On Thursday, I went to hear Benjamin Kreith give a solo violin performance at the Mondavi Center, where he played as part of the Shinkoskey Noon Concert series. The beginning of the program featured sestinas by Ezra Pound and Dante Alighieri, both of which Pound later set to music that he composed for the violin: “Sestina – Altaforte” and “Al poco giorno.”
The first, “Altaforte,” is a dramatic monologue in the voice of Bertrand de Born, a twelfth-century French lord, a troubadour, and a man whom Dante placed in his Inferno, in the eighth circle of hell, in the ninth bolgia, with the sowers of discord. Ezra Pound respected Bertrand de Born as a poet, translating some of his French songs, but his dramatic monologue imagines him along the lines that Dante did: as one who sowed discord and reaped war. Pound wrote the poem in 1909 and first performed it about that time. Later, Pound composed violin music to accompany the sestina.
This past Thursday, Kreith provided a recording of Pound’s reading at Harvard in 1939. Then he played Pound’s music, and it is, on the violin, as uncomfortable as the voice of the poem. Another version, with piano and vocals, can be heard partially here.
The sestina is spoken in Bertrand de Born’s voice to his jongleur (singer), Papiols, and reveals Born’s bloody-mindedness. A commentary on the poem is available from The Modernism Lab.
SESTINA ALTAFORTE by Ezra Pound
LOQUITUR: En Bertrans de Born.
Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer up of strife.
Have I dug him up again?
The scene is at his castle, Altaforte. “Papiols” is his jongleur. “The Leopard,” the device of Richard Coeur de Lion.
Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howls my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.
In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When the tempests kill the earth’s foul peace,
And the lightnings from black heav’n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven skies God’s swords clash.
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour’s stour than a year’s peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there’s no wine like the blood’s crimson!
And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears through the dark clash
And it fills all my heart with rejoicing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might ‘gainst all darkness opposing.
The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth’s won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.
Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There’s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle’s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges ‘gainst “The Leopard’s” rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry “Peace!”
And let the music of the swords make them crimson!
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
Hell blot black for always the thought “Peace!”
“Al poco giorno” is in radical contrast to “Altaforte.” It is based on an Italian love sonnet by Dante, and the music is both subtler and sweeter. The song has been recorded on the album Ego Scriptor Cantilenae: The Music of Ezra Pound (2003), featuring conductor Robert Hughes: the first thirty seconds as well as the entire song may be heard online. On the relation between the poem and the music, see this commentary.
AL POCO GIORNO by Dante Alighieri
I have come, alas, to the great circle of shadow,
to the short day and the whitening hills,
when the colour is all lost from the grass,
though my desire will not lose its green,
so rooted is it in this hardest stone,
that speaks and feels as though it were a woman.
And likewise this heaven-born woman
stays frozen, like the snow in shadow,
and is unmoved, or moved like a stone,
by the sweet season that warms all the hills,
and makes them alter from pure white to green,
so as to clothe them with the flowers and grass.
When her head wears a crown of grass
she draws the mind from any other woman,
because she blends her gold hair with the green
so well that Amor lingers in their shadow,
he who fastens me in these low hills,
more certainly than lime fastens stone.
Her beauty has more virtue than rare stone.
The wound she gives cannot be healed with grass,
since I have travelled, through the plains and hills,
to find my release from such a woman,
yet from her light had never a shadow
thrown on me, by hill, wall, or leaves’ green.
I have seen her walk all dressed in green,
so formed she would have sparked love in a stone,
that love I bear for her very shadow,
so that I wished her, in those fields of grass,
as much in love as ever yet was woman,
closed around by all the highest hills.
The rivers will flow upwards to the hills
before this wood, that is so soft and green,
takes fire, as might ever lovely woman,
for me, who would choose to sleep on stone,
all my life, and go eating grass,
only to gaze at where her clothes cast shadow.
Whenever the hills cast blackest shadow,
with her sweet green, the lovely woman
hides it, as a man hides stone in grass.
Dante Alighieri (translated by A.S. Kline, 2008)