Transition States

Friend C wants to be made King. Take note: he does not want to BE King, or act in a Kingly way, or possess or deserve any of the trappings or temptations of power. He wants to live perpetually in the state of being inaugurated; in other words, so that the party never ends. Impossibly prolonged: the adventure and delight of being lifted into a new state. Perhaps party boy should read these harrowing lines of Horace, which left me breathless on the number 2 train en route to Brooklyn:

To Lydia

It happens less and less often, now, that you
Wake up to hear the sound of gravel thrown
Against your shuttered windows in the night.
It’s very seldom, now, that you can’t sleep
The whole night through. There used to be a time
The hinges of the door to your house moved ever so
Easily back and forth. Not anymore.
It’s very seldom, Lydia, now, that you
Can hear a lover out in the dark complain:
“O Lydia, Lydia, why are you sound asleep
While all night long I suffer in the alley?”
You’re going to have your turn out there alone,
Old crone in the nighttime alley weeping, weeping
Over your faithless boyfriends while the North Wind
Coming down from the Thracian cold blows ever
Louder and louder through the dark of the moon,
And ulcerating lust such as the lust
That tortures the mare in heat tortures your heart.
Out there in the night you’ll moan that all the young men
Prefer the lustrous ivy and lustrous myrtle
To the withered leaves that winter’s companion the cold
Wind causes to scatter and scrape along the alley.

Is it not eloquent enough just to say “wow”? In this poem, the party is definitely about to be over. I cannot judge the translation (David Ferry) on its faithfulness to the Latin, sadly, but the wham-bam of the poem comes through, like a knife in the heart. Whatever Lydia did, she probably didn’t deserve this black, black ode; she probably doesn’t deserve to suffer the ingenious, Hellish, dual tortures of convulsing like “mare in heat” and shivering under the cold, bitter, desiccating wind. Poets can really be jerks when they want to be. People looking for truly mean things to send their exes need look no further; a better bitterness is not to be found.

Speaking of bitterness: I recently played Winterreise and had some curious qualms, after the fact. I was blearily watching the news in my hotel room, the morning after the performance, and some newscaster was interviewing a woman who lost her son on 9/11, about the discovery of bone fragments on top of the Deutsche Bank building adjoining Ground Zero. Her voice modulated into a well-worn “sensitive mode;” it dripped as she commiserated: “I know this must have been such a hard week for you.” They glanced at each other, cued mournful glances. The televised sympathy made me feel ill. She was a stranger to them, sympathizing with their loss in front of millions of strangers.

Maybe because the first word of Winterreise is “Fremd” (roughly translated: “stranger”) I made the uncomfortable connection… Something about that song cycle is so dark and personal that perhaps it should not be observed, made public; it is at times almost obscene. Randall and I were not playing for charity; we made money off the emotional spectacle. What is the difference between our public, reimbursed display of sympathy via Schubert, our exploitation of those dark emotions, and the newscasters’ televised, simulated grief? I could not easily dismiss the question.

Normally, I steer clear of discussions of the ethics of music; they bore me to tears. I wanted however to be able to say with a clean conscience, quickly and unambiguously, that something about the intrinsic beauty of the music (some innate, intangible quality) makes performing Winterreise morally “better” than exploiting 9/11 emotions for the willing camera. This seems to be a commonsense truism (but watch out for those); probably many people would agree with this statement, in a general way; and why did I feel uncomfortable with it? The vague intangible felt like a copout, perhaps. How can a classical music concert be an “immoral” act? (I have heard performances, pieces, I considered immoral, at times.) Sometimes I do feel “bad” while playing Winterreise; sometimes I feel bad in the sense of approaching the emotional states of the song cycle (which is pretty damn bad, i.e. suicidal); and sometimes it feels like I have to pretend in order to get there; and between my pretending and the sacredness of the music there is an unpleasant rift. Bad either way: a lose-lose situation. So why do I love the piece so much?

So many of the songs of the cycle begin with rather typical premises, situations, or metaphors drawn from nature–really just clichés of Romantic verse–and then these premises and images have to be “explained” as parallels to the narrator’s own experience. For instance: the stream which once ran quickly (in the summer) is now frozen stiff. Love (which once was) is now frozen, sterile, stopped. Yawn. Or, in another song, a leaf hangs on the tree; we watch it, and it falls to its death, like the hope of the lover. Yawn again. There are 24 songs, 24 situations, 24 descriptions: an exhausting array of metaphors for the lover’s misery. There is nothing to love about this, per se. What redeems these clichés? I’d suggest the answer to this question is linked to the ethical question I posed earlier. It seems to me that these descriptions, these constantly posed premises, are all fakes, all facades; they are merely the refuge of the narrator, his only defense. Schubert obligingly text-paints these premises; we hear the dogs bark, the stream freeze, the leaf fall; but his real business lays far beyond landscaping, far beyond the too-easy metaphor, and resides instead in the destruction of these metaphorical premises, and in the creation of a musical counter-meaning (a musical insurgency): i.e., that the verbal metaphors are just flood-gates: comforting and distancing scraps of meaning and narrative which hold back impossible rushes of emotion.

From the first song, even: the narrator is attempting to “tell a story,” “set the scene,” etc. etc. He is very nearly whining. “I used to be happy. I was almost married. Then she left me, and now life sucks, and it’s fucking cold.” (I hold the rights to this rather loose, contemporary translation.) Schubert’s music obligingly walks in a minor key with the narrator; the verse structure sets forth the various facets of the textual description, allows the various complaints to be enumerated and articulated; allows, in short, the story to be told. No, let me put it another way: Schubert’s setting allows the narrator to pretend he is telling the story.

But in the final stanza of the poem, Schubert noticed not just the obvious, the more tender tone, but a more subtle and crucial change, a slight shift of the terms of the perennially rewritten contract: Who is telling this story? The famous shift to the major for this final verse, a Schubert cliché (once again he dips into the familiar barrel of tricks for yet another miracle trick), necessitates some reharmonizations, some new interpolated leading tones (E#, G#). These leading tones are uncannily beautiful, and soften the march-steps of the narrator. Who is operating behind the scenes to make this happen, to make the voice-leading work? The composer, of course; some ulterior force. These notes call attention to themselves, and to the narrator beyond the narrator.

Schubert is drawing a distinction between the “gute Nacht” of the previous (minor-key) stanza, which is a brave renouncing farewell, in the mode of a story which is already over, in which distance is already at work, in which the frame of the narration is clear; and the “gute Nacht” of the next (major-key) stanza, which is hopelessly cowardly, impossibly involved, ambiguously told, the frame shifted, in which the Narrator is at war with himself. If he would like to put everything in the past tense (“in the good old days”), the music tells us we are very much in the present tense (you are living now, whether you like it or not); the narrator is a character in his own story; he is not telling the story, the story is telling him. The major key tells us the narrator is false; the perspective he has been adopting, the story he has been narrating, is a sham; and this new “happier” sound world is no comfort. It is, rather, the erosion of refuge, the destruction of metaphorical or narrative shelter, and the intrusion of the vulnerable self: the dangerous, unstable moment where the tenderness emerges from beneath the facade.

The narrator promised a story of a certain type; but now, all bets are off. What is the nature of the story we are about to be told? We have no clue. If everything is over, Mr. Speaker, why is the cycle just beginning? These lies and contradictions are laid bare by the beauty of the music.

Some of the songs of Winterreise are content to remain in abstract realms of rhetoric; they allow the pessimistic metaphors of the narrator simply to stand and exist, as morals, or islands of thought in the story. (But this cycle is not a “story” in anything like the conventional sense; it has no plot; it is entirely a matter of wandering through forests of associated meanings; a story in search of a story.) The song about the will-of-the-wisp is a good example of one of these rhetorical, static gestures. It has a moral, like a fable. Its moral is the metaphor of the “Irrlicht;” everything is elusive, changing, ephemeral: everything is nothing. There is no perspective shift in this song, no moment in which its facade erodes; its irony and pessimism stand unchallenged, knowing, miserable: a song about shiftiness paradoxically uttered from a stable point-of-view.

These songs provide a welcome contrast to the more devastating songs in the cycle, the more centrally shifting and dangerous songs (i.e. not just “about” shifting, but “enacting” shifts), which attempt to evoke not just emotional states or ideas but the vulnerable moments of transition between different states: unbearable breakdowns.

“Im Dorfe” begins (as usual) with the narrator setting a scene: nighttime, barking dogs, rattling their chains; everyone is asleep. Hello, Romantic cliché: the lonely lover awake, attentive, miserable, while happy others slumber. This would be boring; but Schubert’s musical agenda is totally elsewhere. In place of a minor-key nocturnal scene, something plainly reflecting darkness–something conforming to the cliché–Schubert’s setting is disquieting, worse than one could imagine. He provides a tenuous major key world with minor-key inflections that appear and get washed away… an eerie harmonic half-light. The major-key chords grind uneasily against the rattling/barking motive in the left hand of the piano. And then there are the silences; each bark is answered by two beats of nothing. These silences force the harmonies to leap over them, in long, intense, suspenseful arcs. The voice makes no effort to bark like a dog, but simply poses the endlessness of some imagined, hypothetical phrase against the halting quality of the motive. I call this phrase hypothetical because it creates no melody per se; there is only the motive, and the changing underlying harmonies (like the first Prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier); no reassuring, predictable melodic contour to absorb meaning, to serve as a cipher, to distract from the “scene”: no melodic refuge (melody as persona) for the narrator: only these barking dogs.

The barking of the dogs is clearly a metaphor for menace; but is this menace real? Is the narrator describing a scene, or his own unease? Why, in the night, does he particularly notice these barking dogs and their rattling chains? Clearly, he is externalizing, summoning and noticing these images in order to explain himself to us, under the guise of description. And this ruse continues, as he dwells on the dreams of the sleeping people all around; they were dreaming of all sorts of things …

And in the morning all will have vanished.
Oh well, they had their share of pleasure
And hope that what they missed
Can be found again on their pillows.

Here the music shifts, the barking ceases, and presumably we enter the world of the dream, a hovering dream on the dominant. (Have we left, or entered, reality?) This musical shift is oddly mistimed, since the dreams happened earlier in the poem; now the text is just commenting, in hindsight. The narrator is pretending to tell us about other people’s behavior; he assumes a patronizing attitude towards the foibles of humanity: they who dream of joys that will never come, that always vanish.

The music sees through the lie: it blossoms into incredible tenderness (though without leaving the contingent, temporary dream-world of the dominant), exposing a raw current of desire. It is the most beautiful, stunning moment in the song… and the narrator is stuck there, supposedly telling the cautionary tale of humanity but clearly having his own tale told, against his will. The music is first person though the text is third person. He is stuck between his words and the music, pronged by their contradiction of tone, a contradiction which exposes the narrator’s sham, his own attempt to hide behind the facade of metaphor, his facade of a persona. And the reason he hides is made evident by the music: the emotion behind the wall is too unbelievable to contemplate; there is so much desire in the dream, so much longed-for happiness. (There it is, in the suspensions in the piano.) Having spun out this beauty, but without resolution, the dominant-dream fades back into “reality”–a magnificent transition which avoids any sense of ending or beginning—and renewed dog barks… the dream’s moment of honesty is held uneasily, only through tremendous reserve, in the structure of the song, like a suspended bubble.

And I think this is what Schubert was after: unbearable, tenuous glimpses of things… of emotions. He manages to crystallize a strange transition-state: the surge of unwilling emotion, in which a horrible, unwanted happiness comes to disturb an accepted despair, a boundary at which reasonable expression is no longer possible. I have only seen this kind of expression on people’s faces at truly life-changing moments; and it always makes me want to look away. Schubert brings himself to the image-repertoire of lovesickness with a vengeance, with a terrifying imagination, with cruel, tremendous powers of musical metaphor. In a conventional view, he brings the poems to life, but he does so partly by destroying the clichés upon which they are based, by murdering their inert parts, by exposing the lies and shams of the text. I do not think he is “faithful” to the poems, or “unfaithful;” he does not contradict the poem, but the poem after his treatment is surely not what it was.

On the news, you cannot show the lies and shams of grief. Grief on TV is a glassy thing, which you handle with care in order not to break it open, in order not to offend anyone; and obviously there is no need to “question” the sadness of 9/11 relatives. It exists, so much worse than we imagine or broadcast. Schubert does not handle grief with care; he tosses it around like a child’s toy, and if it shatters into 24 songs so much the better. His carelessness is inspiring. Somehow I think this makes it so much more, somehow morally “better” than an exploitation or description of grief; he refuses to let the symbol stand for the thing itself, and he keeps grabbing the thing out from its expression no matter how painful it is. He is there to witness it all, hanging on. destroying grief’s facades, freshening our experience even at its worst.

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  1. Qais Al-Awqati
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    We missed you Jeremy but it was worth the wait (as alaways). What a splendid analysis of the hopelessness of our situation when it comes to the affairs of the heart; no wonder you have a sensitivty to Montale. Horace (and his antidote Catullus) are wonderful, but they cannot do with their music what Schubert does with his. I was hoping to hear you say something of Fruhlingstraum with its alternating dream and reality stanzas; too obvious, I know but also heart rending. I read somewhere that the words of country western songs are embarrassingly obvious but those who have suffered through these situations weep unconsoledly on hearing them. You seemed to be making a more elegant version of this truth; that a cliche in the hands of a master brings us close to a deeper knowledge of the human heart. Schubert’s miracle converts converts a truism to a truth.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    -So therefore its ok for us to play this music because instead of letting symbols be an easy way out-a way of putting things into categorize and shelving them, Schubert is pulling at them playing with them breaking them down to their true elements—he is getting at the true levels of emotion and depth that make grief and sadness what they truly are.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted April 24, 2006 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    “Lydia” didn’t “do” anything, she is just old,not deisrable by the young men anymore, it is a poem about loss, old age. Life starts as a game, it becomes a massacre at the end…alas

  4. Jeremy Denk
    Posted April 25, 2006 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    I guess my feeling is, yes, aging and the loss of desirability is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be quite so aggressively pointed out. The poet must have some special, vindictive reason to harness all his magnificent powers to make this point so vividly and awfully, a point which is, after all, obvious to everyone. However, is life therefore a “massacre”? We here at Think Denk think not.

  5. Bubs
    Posted April 25, 2006 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Haven’t read the whole blog yet but wanted to say a couple things right off the bat:

    1. Isn’t there intrinsic beauty in cutting someone so low as Horace did to Lydia? Desert has nothing to do with it – I think in a similar vein to how you must admit when you’ve been badly zinged, Lydia’s gotta testify. That passage is pure gold.

    2. The ethical tug over baring Schubert’s soul sounds akin (though not 100%) to George C. Scott refusing his Patton Oscar – should you perhaps contact all patrons and return their money?


  6. Anonymous
    Posted April 25, 2006 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Ah, yes. It is better to have loved and lost.
    Much better.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted April 25, 2006 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Being in the medical field, I see the massacre every day. It happens (usually but not always) later in life. It is shocking what a cruel hoax aging can be. Last Fall the film “The Ballets Russes” came out in many cities (including you fair city). The 80-90 year old dancers recounted their impetuous, extremely talented Youths. Interposed were pictures of them at age 18 or 20. Ravishing, glowing, beautiful faces now wrinkled, faded, although the glimmer in the eyes was there….sad but worth contemplating, especially if you are a poet (and you are a poet JD, I’ve heard you play…)

  8. Allison
    Posted April 25, 2006 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    I view aging differently, as a part of the natural progression of life that helps us let go of our attachment to the physical world as our time here draws to a close. If we were to retain the same beauty and vitality we enjoy as young adults into our later years, how much more difficult it might then be to accept our inevitable passing. (So much more left to experience, relationships to be enjoyed, things to be learned, etc.)

  9. syro0
    Posted April 26, 2006 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jeremy,
    although my latin is somewhat rusty, and English not my first language, I made a more literal translation of the Ode (I,25), with a little help from the edition of Horace by Luca Canali (Orazio. Odi. Epodi. Mondadori, 2004).
    I see it as a sort of thank you for you blog 😉

    Ever more rarely do ardent young men
    Make repeated throws at your closed windows
    Nor do they disturb your sleep, and the door
    Likes the threshold [i.e. prefers to remain closed]

    that formerly turned its hinges much more easily.
    And already you hear less and less:
    “While I am perishing here, you,
    Lydia, sleep throughout the long nights?”

    Instead, you, old uninteresting woman,
    are in the lonely alley weeping for those arrogant adulterous lovers,
    and the Thracian wind [i.e. north wind] is blowing ever harder
    Under the new moon.

    With you, the burning love and lust
    that uses to madden the mares
    only rages within your torn intestines,
    Not without bitter pain,

    Because the youth enjoys much more
    The green strong ivy and the darkish myrtle,
    and gives the withered leaves
    To winter’s companion, the Hebro, icy stream.

    [The “Hebro” has been emendated by some editors by the “Euro”, yet another cold wind, the Hebro, is, as my addition explains an “icy stream” in Thrace – this information comes from Canali]

    Note: I deleted and re-wrote this post, because an error in (English) vocabulary disfigured the first line of the translation.

  10. Anonymous
    Posted April 26, 2006 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    “Hebro” is a river on the border between modern day Thrace and Turkey. The greek name of the river is EVROS (Hence HEBRO). It is a rather large river with a thriving delta where lots of birds nest. A cold stream indeed (not a wind) Nice translation. Confirms mu initial impression about the poem being about old age and loss of beauty and Youth!

  11. Anonymous
    Posted April 26, 2006 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    ALSO:The north wind coming down from Thrace is “Boreas” litterally “north wind” in ancient and modern greek by the way. A penetrating cold wind indeed, since it usually involves cold air masses descending from Siberia over Thrace and the Aegean Sea (fellow Greeks will know whatI mean first hand)

  12. syro0
    Posted April 26, 2006 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the additional information.
    I had wanted to research some geographical details myself, but was a little tired after the main translation.
    To finally elucidate the point the Italian editor was making, I quote part of his note:
    “Ebro – Gelido fiume della Tracia, rappresentato qui compagno dell’inverno… Alcuni hanno preferito l’emendamento Euro, vento ugualmente apportatore di tempeste”

    [Hebro – An icy river of Thrace, here represented as winter’s companion. Some have preferred the emendation “Euro”, a wind that also brings storms.]

    The Euro in this case is the Latin eurum, designation for the south-eastern wind otherwise called the s(c)irocco. Since that would bring storms all right, but is generally a hot wind, Horace would have made an impossible (in my eyes) step from winter to hot winds, and those editors choosing the latter variant, a blunder.

  13. Jeremy Denk
    Posted April 26, 2006 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I cannot be more delighted that readers of my blog are debating the translation of the last line of Horace’s Ode, and I am touched beyond measure by the ardor and effort placed into the more literal translation… which is so beautiful also. Thanks.

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