Ezra Pound: birdsong and Vivaldi

From a lecture I gave in Venice recently.

Of the various controversial figures who benefited from Winnaretta Singer’s [the princesse de Polignac’s]  patronage and patience at her palazzo in Venice, the American poet Ezra Pound and his violinist girlfriend Olga Rudge are among the more colourful examples. Her working relationship with the couple dates from the early 1930s when Pound was living in Rapallo, though she had first met him in Paris, where he had been a regular fixture in the salons, particularly that of one his lovers, Nathalie Barney. Rudge and Pound had begun their affair in 1924, when Rudge was already well-established as a leading concert violinist. She regularly gave recitals with Winnaretta’s lover and protégée, the pianist Renatta Borgatti. 

Their association with Winnaretta in Italy gave birth to two significant projects. First, Rudge and Pound were to become key figures in the 1930s revival of Vivaldi’s work which, though it is tremendously popular today, had been unfashionable in the concert repertoire since the 18th century. The couple had discovered an important corpus of concerto manuscripts in Turin, which they were able to edit and publish with Winnaretta’s assistance. Second, posterity has Winnaretta partly to thank for Pound’s Canto LXXV, an unusual and striking poem about birdsong inspired by the Renaissance composer Clement Janaquin’s choral masterpiece, Le Chant des oiseaux, an onomatopoeic piece containing passages that mimic the jubilant dawn chorus of birds. Winnaretta tracked down and bought the original Janaquin manuscript for Pound, who wanted to include the work in one of his concert programmes in Rapallo. It was not until much later, during his internment by US forces in Italy on charges of treason, and his subsequent confinement in an asylum in the USA, that his fascination with Janaquin germinated into the Canto. In the final published version of the poem, Pound reproduces a modern version of the piece written by his friend and collaborator, Gerhart Münch, a semi-permanent member of the Rapallo circle. Pound was the self-appointed musical director of classical concerts at the civic hall in Rapallo, an interest that culminated, as will be seen, in a series of concerts in 1936 devoted to the performance of the “lost” works by Vivaldi. 

As the two projects developed, Rudge and Pound became regular guests at the palace, where Rudge was soon established as a regular performer at Winnaretta’s recitals and at her many ad hoc musical gatherings. She occasionally visited them at Rapallo where Pound, who had a practical bent despite his outwardly chaotic bohemian persona, went so far as to have the radiators repaired in preparation for her visit. They were certainly a decorative and engaging couple, he tall with cinematic good looks and a left-bank penchant for floppy hats and velvet pantaloons, she with an appealing right- bank elegance that her association with Pound had done little to diminish. Among his other social accomplishments, Pound was a terrifically good mimic, both in person and in print. He did what must have been a highly engaging impression of the Reverend Andrew Robertson, the Scottish Presbyterian minister in Venice, who ferociously inveighed against the decadence of the “Rawman Releegion”. Like Stravinsky, Pound treated Winnaretta as an equal and the tone of his extant letters to her was by turns chatty, professional, informal, mindfully flattering of her erudition. He understood very well the art of manipulating potential patrons, both for his own advancement and that of others. In London and Paris, he had been particularly effective in promoting the then controversial and “difficult” work of his friend and collaborator, T. S. Eliot. In Rapallo, he got things done, cheerfully bulldozing his local Italian associates who were predictably cautious and committee-driven when it came to organising the concert programmes. However, there was a dark side. 

Inevitably, in common with anyone who had close dealings with Pound, Winnaretta remains wide open to the charge of endorsing and supporting an unrepentant crypto-fascist, Nazi sympathiser and antisemite. Whereas her other controversial interest, Wagner, sits conveniently in a distant pre- Holocaust age, Pound flourished in the thick of things, making no secret either in print or on the airwaves of his extreme views. Perhaps the most vehement condemnation of Pound, that savages both his work and his politics, comes from George Orwell: “I saw it stated in an American periodical that Pound only broadcast on the Rome radio when ‘the balance of his mind was upset.’ This is plain falsehood. Pound was an ardent follower of Mussolini as far back as the 1920’s, and never concealed it. His broadcasts were disgusting. I remember at least one in which he approved the massacre of the East European Jews and ‘warned’ the American Jews that their turn was coming presently. He may be a good writer (I must admit that I personally have always regarded him as an entirely spurious writer), but the opinions that he has tried to disseminate by means of his works are evil.” The best-remembered counsel for the defence is the American editor and critic Dwight Macdonald, who served on the committee that awarded Pound the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1949, for The Pisan Cantos, an honour that caused local and international outrage. The award was, he said, “the brightest political act in a dark period”, that had considered “Mr Pound the poet apart from Mr Pound the anti-Semite, Mr Pound the traitor, Mr Pound the funny-money crank, and all the other Mr Pounds whose existence has nothing properly to do with the question of whether Mr Pound the poet had or not written the best American poetry of 1948.” 

Either view is persuasive, depending on a number of factors including one’s background, literary taste, talent for compartmentalisation and propensity for forgiveness. Pound’s champions, beginning with Ernest Hemingway, have always praised the great beauty that intermittently shines from passages in the Cantos. His detractors have always focused on his remarkable and very vocal lack of remorse for his political views, a position that has earned him a reputation as a kind of thinking man’s Charles Manson, crankily defiant to the very last. His regret, confided late in life to Allen Ginsberg, that he had adopted what he called the “suburban prejudice” of antisemitism, is seldom taken seriously as an act of contrition. To many it seems more of an aesthetic or social reflection than a wholesale reversal of ideology. His regret was that he ran the risk of appearing suburban, rather being remembered as an antisemite. As for Winnaretta, Rudge brought her a selection of Pound’s political outpourings to look at, as a puppy brings a slipper to its mistress. Winnaretta judiciously said that they were “very well done”, and little else, a reaction that suggests she was rather more interested in the musical potential presented by the couple than in Pound’s manifestos. There is no proof one way or another, but it is somehow hard to imagine her breathlessly abandoning the study of an Euripides play or a Bach toccata to tune her wireless to the latest pro- Mussolini rant from Pound. And when Pound himself showed a portion of the Cantos to Mussolini, the Duce took little more than a cursory glance. “Divertente…” was his polite verdict, scarcely indicative of major engagement. 

At the very least, reading the Cantos, especially for the first time, is a literary adventure well worth undertaking. Once one has overcome the queasy sense of having accidently stumbled on the dog-eared notebooks of an intimidating and palpably dangerous lunatic, the potent mix of erudition and superb verbal craftsmanship in the 116 interlinked poems well repays the effort. It was a lifetime’s work. Having read them, one must then steel oneself for the millions of words of lit crit they have spawned. Pound has consistently remained a darling in the world of postgraduate research and academic publishing, partly because of the sheer obscurity of many of his references and allusions. A mere couplet of Pound’s, especially if it contains a Chinese ideogram as many do, can potentially generate many thousands of words of rambling speculation, compared to the meagre few hundred a student might manage to harvest from a fragment of similar length by, say, Keats or Wordsworth. In a nutshell, as well being one of the greatest cycles of Modernist poetry, the Cantos form a compendium of Pound’s view of the world, his diagnosis of the ills and his recommendations as to the cure. Villains include Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the Bank of England, Albert of Germany, Rubens and Pope Pius XII. Heroes include John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, the Monte dei Paschi bank, all French troubadours, Botticelli, Confucius, Mussolini and Dante. The general drift is towards a somewhat implausible utopia in which truth, beauty, art and clarity of thinking can flourish, simultaneously driven by the benevolent principles of the Enlightenment, by draconian control of economics and governance, and by interest-free loans (the nearest modern equivalent of the agrarian incentives offered by Monte dei Paschi in medieval Siena). Pound sugars the pill with passages of astonishing beauty, particularly in the The Pisan Cantos. Winnaretta’s own comparatively uncontroversial corner of the garden, Canto LXXV, belongs to this sequence. Given its starting point in the Janaquin score, and Pound’s inclusion of a facsimile of his friend Gerhart Münch’s modernist violin and piano version, one might state a tentative case for giving Canto LXXV an honorary position in Winnaretta’s portfolio of musical commissions. 

The Canto is based on the nearly unchallengeable premise that birdsong is a beautiful and enduring phenomenon, a welcome interlude amid the general hell of modern life. Having celebrated the joyful chortles and twitters of the birds in Janaquin’s choral work, Pound further alludes to the lute transcription made by Janaquin’s near-contemporary, the Italian composer and lutenist, Francesco da Milano. This lute reduction formed the basis of Münch’s arrangement, that was performed by himself and Rudge, and sometimes Borgatti, in Rapallo, Venice and elsewhere. The opening lines of the Canto are memorable and significant, reminding us that the poem took shape during the Second World War, many years after those carefree Rapallo days: 

Out of Phlegethon! out of Phlegethon, Gerhart art thou come forth out of Phlegethon? 

Phlegethon is the burning river encircling Hades, an appropriate place for Gerhart to come forth, since the composer narrowly escaped immolation in the Allied firebombing of Dresden, providentially bringing with him a prized possession, the manuscript of his Janaquin/da Milano reduction. Pound often offers useful glosses on his own work, such as confirming the association of Phlegethon with Dresden. He was similarly forthcoming about his treatment of birdsong in the Canto: “Clement Janequin wrote a chorus…when Francesco da Milano reduced it for the lute, the birds were still with the music. And when Münch transcribed it for modern instruments the birds were still there…” The idea is simple enough. There are certain natural phenomena or “forma” that are so insistent as to resist the ravages of time or the dictates of fashion. If a poet or a composer can grasp and present these, then he is on a winning streak. If a poet and a composer in collaboration can both grasp and present them, then so much the better. In the end, though, the birdsong alone endures – a pleasing Keatsian thought. He provides an amplification of these ideas, in relation to Canto LXXV and Münch, in an intriguing little book published in the late 1950s, An ABC of Reading, a “how-to” guide that addresses the arts of both appreciating and writing poetry. The slim volume rubbishes the over-analytical tendency to which his own work has ironically fallen victim, advocating instead a visceral approach to poetic engagement tempered by clear thinking and unwavering open-mindedness. This work, along with much of his criticism and correspondence, prompts one in passing to think that he had missed a perfect vocation, that of pedagogue. In addition to all the personae listed by Dwight Macdonald, one can easily imagine a “Dr Pound” occupying the chair of a well-endowed American university, inspiring generations of awestruck undergraduates with his clear and forcefully expressed prescriptions. Unfortunately his one academic post, a stint in 1907 teaching at the ultra-conservative Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, ended ignominiously in an incident involving a local chorus girl. 

Turning to the Vivaldi project, while it cannot be said that Pound and Rudge were solely responsible for the Vivaldi revival, they certainly played an important part. Rudge had unearthed a significant corpus of Vivaldi concerti in private collections in Turin. Pound meanwhile had discovered a similarly valuable horde in the state collection in Dresden and had arranged to have microfilm copies made of the entire corpus. All the material was assembled in Rapallo where Pound set about editing and transcribing it for performance and publication, with Rudge’s editorial help and financial backup from Winnaretta. Again, looking at the boyish enthusiasm with which he describes this monumental task in his correspondence, one is tempted to think of a missed vocation. Pound’s technical knowledge of music was extensive, all the more remarkable because he was completely self-taught. He cheerfully describes his problems in transcribing work in unfamiliar key signatures, adopting a thicko Cockney persona in his notes to Rudge: “got difficulty rememberin’ wot key has three flat. And so forf.” He nonetheless gets the work done, with only a few pencilled-in corrections from Rudge on the staves or in the margins. Soon, the local band at Rapallo was in a position to deliver a series of exciting concerts. 

It comes as no surprise that recent critics have attempted to politicise Pound’s endeavours, suggesting that his interest in Vivaldi should be seen as part of a broader attempt to engage with Mussolini’s drive to glorify Italian culture. It is true that the occasional morsel of fascist rhetoric creeps into his discourse. This is mainly, one senses, a bid to light a fire under his Italian collaborators: “musical autarchy” and “a Bach-Vivaldi Axis” are two memorably deadening examples of right-speak – but in the end one cannot fail to be more forcibly impressed by his ingenuous and passionate engagement with the music itself. His remarks on Bach’s transcriptions of Vivaldi, for example, show a level of insight that ranks far above any political considerations. The mock-Cockney asides, creating a don’t-mind-me-I’m-just-the-plumber effect, come across as a carefully calculated piece of false modesty in the light of his scholarship. Here as elsewhere, he lives up to Eliot’s famous dedicatory compliment, “il miglior fabbro”.