Friday, June 19, 2015

Frédéric Chopin, Op 28, No. 15

The rain came in overflowing torrents. We made three leagues in six hours, only to return in the middle of a flood. We got back in absolute dark, shoe-less, having been abandoned by our driver to cross unheard of perils. We hurried, knowing how our sick one would worry. Indeed he had, but now was as though congealed in a kind of quiet desperation, and, weeping, he was playing his wonderful Prelude. Seeing us come in, he got up with a cry, then said with a bewildered air and a strange tone, "Ah, I was sure that you were dead." When he recovered his spirits and saw the state we were in, he was ill, picturing the dangers we had been through, but he confessed to me that while waiting for us he had seen it all in a dream, and no longer distinguished the dream from reality, he became calm and drowsy while playing the piano, persuaded that he was dead himself. He saw himself drowned in a lake. 

Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should intepret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might — and he was right to — against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds. His composition of that night was surely filled with raindrops, resounding clearly on the tiles of the Charterhouse, but it had been transformed in his imagination and in his song into tears falling upon his heart from the sky. … The gift of Chopin is [the expression of] the deepest and fullest feelings and emotions that have ever existed. He made a single instrument speak a language of infinity. He could often sum up, in ten lines that a child could play, poems of a boundless exaltation, dramas of unequaled power.

--George Sand

...The Brahms she played was thoughtful, the Schubert confounding. The Debussy she sneaked in between the covers of a Bach Mass was all contrived nature and yet as gorgeous as a meadowlark. Beethoven contained all messages, but her crescendos lacked conviction. However, when it came to the Chopin, she did not use the flowery ornamentation or the endless trills and insipid floribunda of so many of her day. Her playing was of the utmost sincerity.

And Chopin, played simply, devastates the heart....

--Louise Erdrich, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Each one writes what he hears (a rose for Bulat)

If a friend were to ask me today, "Which is your favorite Bulat Okudzhava ballad?" I might have to choose, "Historical Novel."

There is a habit that particular song has of sneaking up subtly on the listener. I will provide a translation for non-Russian speakers, but the true effect, naturally, is contained in the rhythm, rhymes and word-games of the original.

The literal translation of the refrain, "Each one writes what he hears, each one hears how he breathes," hints at only a fraction of the magic of the pure falling-leaf cadence of this, when half-whispered, half-sung by Okudzhava:

"Kazhdy pishet chto on slishet, kazhdy slishet kak on dishet."

Watch Okudzhava work his tacit wizardry on the audience in this historical performance I have included below.


I Write a Historical Novel

In a vase of dark glass
From an imported beer
A red rose bloomed
Proudly and unhurriedly

Bit by bit, I began
Writing a historical novel
Floating as if through a fog
From prologue to epilogue

Each one writes what he hears
Each one hears how he breathes
How he breathes, thus he writes
Without trying to impress

This is what nature intended
Why, is not our business
And for what, not ours to judge

There were blue horizons
There was an excess of imagination
And from my own fate
I began tugging out the threads

An outfit from the heroic past
Suggested an identity
And I imagined myself
A retired lieutenant

Each one writes what he hears
Each one hears how he breathes
How he breathes, thus he writes
Without trying to impress

This is what nature intended
Why, is not our business
And for what, not ours to judge

Imagination is not deception
The thought behind it is not ended
Give us time to finish the novel
Up until the last page

And while it is still alive,
The red rose in the bottle
Let the words be shouted out,
Which have long been collecting

Each one writes what he hears
Each one hears how he breathes...

--Bulat Okudzhava

Я пишу исторический роман

В склянке темного стекла
Из-под импортного пива
Роза красная цвела
Гордо и неторопливо

Исторический роман
Сочинял я понемногу
Пробиваясь как в туман
От пролога к эпилогу

Каждый пишет что он слышит
Каждый слышит как он дышит
Как он дышит так и пишет
Не стараясь угодить
Так природа захотела
почему не наше дело
Для чего не нам судить

Были дали голубы
Было вымысла в избытке
И из собственной судьбы
Я выдергивал по нитке

В путь героев снаряжал
Наводил о прошлом справки
И поручиком в отставке
Сам себя воображал

Каждый пишет что он слышит
Каждый слышит как он дышит
Как он дышит так и пишет
Не стараясь угодить

Так природа захотела
Почему не наше дело
Для чего не нам судить

Вымысел не есть обман
Замысел еще не точка
Дайте дописать роман
До последнего листочка

И пока еще жива
роза красная в бутылке
Дайте выкрикнуть слова
Что давно лежат в копилке

Каждый пишет что он слышит
Каждый слышит как он дышит...

--Булат Окуджава

Rose (Alexei Antonov)

Friday, May 01, 2015

Just because.

While I listen to this piece of music, I feel as if I am listening for a message from myself to myself which has been embedded and encoded there, as impossible as that might sound.

Immortal Beloved (Beethoven, Zagajewski)

Firstly, I must thank Fiodor at his blog, for asking the question, Do you love Beethoven?

Then, I would like to dare someone to explain to me, how could one NOT love Beethoven?


According to Letters of Note, a 10-page letter was found among Beethoven's personal papers after his death.

The letter was addressed simply to, "The Immortal Beloved."

No one knows the identity of the "Beloved." Below is a partial transcript and and an image of the first and last page of the letter (borrowed from Letters of Note.)

Even in bed my ideas yearn towards you, my Immortal Beloved, here and there joyfully, then again sadly, awaiting from Fate, whether it will listen to us. I can only live, either altogether with you or not at all. Yes, I have determined to wander about for so long far away, until I can fly into your arms and call myself quite at home with you, can send my soul enveloped by yours into the realm of spirits — yes, I regret, it must be. You will get over it all the more as you know my faithfulness to you; never another one can own my heart, never — never! O God, why must one go away from what one loves so, and yet my life in W. as it is now is a miserable life. Your love made me the happiest and unhappiest at the same time. At my actual age I should need some continuity, sameness of life — can that exist under our circumstances? Angel, I just hear that the post goes out every day — and must close therefore, so that you get the L. at once. Be calm — love me — today — yesterday.

What longing in tears for you — You — my Life — my All — farewell. Oh, go on loving me — never doubt the faithfullest heart

Of your beloved


Ever thine.
Ever mine.
Ever ours.

One of my favorite poems from Adam Zagajewski's collection, Without End, is this one:

Late Beethoven

I haven't yet known a man who loved virtue as strongly as one loves beauty. --Confucius

Nobody knows who she was, the Immortal
Beloved. Apart from that, everything is
clear. Feathery notes rest
peacefully on the threads of the staff
like martins just come
from the Atlantic. What would I have to be
in order to speak about him, he who's still
growing. Now we are walking alone
without ghosts or banners. Long live
chaos, say our solitary mouths.
We know that he dressed carelessly,
that he was given to fits of avarice, that he wasn't
always fair to his friends.
Friends are a hundred years
late with their impeccable smiles. Who
was the Immortal Beloved? Certainly,
he loved virtue more than beauty.
But a nameless god of beauty dwelled
in him and compelled his obedience.
He improvised for hours. A few minutes
of each improvisation were noted down.
These minutes belong neither to the nineteenth
nor to the twentieth century; as if hydrochloric
acid burned a window in velvet, thus
opening a passage to even
smoother velvet, thin as
a spiderweb. Now they name
ships and perfumes after him. They don't know who
the Immortal Beloved was, otherwise
new cities and pâtés would bear her
name. But it's useless. Only velvet
growing under velvet, like a leaf hidden
safely in another leaf. Light in darkness.
Unending adagios. That's how tired freedom
breathes. Biographers argue only
over details. Why he tormented
his nephew Karl so much. Why
he walked so fast. Why he didn't go
to London. Apart from that, everything is clear.
We don't know what music is. Who speaks
in it. To whom it is addressed. Why it is
so obstinately silent. Why it circles and returns
instead of giving a straight answer
as the Gospel demands. Prophecies
were not fulfilled. The Chinese didn't reach
the Rhine. Once more, it turned out that
the real world doesn't exist, to the immense
relief of antiquaries. The secret was hidden
somewhere else, not in soldiers'
napsacks, but in a few notebooks.
Grillparzer, he, Chopin. Generals are
cast in lead and tinsel to
give hell's flame a moment of respite
after kilowatts of straw. Unending adagios,
but first and foremost joy, wild
joy of shape, the laughing sister of death.

(Translation by Renata Gorczynski)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Late Light

Here, east of the sun, to the port side of the moon, it is now my distinct privilege to inform you that the dream is over. That the veils have been parted, and a scroll has been inserted into a space near your heart by a pair of cerulean hands. On it, three words have been inscribed: "Kindness Will Endure."

Did you catch that scent? Is it frankincense, with the added perfume of some rare flower? Or is it incense, or myrrh? How is it that I can smell it from my perch on this stump in my garden?

How was it that this has happened, Draconis? Not for the first time, I glimpsed, or I felt you by my side. I was parked, as usual, at my desk. You, with your translucent silvery wings, edged in blue, kept fluttering about.

Our thoughts were with the people in Nepal. I knew that you would fly there, to comfort them. I would help in my own way, as best as I could. Absent-mindedly, I read the words on my wall below the Tree of Life: Lift the stone and you will find me; cut the wood in two and there I am.

And then -- As soon as I had pronounced the words, "I am," a solemn and unexpected message came: "You are my sister."

"And so you are," you, Draconis confirmed.

And then the Melissae began to arrive, I could feel their silken presence fill the room and surround us both. They tapped me so very gently and elegantly, and said, "I think you know that this is a grail, this is a fragile love."

You must understand that I had not been soliciting any of this. I am a busy person, with all sorts of various and sundry projects, details, deadlines, and baskets overflowing with unfolded, but mostly clean, laundry.

The scent of the perfumed incense, again. A whispering from the Melissas: "Mary," they said. And then, I do not know how this is, but I felt the sensation in my body as if it had taken the form of the Nazarene, and I could feel the nails in my wrists as a strange heaviness. And then, hovering above me, a softness, a sweetness, a light, a warmth. It was Lady Isis, bending over us all in a blessing and embrace.

We were silent for some time.

Then, Draconis, you were lying on your back, staring at the ceiling,  Just as soon as I received the word, "Lhasa," you said, "I've been seeing oriental dragons, mandalas and all sorts of colored symbols." It was as if we were traveling together, wearing some kind of hoods, and I saw our hearts as lotuses. I cupped my hands and extended my lotus out -- so that I could join with the monks in prayer. I lit a candle.

Later that day, it was so strange, we were both feeling a sharpness in our abdomen, as if we were sharing birth pangs with our Mother Earth. Neter, neteru. Nature, calling to us.

How this was, I do not know. All I do know is that -- Draconis, I wanted to lock you inside a red, red rose and throw away the key.

"Stop sitting on my tail!" you howled. When I jumped up in mock horror and apologized, you began chuckling, a low and slow rumble.


It is late now, but, as it happens in the North, if it isn't dark most of the time, it is light most of the time. The rays from a burnished-silvery sun pierce the horizon on one side, while the moon rises on the other. I decide to go on a ramble up the road.

The poplars are swaying lightly this evening. "Veter," I hear: "The wind, Alla', there is a grace in the wind." There is the trill of a thrush.

I return home, and sit again. I realize that it is no longer Draconis, but Alyosha sitting by my side. "I think I just saw the sun rising in our hearts," I say.

"Yes, it is," you answer.

And we hold hands like two small children, smiling, now and then, through our tears.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Diotima on Socrates

"There is poetry, which, as you know, is complex and manifold. All creation or passage of non–being into being is poetry or making, and the processes of all art are creative; and the masters of arts are all poets or makers.


"And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.

 --Diotima of Mantinea (as quoted by Socrates in Plato's Symposium).

Men of Athens, you did not invite
A woman to sup with you that night.
Agathon shared his cups among men:
Not with children, or slaves or women.

(All of your speeches regarding love
Were overseen by a senior sage:
He had the hands of a stone-cutter,
And for wisdom's sake, he drank hemlock.)

I tell you this as the Pythia.
For as a teacher of Socrates,
I led him on beauty's uphill path:
Love's ladder, child of plenty and lack.

(I will not remind you of your loss:
Your run-away chariots, per Phaedrus.
I'll return to my cave, in dissent,
Alone with my bright Phoebus, descend.)

I'll pass a carving of Socrates
And smile at the familiar phrases
Recorded in history by man,
Folded into light by a woman. *

*a bit of a misquoting of Pythagoras.

Diotima of Mantinea (Józef Simmler, 1855)

Irina Bragina sings Marina Tsvetaeva

Recently, I made the glad discovery of Irina Bragina's delicate interpretations of several pieces of Marina Tsvetaeva's poetry, set to music composed by Bragina herself. In honor of the occasion, I have decided to prove to myself, once again, that Tsvetaeva's poetry is nearly untranslatable.

Indulge me; listen to the song, read my attempt at a translation; and then judge for yourself. 

Thank goodness for music, which is able to convey what would otherwise be impossible. Brava, Bragina.

(As a post script, I would add that learning the background behind this poem adds a depth to it that I can hardly bear. The eyes of a woman dreaming of trees, the eyes of a small child -- )


Of both quarreling and singing will tire--
even this mouth!
And then even time will deceive me
and sleep--will come.

And I will lie quietly, will close my eyes,        (literally, will place my eyelashes close together)
will close my eyes.
And I will lie quietly, and I will dream
of trees and of birds.

--Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

April 12, 1917
*Under this poem is a later note: "Written on the eve of the birth of my second daughter, Irina, born on April 13, 1917, died February 2, 1920, in Sretenie, from hunger, in the Kuntsevo orphanage. Snow; pine trees."

А всё же спорить и петь устанет —

И этот рот!
А всё же время меня обманет
И сон — придёт.

И лягу тихо, смежу ресницы,
Смежу ресницы.
И лягу тихо, и будут сниться
Деревья и птицы.

--Марина Ивановна Цветаева (1892 — 1941)

12 апреля 1917
* Под стихотворением поздняя приписка: «(Написано накануне рождения моей второй дочери — Ирины — род 13-го апреля 1917 года — умершей 2-го февраля 1920 года, в Сретение, от голода, в Кунцевском приюте. Снега, сосны)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Clara Schumann (Piano Trio in G Minor, Opus 17, 3rd Movement)

Performed by alesiEnsemble Salzburg.

Clara Wieck Schumann was a noted 19th century musician and composer. She also had eight children. While listening to this music, I feel a bit like the Grinch -- my heart expands, growing three sizes larger!

Monday, April 20, 2015

The clouds are churning all day in a milky sky; I close my eyes and am wholly at home,

but to please my child, I drive out by the sea. 

The tide is out, and is rushing sidelong over toward the mouths of two great rivers.

We hear the glad chatter of a flock of wild ducks returning to their Northern nesting-grounds.

A haze hovers over the trees, which are ready to burst into gold-green flames.

On the way home, a foreboding seizes my innermost viscera. It has to do with my youngest; my fierce young phoenix has been having a day.

In the evening, while speaking to a friend, I glance out the window to the West in the direction of the departing sun -- 

there, between two trees, the inexplicable is occurring: the waving branch of one spruce to the left is describing a sloe-dark eye, while a parallel branch to its right depicts the other half of a pair of eyes, staring directly at me. A curling branch curves downward like the curve of a shawl, completing charcoal sketch of a most obscure, dignified, and nebulous beauty.

Not wanting to lose the enchantment of this moment, I hurry to tell the tale to my friend, who pronounces solemnly, "Do you not see that this is you, you are the dark mother. It is you."

I do not have the proper words to reply. All that I am -- I offer to this world, to this beauty, to this becoming.