Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Writing about music and poetry: Samuel Barber and Robert Lowell

Here's my latest review for Cleveland Classical, about Holst's Planets and Barber's beautiful Cello Concerto.  As you'll see, I keep thinking of ways to link music and poetry -- here, the 1946 Cello Concerto kept reminding me of the great Robert Lowell, whose book Lord Weary's Castle came out in that year as well. These American artists, trying to deal with World War II, with the mid century angst (it's not just the end of the century that matters), writing about torment and yet also trying to put it into a formal relationship, to write with meter and sometimes rhyme, like Barber, writing melodies and yet pushing them beyond what (say) Holst might have thought of doing, pushing beyond towards doubt and anxieties.

Here's an excerpt from Lowell's Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket -- notice how it's still formally exact -- meter and rhyme -- and yet how dark it is about his own New England history, and the history of the whalers. Not pleasant, and yet ... unmistakably lyrical. That "flail" in the fourth line could have been from one of the early preachers of New England, for it's a biblical image -- and also one from 19th century New England farming.

The bones cry for the blood of the white whale, 
the fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
the death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears 
the gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail, 
and hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags 
and rips the sperm-whale's midriff into rags,
gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather.
Here is the second movement from the Barber concerto, played by Raya Garbousova, who premiered it.