection translated by Stephen Mitchell so that’s what I bought, brand new at Barnes & Noble. It doesn’t look brand new anymore, see above, because it was shuttled around in various bags and eventually had wine spilled on it – how literary! It had the opportunity to get so beat up because I took a long time with it.

It took a long time.

Here follows some stuff I wrote months ago while I was still in the middle of reading it. Even though I wasn’t yet finished, it’s written in the past tense because I thought it would serve as the basis for my eventual entry here… which I suppose it is now doing, but only in quotation marks. Or rather, between these horizontal lines:

This was heavy going, not because anything was obscure, but because real emotional understanding of the poems required me to find my way to his philosophical head-space at every sitting, and that often wasn’t a place I wanted to go. He was talking about the big issues – life, death, and meaning – and seeing them in a cold, modern, sober way… but without the consolations of sobriety! He writes about the terrifying indifference of the real world, and the ways we hide from it and create our own homely ideas of beauty and meaning (same as Camus, same as many people in the past hundred fifty years) – but he writes about these seemingly post-Romantic ideas from within a resolutely Romantic framework. The indifference of the universe and the painful absoluteness of death and the illusions under which we live – all this stuff is treated via gods and visions and mythic figures, and all of it is made extremely personal to the poet. The life of the writing is emotional struggle, cast in basically religious terms. To the Romantic mind, this indifference of the universe to human affairs is absolutely shattering – almost incompatible, really. It’s pretty much the exact antithesis of the Romantic, which tells us that the emotions of the individual should be the basic frame of reference. Seems like once you can see the forest for the trees, that will inform the way you talk about trees. But Rilke is constantly in both frames at once, determinedly writing about what’s outside the cave but only in the language of shadows. He writes about philosophy but never lets the pain out of sight. That’s why it was hard reading – because to be comprehending it meant finding my way back to that pain.

It didn’t seem like I was being brought toward pain because Rilke specifically thought that was the right way to think about these things – it just seemed like the only way he was capable of thinking about them.

The Plague moved me because it was a vision of how life must extend beyond the losing battle against meaninglessness. Rilke only offered (me) a sort of update on the creepy old 19th-century Tod und Verklärung type attitude: that only when we admit defeat, when we surrender to philosophical death, only then will the portals of transcendent beauty be opened to us. And the saints and Orpheus and a nymph with a vase and the whole gang will all be there. I get what he’s saying, and he’s saying it better than almost anyone else I’ve ever read – but all that Tristan und Isoldery is a serious distraction.

I guess what I’m really saying is: the standard task of adjusting for the work’s period/culture of origin was in this case burdensome because the subject matter is too important to me. As period pieces, as art, these are very beautiful and I was deeply, truly, impressed by them. As communication from human to human about life, there’s a bit of a generation gap, and so the lecture started to grate. Because the meaning of life is still a sensitive subject. As in I KNOW, MOM, yes, we’re still trying to figure out how to think about death! Enough about Orpheus, Mom! Nobody talks that way anymore! I’m going to my room.

Rilke’s most famous poem has him (or you, really) looking at an “archaic torso of apollo” and as the poem ends, realizing in a flash “You must change your life.” Yes, this is what art can do to a person. But Rilke’s art does not – it seems to me – endeavor to do for me what the torso did for him. His art is not an example to show us the way (or even, like the torso, simply shame us) – it’s a picture of him, looking about at the world in very fine-grained consternation. And yes, we all have reason to look about in consternation – the struggle and the frustration are there for all of us – but he paints that struggle with such fervor and craft that you’d think he thought he was getting something done other than just naming it.

This art is exquisitely put together, of great aesthetic value, serious-minded, has every reason to exist, but can’t really do anything for me. It doesn’t offer me any solace or advice, and it also doesn’t slap me hard in the face with something I’ve been denying. It takes things that I know, that are difficult and sad, and simply works them toward beauty. But beauty itself isn’t in such short supply in this world that I personally need to seek it out in the form of things that are merely difficult and sad.

This was a rewarding reading experience in that I was exposed to it and it is admirable, and that it is one of the well-made things that’s out there on this earth, and now I’ve seen it. But it was not rewarding in re: my soul, and if not that, why couldn’t it have been about pirate treasure? I hope my next book is about pirate treasure.

I even edited out a bunch of it, if you can believe that.

Anyway, I’m afraid I must now go on to say still more, because the preceding was written before I had properly finished with The Duino Elegies, Rilke’s acknowledged masterpiece and the star attraction of the book. Their 60 pages took me much longer than the rest of the book because they are that much richer; they are worked out at greater length and depth than anything else here. Though some of the above was written in response to the first of the ten elegies, by the time I was done I felt they actually addressed my complaints; they felt like a hard-earned opening out of Rilke’s worldview, exactly the “reach beyond” that I had felt was lacking. There was a sense that his ego had finally dropped out of view and that he was writing to save the world rather than to show off. This is indeed a fine line, in the arts, but crossing it makes all the difference. In his really excellent introduction, Robert Hass writes that some of the early poems “just slightly… tend to congratulate the poet and his reader for having feelings and experiencing beauty.” I appreciated his having said it. The Duino Elegies, however, read deeply, cannot be confused with self-promotion; they are a heartfelt effort to grapple with weight and to do a philosophical service. And there really is no reading them shallowly. That, again, is why this took so long.

I must admit to having lost touch with the depths of these poems in the months since I made the effort; I’m flipping through them now to refresh my memory but it’s not an experience so easily refreshed. What I retain is a sense of a rich, savory melancholy, converting to and from deep thought. A bit like this – (which, good lord, was destroyed in a fire last week??!!) – but a really superb visual mood analogue is this painting, about which one of the Elegies was explicitly written, back in a time when to see this tremendously famous Picasso, you had to be lucky enough to know the lady who owned it and be invited to stay in her living room, staring at it, while you work on a poem.

Stephen Mitchell, who we last encountered as someone whose translation of Gilgamesh I didn’t read, has here done a job of translation that I would call “good.” The English is readable, unpretentious, and conscientiously enough matched to the German, which appears opposite, that one can more or less easily read the originals using the translation as guide. Which is what I considered myself to be doing. However, Mitchell’s efforts to exactly preserve the meaning of complicated interlocking ideas are, on occasion, both overly apparent and unsuccessful. Untranslatably elegant German conceptual arrangements are rendered in solutions that are often ambiguous, in ways I don’t think he foresaw. There were quite a few places where I had to retranslate the German myself before I realized that he intended some meek little “as” or “for” to function as a crucial logical connector. There was also at least one place where, on translating it myself, I realized that he had gotten something wrong in the meaning; the speaker rather than the addressed was the actor in a sentence, or something of that sort. Also – and it’s probably too much to ask – but his English is not actually beautiful. When the ideas were rich and intimate I wanted to be surrounded by rich and intimate sound; sorry, only on the German side of the page. The English feels like it has been worked out carefully rather than fluidly. It reads like exactly what it is; a great poet translated by a smart, touchy-feely guy who likes translating.

This is a fine and admirable volume and I’m not saying I think there are better translations out there to be had.

This has been long enough. There is much more to be said about Rilke but I’ll either say it in the comments when people write in to complain, or we’ll all just agree to let it go unsaid.

As for the sample poem. One of the last things Rilke wrote (“May or June 1925”), and one of the last things in this book, is this odd “trilogy,” which as you’ll see from the subtitle, he wrote expressly with the intent that it would be set to music by Ernst Krenek, then 25 years old. Krenek did it the next year, only a few months before Rilke’s death. Don’t know what Rilke thought of the settings, but as they were the ultimate realization of his wishes for these poems, it’s odd – at least to me – that they are far far more difficult to come by than the text itself, which is in every bookstore. So I’m putting them up here even though it’s a copyright violation; again my justification is that the fairly exclusive readership here puts a very real limit on the potential scope of damages to Universal Edition, which I estimate at $0 if not less. When this site gets featured on the news, I’ll take it down, along with the Absil.

The score.

That’s my scan of the New York Public Library copy. It seems to be a first edition, and judging by the pencilling on the cover, someone seems to have at one point taken it to the 15th floor (of the Steinway Building?) to the office of the League of Composers to give to Mrs. Reis so that Mr. Bamberger could play from it during the concert. That is, the concert on February 27, 1938 at the Cosmopolitan Club, at which Mr. Krenek himself played his Suite for Piano. Too bad they didn’t get him to sign this score while they had him there. This opus has been recorded; you can buy this or this if you want to hear it. Or just listen to the samples from the first link to get an idea.

Anyway, the score contains the German; here’s Mitchell’s English. For what it’s worth, this is hardly one of the most successful (or ambitious) poems in the collection, but it is very much characteristic. I think it shows up Mitchell’s weaknesses, too. Krenek does a reasonable if dated job of trying to make something respectful and intelligent out of it but he illustrates the text too literally, and overall misses the pensive quality that seems essential to Rilke. His opening page comes the closest, I think.

(trilogy for future music of Ernst Křenek)


Oh tear-filled figure who, like a sky held back,
grows heavy above the landscape of her sorrow.
And when she weeps, the gentle raindrops fall,
slanting upon the sand-bed of her heart.

Oh heavy with weeping. Scale to weigh all tears.
Who felt herself not sky, since she was shining
and sky exists only for clouds to form in.

How clear it is, how close, your land of sorrow,
beneath the stern sky’s oneness. Like a face
that lies there, slowly waking up and thinking
horizontally, into endless depths.


It is nothing but a breath, the void.
And that green fulfillment
of blossoming trees: a breath.
We, who are still the breathed-upon,
today still the breathed-upon, count
this slow breathing of earth,
whose hurry we are.


Ah, but the winters! The earth’s mysterious
turning-within. Where around the dead
in the pure receding of sap,
boldness is gathered,
the boldness of future springtimes.
Where imagination occurs
beneath what is rigid; where all the green
worn thin by the vast summers
again turns into a new
insight and the mirror of intuition;
where the flowers’ color
wholly forgets that lingering of our eyes.