Do you believe in miracles? In Santa Claus? In the existence of natural forces,
beneficent to mankind, that conspire, at times, to grant us the fulfillment of our
dreams or, even better, felicities we never imagined?
I had concluded some years ago (in the wake of certain disappointments, both
personal and professional, that have left their mark not merely on my psyche but on
an impoverished scholarly community) that this cosmos is a cold and uncaring place
in which to live and die. But thanks to the sympathies of a bicycling delivery man,
Mr. Lum (who, noting my despondency, introduced me to Chinese philosophy)
everything has become more complicated since, if it’s true that suffering and
apparent misfortune can actually be instructional and eventually a boon, then I’m no
longer sure what to wish for.
And so it was in a state of uncertainty that I descended the stairs last week on
Christmas morning and approached the neatly wrapped gifts lying underneath the
Gesellschaft tree. You can imagine my surprise at discovering there, instead of the
usual socks, ties and pencils, a three movement string quartet in manuscript entitled
Le Colibri, alongside a black notebook containing, as it turns out, a group of letters
from the quartet’s composer to an unnamed woman, at once the object of his
affection and the source of his misery.
Neither music nor text bears any signature, and so, in our efforts to ascertain the
author, we must rely on the internal evidence of his harmonies and counterpoints, his
adverbs and adjectives.
To begin with, the title of the quartet is the name of an early song by Ernest
Chausson, a composer beloved of our chief editor, Peter Ceniti The poetry
celebrates the diminutive but intrepid “king of the forest,” and ultimately resolves into
an elaborate metaphor. Musically the original possesses a charming lightness,
employing equivocal five–beat measures. The main melody of this song is
interpolated into the first movement of the quartet on the flute whose brief,
unexpected appearance heightens the sense of quotation. This “Hummingbird
theme” reappears in the second movement, embellished and developed in various
canonic forms, prompting the composer to explicate, in his second letter, his
conflation of abstract contrapuntal methods with programmatic intentions.
The issue of authorship is complicated by the fact that, in the second movement
there exists, in addition to the “Hummingbird theme,” a contrasting melody, also
subject to canonic strictures: this tune is readily identified as the opening melody of
The Blue Flower, of Heinrich von Ofterdingen, a vignette which has achieved quasi-
legendary status in certain annals of the music community. From this alternation and
blending of Gallic and Teutonic traits one receives the impression, not so much of
the hand of Chausson, nor of Ofterdingen, but of a higher, synthesizing mind.
Yet the composer’s words, far from corroborating our thesis, serve to undermine and
cast doubt, as, for example, when the artist invokes the charming image of a cardinal
enchanted by its reflection in a glassy lake on a winter morning. As aficionados of
our Gesellschaft will know, this is a veiled reference to the legend surrounding the
death of Juan C. Arriaga (1806-1826) recounted in Sonata for Mrs. Cardinal (see
Pulications: Music Out of Time). According to the story, that young composer fell in
love with a little bird and renounced his human existence, being transformed into a
bright red cardinal (the reader will allow that from cardinal to hummingbird is a small
step) and lived out his earthly days in melodious felicity.
The main difficulty in ascribing the quartet to the pen of Arriaga (besides the
discrepancy in style between this work and his extant compositions) lies in the fact
that the Chausson melody was conceived some years after Arriaga’s death (or
But since we’re speaking of mirrors I might as well remind the reader that one’s
reflection is not precisely oneself, but in a sense one’s opposite, a dark anti-self,
staring back with implacable defiance, seeming to pronounce a verdict: we can
never know ourselves, much less another, nor ever say precisely what we mean.
When we turn our attention the third movement, all our former theories appear
misguided, and are replaced by a new set of ideas, provoked by fresh curiosities.
(Indeed, the style of this finale resembles that of the first two movements so remotely
that one is led to wonder whether it is not the work of another hand!) Here the flute
retires and is replaced (could Schoenberg have known this work?) by a vocalist.
The text is in French, though the anonymous poem is thought by some originally to
have been in Provencal (or Old Occitan).
But we have read these words before! Again the (patient) reader is referred to
Publications: Music Out of Time where he will find an article entitled The Ober-fim
Variations that describes a lengthy, one movement quintet for piano and strings
entitled Where Beauty Begins to Crumble, composed under most remarkable
circumstances by one Nikolay Nikolayevitch Lodyzhensky. As the text explains, the
work is thought to be based on a dream–inspired poem – that just happens to be
identical to the text of our present quartet’s final movement. And yet, none of the
quartet’s three movements bears strong stylistic similarities (except in the coda of
the finale) to the music of Lodyzhensky that our efforts have rescued from oblivion. (I
refer not only to the Piano Quintet but to the Tangerine Concerto as well.)
As for the parcel of letters, I have included here only those with direct bearing on the
compositional process in the Colibri Quartet, discarding thereby much information of
keen interest, particularly on the gustatory habits of our mystery musician who refers
to himself (with humor? with pride? with irony?) as Foodking . No sign of any
response from the Unknown Woman has surfaced: perhaps her letters have been
lost. Or perhaps she didn’t care to answer. Or maybe the composer, in his
reticence, or from a sense of propriety, refrained from ever sending his letters to her.
Or was there no one to send them to? – Was she a figment of his imagination?
My guess, considering that reality is usually more complex than our conjectures
about it, is that most of these surmises contain an element of truth: that he opted to
withhold the letters knowing beforehand of her indifference, that the mysterious
beauty, “short and sturdy, pumpkin–headed, with generous eyes,” to whom the
author addresses these missives, is, quite simply, his wife, whom he loves the old-
fashioned way, as the sky loves the sea, without thought, without choice, and without
a chance of her ever understanding – his wife, but here, in these letters, in the
sonorous image of a little green bird, idealized, immortalized, while their tragic love,
in this bright music, opens into a vast, scented forest and is gilded, by beauty’s boon,
in eternal hope.
Outside my window the snow is falling, but it is springtime in my heart. I had
despaired ever again of writing music – you know me, and how I can’t (or won’t, it’s
the same thing) push something out that’s not dying to be born. How many half-
hearted projects, fueled by forced enthusiasm, I have abandoned in the past few
But how did things change? you ask. It sounds silly: one morning (always the best
time) I dragged myself to the piano and played, with one hand, the first thing that
came into my mind, a pair of fifths, rocking back and forth. A well-spring opened: the
fifths became background and a melody grew out of them and took shape.
Continuation, refinement and variation have been pouring forth ever since. And in
spite of the profusion of ideas, everything fits meaningfully together, the connections
as natural and apparent to the ear as they were effortless and uncontrived in
I am now at the happy stage of transforming hasty sketches into a finished score. It’s
a string quartet though, of course, I can’t leave it that simple. A “guest flute” appears
in the first and second movements, and a singer in the finale.
Where did this all come from, after so long, and so suddenly? Is it truly beautiful, or
do I hear it in the sonorous glow of a life redeemed?
More than thirty years ago I first heard that little song (in a student recital from my
happy undergraduate days when every fresh musical experience was a revelation),
and I can still feel the quiet thrill steal over me as I struggled with the French, my
eyes shifting back and forth from the stage to the text, as all the while that soft and
supple music pulsed through the hall.
I must have stored this experience in that part of the memory reserved for archetypal
encounters – inspiring, almost sacred, unrepeatable. Or maybe I was just too busy –
in any case many years would pass before I’d think again of this chanson. Then one
day, seeking to expand the repertoire for a class, I stumbled on a fragmentary
recollection, as a traveler might trip, with good fortune, upon some splendid ruin. By
then I had forgotten both title and composer, retaining an impression, vague but
powerful, but with a little searching, Chausson’s Colibri, came to alight in that
intricate network of meaningful phenomena which is my life and work.
But was that magical web, that delicate pattern, implicit beforehand, and have I
merely coaxed it into view, or has it been constructed over these many years through
thoughts and deeds? Discovered or invented? (Or am I myself part of some larger
pattern, in which case perhaps the difference dissolves?)
In the history of the world there has never yet been a truly beautiful canon…until
Last night, just before turning out the light, I penned these words – not from egotism
(Bach is great, I am not) but with innocent happiness, contemplating the image of a
wintry morning with the white forest flecked by a red cardinal, frozen in the
contemplation of his image reflected in an icy pond. (When we think we see
another, it’s ourselves we see, and when we think we see ourselves, it is another.)
Musically, a mirror is created when one sounds a theme against it own inversion, as I
have done in the second movement of my quartet. But neither in musical mirrors nor
in visual ones is the reflection identical to the original: in a sense it is the opposite.
This leads our bird to the misconception that he sees another (that would be you)
whose differences attract his attention and whom he thus longs to know (as I long to
know you, beautiful stranger, even as I despair of knowing myself – or can learning
of you lead to self–knowledge?)
In any case it is the wish to express in music this pursuit, this desire, that
distinguishes the present, programmatic canon from those conventional contrapuntal
abstractions it otherwise resembles. For it seems to me, darling, one of music’s
miracles that two melodies, once entwined, yield something in their harmony
unanticipated in their prior isolation: let’s call it love, thanks to which you and I,
together, are neither anymore you nor I, but – what? Can you tell me what we are?
Yesterday we performed the quartet, after long and arduous rehearsal, and today I
am all mixed up.
I always feel this way in such circumstances: too many notes held in elegant
equipoise too long have involuntarily been surrendered to the chaos of my
unconscious, where they are currently bouncing around discordantly.
The performance? Typical: good enough to tantalize with a hint of the ideal
rendering, thus disappointing, despite some fine playing. I’ll probably come to
cherish the remembrance of the occasion, working with the musicians, more than the
experience of the final product. I admit without embarrassment that it was gratifying
to be able to focus on this music in the company of such comprehending and
enthusiastic players, though the contrast with my normally solitary creative existence
was so strong and sudden as no doubt to contribute to my present, disoriented
Above all, though, I am gripped today (as usual) with a peculiar dissatisfaction – an
abrupt loss of interest in all this music, which is balanced by an urge to make
something new and different, though not completely so: something with less thematic
working and harmonic detail, something with splashes of color and delicately dove-
tailed washes of sound…
And so it is, my oblivious one, that a healthy discontent with the past, mingled with
perpetual hope in the future, creates the industrious present, in which true happiness
in this life is found.
How lovely are the letters lovers write! The greater the distance that separates
them, the longer the passage of time between them, the more lovely they become.
I could almost wish for obstacles to be set between us, like those old Wiek
interposed between his daughter Clara and her beloved Schumann. How noble was
their longing, how precious their least hope, how triumphant the ultimate
consummation of their wishes.
Whereas we, with nothing to hinder us, flee from a bitter home, and dream of
throwing ourselves in front of speeding trains, to be free of this painful bond.
To be free? Yes, free to live, despite the cynical times, a hero’s life, studying
nature, fashioning beautiful things, nourishing, teaching, loving, prodigiously pouring
out our lives.
But this one thing I cannot do: exist with the dull compromise of narrow-minded
conformity. I DO NOT CARE about owning a car. I DO NOT CARE about wealth
and prestige. (Everyone says this but I mean it.) I want to be generous, sensitive,
wise, funny, patient, fecund, strong, indefatigueable, fearless, clean of spite or
And if one person in the universe understands this and sees in me a prince (flawed
and bumbling to be sure, but meant for goodness), and if that person is you, it
becomes true, and the world is swathed in an aureole of light. But if you thwart my
efforts, then, like some tribal magician whose power depends on the naïve credulity
of his clan, I become impotent, desperate, and seek only to die.
…But even to die, and darkly, as did Schumann, with all the happiness of youth
dissolved in madness and grief, is a fate lovers can bear – a plenitude of sorrow, as
grand as their former joy, and a summons beyond this world and its art and present
love to some mysterious otherness where,
…when their coming is due all blessed souls will return,
Where the eagles are, the planets, the Father’s own heralds,
Where the Muses are still, heroes and lovers began,
There we shall meet again, or here, on a dew-covered island,
Where what is ours for once, blooms that a garden conjoins,
All our poems are true and springs remain beautiful longer
And another, a new year of our souls can begin.