Critical Obsession

August 29, 2010

By Kyle Gann

We went to Concord, Mass., a couple of weeks ago. It's my default short-vacation spot. I love the bookstores: The Barrow, the Concord Bookshop, Books with a Past, as well as the gift shops at local museums and authors' houses. I always find a dozen books there I didn't know about, many about Transcendentalism. And we walk around Walden Pond, and I wonder how much quieter it might be if Thoreau hadn't turned it into such a shrine. SonataMulattica.jpg

In The Barrow, I was going through poetry, and my eye ran across a title: Sonata Mulattica. I did a double take, chuckled in surprise. I tried to keep going. I looked at it again. I took it out, read a poem, put it back and moved on. But the book virtually leapt back into my hands. It's by Rita Dove, African-American poet who was poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. How can it be that the national poet laureate receives so little fanfare that I can fail to have heard of her 15 years later?

Anyway, Sonata Mulattica is an entire book of poems about a single subject: Beethoven's writing the Kreutzer Sonata for the "African prince" violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, falling out with him over a woman, and then dedicating the piece to Rodolphe Kreutzer instead. Dove uses lots of musical terminology, all correctly - in youth she played the cello, apparently - and her characterizations ring true and tired and humble, with none of the pompous mythologizing that attends portraits of great composers. Poem after poem after poem on this one moment in history, some from Bridgetower's perspective, some from Beethoven's, some from that of minor characters, and some of my favorites are about Haydn, who encouraged Bridgetower. This one is titled Haydn, Overheard (I'll refrain from entire poems for copyright reasons):

It is a sad thing always
to be a slave
but if slave I must, better
the oboe's clarion tyranny

than a man's cruel whims.
I stayed on at Esterhaza,
writing music for the world
between spats and budgets,

with no more leave
to step outside the gates
than a prize egg-laying hen.
Even after Miklos died

and his tone-deaf son
filled the courtyard
with military parades,
I hesitated: Call it

robbing Peter to pay Paul,
but I had been homeless once
and did not care for hunger....

But the finest gift I ever received
was the vision of Johann Peter Salomon
with his flamboyant nose and cape
swirling across my doorstep:

"I've come to fetch you," he said.
It was December. We set out
from Vienna on the fifteenth
for London, that great free city.

And here's Bridgetower, in a poem called Andante con Variazioni:

Thank you. It was a privilege. You are so kind.
It is all his doing; I am merely the instrument.
To have the honor of this premiere...
a beauty of a piece, indeed.

What an honor! Countess, I am enchanted.
I only wish I could better express my gratitude
in your lovely language: Vielen Dank.
It is all his - why, thank you, sir, I am speechless....

Herr van Beethoven is indeed a Master, and Wien
an empress of a city. My apologies -
I only meant that she is... magnificent.
(Ludwig, get me out of here!)

[UPDATE: In an attempt to better do the book justice, here's Beethoven:

Call me rough, ill-tempered, slovenly - I tell you,
every tenderness I have ever known
has been nothing
but thwarted violence, an ache
so permanent and deep, the lightest touch
awakens it... It is impossible

to care enough. I have returned
with a second Symphony
and 15 Piano Variations
which I've named Prometheus,
after the rogue Titan, the half-a-god
who knew the worst sin is to take
what cannot be given back.

I smile and bow, and the world is loud.
And though I dare not lean in to shout
Can't you see that I am deaf? -
I also cannot stop listening.]

It's a lovely book, a theme with variations indeed, and from every possible perspective. I could imagine reading about this episode and writing a poem, but an entire book of poems and so musically intelligent - it's quite astonishing. I considered ordering it as a textbook for my Beethoven course this fall, but I think I'll just put it on reserve, and make a much bigger deal than usual about the Kreutzer Sonata, which is one of my favorite middle Beethoven pieces anyway. Rita Dove: Sonata Mulattica (2009): highly recommended. And it's why internet shopping is not enough. I would never have run across this book on the internet, never known to Google "poems about Beethoven," never known who Dove was. Occasionally you have to walk into a really good, independent bookstore and finger every book on the shelves.

I also ran across The Thoreau You Don't Know (also 2009) by Robert Sullivan. It looks and sounds like a facile compendium of Thoreavian esoterica, but it's actually a brilliant revisionist biography, with the contradictory virtues of being breezily written yet withal extremely erudite. Its ostensive purpose is to rescue Thoreau's reputation from those who think he was an antisocial "Mr. Nature," by emphasizing the year he spent in New York City trying to get a start as a writer, the time he spent in court as expert witness for property disputes (being a surveyor), and his wise handling of the family pencil business. Having not had a superficial view of Thoreau myself (the book convinced me), I didn't need the revisionism, but I was impressed with how much mass culture Sullivan delved into in order to anchor Thoreau in his immediate society, researching 1840s sheet music and ladies' magazines, and the changes in agriculture brought about by the depression of 1837. The bibliography is kaleidoscopically diverse. Oxymoronically a thought-provoking page-turner, the book is a worthy opposite bookend to Robert D. Richardson's more introverted Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind.

Copyright 2010 by Kyle Gann

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