Sunday, April 18, 2010

"I am by nature a conflagration..." from the Minotaur to Prometheus

[For context on this lyric essay, begin reading from the beginning of this month's posts]

How does one bridge untranslateable distances?

Benjamin Britten used the metaphor of map-reading when discussing the composition of modern opera. Technology progresses, yet the path remains roughly the same. His observations marked the distance between his own style and that of a younger, avant-garde colleague's, Harrison Birtwistle.

The waves at the opening of Birtwistle's The Minotaur are oceans away from Britten's Peter Grimes, yet traces of kinship are audible in the evocative, shimmering strings depicting the sea...

Ariadne's--and the opera's--first words: "the moon's an eye..."
(the infinite poetry of the moon and the sea--recalling Britten's most famous Sea Interlude: "Moonlight")

"The Moon's a goddess/though her name's a secret" (Birtwistle).

"All things flow in a river of meaning"
(Caputo, The Weakness of God).

Finding/forging/creating meaning in art.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Another of Keats' most beautiful, resonant,
and maddeningly distant pronouncements, from the
"Ode on a Grecian Urn," no less.

Vida brevis. Ars Longa.

And if not lasting, at least meaning. Motivation. Promethean,
the will required. Ambition. Appetite. Unslakeable thirst.
What choice does such a one have?

"I am by nature a conflagration," Rita Dove imagines
Beethoven saying (Sonata Mulattica, Norton, 2009).

Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods to bring to humankind (painted by Heinrich F├╝ger, c. 1817), was punished by Zeus.

He was bound to a rock (Rubens, c.1611), his liver devoured by an eagle, only to regenerate and be eaten again, daily (Jordaens, c.1640).

Aeschylus wrote the most famous dramatization of the wily Titan,
Prometheus Bound. The obvious antecedent to Shelley's romantic verse
drama, Prometheus Unbound, of 1820 (the year before Keats died, aged 25. Vida brevis).

Beethoven, the Prometheus of composers, for whom music "raged...rising so swiftly I could not write quickly enough/to ease the roiling" wrote piano variations and ballet music on the subject.

Music from The Creatures of Prometheus finds its way into the first
of Beethoven's great odd-numbered Symphonies, no. 3, the so-called "Eroica."

Beethoven Hero (Scott Burnham, Princeton).

Goethe's great poem, Prometheus is heroic.

Driven by his "Holy burning heart," to create a race of beings like himself, "to suffer, to weep/to enjoy and delight themselves" ("and to mock you/as I do!" he defiantly flings in Zeus' face).

"In the beginning was the Note and the Note was with God. Whosoever can reach for that Note, reach high, and bring it back to us on earth..." (Leonard Bernstein, paraphrasing St John, channeling Prometheus).

Another great Goethe poem on Grecian characters is "An Schwager Kronos" ("To Coachmen Chronos"). "Make haste...onwards, striving and hoping" the ambitious subject commands, in a poem of dizzying energy and drive. It inspired one of Schubert's great dramatic songs. Meryl Secrest uses fragments from the poem as epigraphs at the head of each chapter in her biography on Bernstein.

Another one of Schubert's great Goethe settings--"a miniature oratorio"--is "Prometheus."

Which Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) found subpar, lacking "a truly Goethean Spirit" which could only be realized in the post-Wagnerian world he himself inhabited.

Wagner, the megalomaniacal Prometheus of the Romantic era. The fulfillment and bane of Nietzsche's prophetic imagination.

Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Thus Mahler and Strauss composed, following Wagner, following Nietzsche).

Mahler and Wolf: exact contemporaries, neither close nor distant.

Wolf did not use poetry he thought his colleagues--living or dead--had satisfactorily set. Wolf's settings of Goethe Schubert had already composed are therefore of heightened interest.

Mahler set one Nietzsche text (from Zarathustra). His entire symphonic output is one Promethean journey to find/forge/create meaning out of existence, from his heroic First (the Titan) to the chained-to-the-rock purgatory of his unfinished Tenth.

William Carlos Williams' poem (about another glowing red object)

"The figure five...

(even if about a fire truck), also reels one of Ariadne's labyrinthine threads to Liszt's 5th Symphonic poem of and Scriabin's 5th Symphony:


"I am by nature a conflagration;
I would rather leap
than sit and be looked at...

It is impossible
to care enough..."

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