08 March 2012

The Grief Gondola

"Two old men, father-in-law and son-in-law, Liszt and Wagner,
         are staying on the Grande Canal
together with the restless woman who is married to King Midas
he who turns everything he touches into Wagner.
The green chill of the sea pushes up through the palace floors.
Wagner is a marked man, the well known Caspar profile is more tired than before
        his face a white flag.
The gondola is heavily laden with their lives,
two round trips and one one-way.

A window in the palace blows open, they grimace in the sudden draught.
Outside on the water, the garbage gondola appears, paddled
        by two one-oared bandits.
Liszt has composed a few chords so heavy they ought to be sent
to the mineralogical institute in Padua for analysis.
Too heavy to rest, they are able only to sink and sink through the future
        all the way down to the year of the brownshirts.
The gondola is heavily laden with the huddled stones of the future.

Openings toward 1990.
March 25: Worry about Lithuania.
Dreamt I visited a large hospital.
No staff. Everyone was a patient.
In the same dream a newborn girl
who spoke in complete sentences.

Compared to his son-in-law, who is a man of his time, Liszt is a
        motheaten grandseigneur.
It's a disguise.
The deep that tries out and discards various masks has chosen
        just this one for him—
the deep that wants to join the humans without showing its face.

Abbé Liszt is used to carrying his own suitcase through sleet and sunshine
and when the time comes to die there will be no one there
        to meet him at the station.
A tepid breeze of highly gifted cognac carries him off
        in the midst of an assignment.
He is never free of assignments.
Two thousand letters a year!
The schoolboy who writes the misspelled word one hundred times before he is
        allowed to go home.
The gondola is heavily laden with life, it is simple and black.

Back to 1990.
Dreamt I drove a hundred miles in vain.
Then everything was magnified. Sparrows as large as hens
sang so that my ears popped.
Dreamt that I had drawn piano keys
on the kitchen table. I played on them, mutely.
The neighbors came in to listen.

The clavier which has been silent through all of Parsifal (but it has listened)
        is at last allowed to say something.
When Liszt plays tonight he holds down the sea-pedal so that
        the green force of the sea
rises through the floor and flows together with all the stone of the building.
Good evening beautiful deep!
The gondola is heavily laden with life, it is simple and black.

Dreamt I was starting school but came late.
Everyone in the room wore white masks.
It was impossible to tell who was the teacher."
 - Grief Gondola # 2 by Tomas Transtromer, translated from the Swedish by Malena Morling, 1998.

Call it La lugubre gondole, or the funeral gondola.  In French it sounds fitting for the experience of a grieving widow.  Let us specify Cosima Lizst von Bulow Wagner, whose name merely hints at  a life rich in incident. Daughter of composer Franz Lizst, wife of the influential music critic Hans von Bulow, mistress, wife and finally widow of composer Richard Wagner. 
In the poem (above) by recent Nobel Literature laureate Tomas Transtromer it becomes  Grief Gondola #2.  The "#2" refers to Lizst's several versions of a piece he composed in the wake of his son-in-law's death on February 13, 1883 in Venice.  The second version for piano is the best known and was included in the composer's portfolio of Transcendental Etudes.
"My wife is very strong-willed,"  Hans von Bulow had noted mildly of his young bride.  Cosima was the mother of two young girls when, at twenty-six, she began a flagrant affair with Richard Wagner.  Seven years and three children (whom she passed off as von Bulow's) later, and after an apology from Wagner's royal patron for exiling the composer when rumors ran rampant, the lovers were finally wed in 1870.
Strong-willed as Cosima was, she was not granted her wish to die with Wagner "in the selfsame hour."   When Wagner died  the making of the death mask had to be postponed while Cosima clung to the decaying corpse.  The funeral procession that took Wagner's remains back to Bayreuth sailed down the Grand Canal, with a gondola draped in black.  No one could see the widow who had cut off her  hair and stuffed it into the coffin. 
Lizst had disapproved his daughter's conduct but the two reconciled and he visited the Wagners for the last time at Christmastime 1862.  Perhaps his own numerous health problems contributed to Lizst's premonition of Wagner's death.  We know his imagination was transfixed by the funeral processions, gliding silently along the  canal like so many black swans, by his use of poignant augmented triads, drifting toward atonality.

Tomas Transtromer was one of those writers I had meant to look into, until he won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year and events overtook me. Now there are books to choose from and not just the odd poem included in an anthology here and there.  I've wrestled with Lizst's piano pieces,  especially the beautiful Consolation in B-flat, but not Der Trauer Gondel and failed to mention the celebrations of Lizst's bicentennial year in 2011. 
1. Joseph Saint-Germier - A Burial In Venice, 1899, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Edward Steichen - Late Afternoon - Venice, originally printed in Camera Work for April 1913, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

For further Reading:
Cosima Wagner: Lady of Bayreuth by Oliver Hilmes, Yale University Press: 2010.
The Deleted World by Tomas Trasntromer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 2011.
For the Living And The Dead by Tomas Transtromer, Ecco Press: 2011.
The Great Enigma by Tomas Transtromer, New Directions: 2006.
Inspired Winter by Tomas Transtromer, Dedalus Press: 2011.
The Sorrow Gondola by Tomas Transtromer, Green Integer Press: 2010


Timothy Cahill said...

Hi Jane, what a marvelous poem. "Liszt has composed a few chords so heavy they ought to be sent
to the mineralogical institute in Padua for analysis." Funny and brilliant. Thanks for posting.

Jane said...

An aside that didn't make it into the article - but would have if I'd been cleverer about it - is that Hans Von Bulow in his role as critic wrote that for music, Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was the Old Testament and Beethoven's piano sonatas were the New Testament. Von Bulow was evidently no match for Cosima, definitely not a nice girl, so to speak. Nut then, a nice girl would have been wasted on Wagner.

femminismo said...

I swear that 90 percent of what I've learned about art in the last few years - and the history of art - has come from reading your blog!

Jane said...

Jeanne, I'm always so happy to hear from you. I try to find interesting things and the write interestingly about them. The latter is much more of a challenge than the former, but it's fun.