Copyright © 2000 The Board of Regents of the University of the Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.
SubStance 29.2 (2000) 104-108

Book Review

Samuel Beckett and Music

Bryden, Mary, ed. Samuel Beckett and Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. $75.00 (Cloth).

The dust-jacket of Samuel Beckett and Music features a drawing by Beckett's friend Avigdor Arikha entitled "Samuel Beckett listening to music, 9 xii 1976." It shows an intent listener who is concentrating on his experience. One wonders to what he might be listening. Schubert, perhaps? Beckett was fiercely interested in music all his life; he grew up with music, became an amateur pianist, married an accomplished pianist, and evidently broadened his musical horizons all the time. He formed friendships with musicians: Marcel Mihalovici and his wife Monique Haas; Morton Feldman, Heinz Holliger. Many of his dramatic works make use of musical passages in a precise and detailed way: Schubert's string quartet "Death and the Maiden" in All That Fall; the same composer's Lied "Nacht und Träume" in the television play of the same name; Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio (op. 70, #1). In two of his radio plays, Words and Music and Cascando, Beckett makes use of [End Page 104] Music as a protagonist over Words, characters representing voice or speech. In Happy Days, Lehár's "Merry Widow" is utilized as a theme. All of Beckett's readers are keenly aware of the musicality of the texts. An observation of this kind amounts to no more than a convenient metaphor calling attention to the euphony or sonority, along with some sort of rhythmic profile, of an author's words. Beckett's words, their quietly pulsing loneliness, their striving for the solace of silence, are among the most poetic--i.e., "musical"--expressions of contemporary literature. But the question of words and music is more enigmatic. It involves the problematic attitude and relationship of a literary author who is well versed in music, whose work generates its own kind of music, and whose works are strong temptations for composers.

The present volume is a collection of interesting essays assembled by the editor, Mary Bryden, relating to some (but not all) of the above topics. There are two rubrics: Words, and Music, with diverse emphases on the verbal and the compositional aspects of Beckett's creations as viewed from the vantage point of music and its relation to words and (inevitably), given their point of reference--to words and silence and to music and silence. The essays are all interesting; a number of them are stronger than others. The editor's "Words for Music, Perhaps" (on Humphrey Searle's scores of Words and Music and Cascando) and Catherine Laws's essay on Neither are outstanding, primarily because they attempt to come to grips with larger issues. The difficulty in assessing some of the other pieces lies in the fact that the reader needs a "sonorous image" in order to grasp what the discussion aims to establish; musical quotations are generally inadequate for most nonprofessional readers. Luckily, a number of musical settings of Beckett's dramatic works exist in the form of recordings. It is with these that the remainder of this review will be concerned. The division will be three-fold: (a) two of Beckett's dramatic works that have been set to music by Heinz Holliger; (b) the two works involving Music as a dramatis personae; (c) the collaboration between Beckett and Morton Feldman on the chamber opera Neither.

In 1978 the Swiss composer and world-famous oboist Heinz Holliger set to music the "dramaticule" Come and Go. The play is a genuine miniature comprising three elderly female characters who sit on a bench; each one leaves for a moment while the other two exchange whispers about her failing health. In the end they all cross hands, three persons bonded to one another in spite of the ravages of life. Holliger expands this simplest of all patterns instrumentally and vocally. Everything is multiplied by three: nine instruments, nine voices speaking in three languages, and the text is presented [End Page 105] three times. The result is triple-Beckett, interesting in its own way but a long distance from what the text offers. Holliger remarked "Beckett would have undoubtedly hated Come and Go because I used his play as a pretext, and in the end I destroyed it." The other play for which Holliger composed music is What Where, in 1988. The play is a ritual of annihilation, and the music, in its frequent references to violence, makes explicit what the text leaves implicit. The score calls for four trombones (to match the four voices of the drama) and two percussionists. In some way this is the more striking of the two Holliger adaptations, especially in its imitation of No theater (where the musicians are on stage).

The two plays requiring musical composition are Cascando and Words and Music, from the years 1962-64. Beckett gave the American composer Charles Dodge permission to make an electronic transposition of Cascando in 1978; this work is not mentioned in the volume under review. Suffice it to say that Dodge used electronic sounds for Voice and Music, while retaining the human voice for the part of Opener. The resulting composition is effective in working out this contrast but fails to make an adequate differentiation of Voice and Music and thus flattens out Beckett's text. More rewarding is Morton Feldman's handling of the music in Words and Music (1987). Feldman's idiom is slow, shapeless and tentative; his mastery lies in "probing" sound; its material and sensuous characteristics, the haunting suggestion that his notes are surrounded by silences. This alone brings him into the Beckettian domain. In an interview Feldman stated:

I never liked anyone else's approach to Beckett. I felt it was a little too easy; they were treating him as if he were an existentialist hero, rather than a tragic hero. And he's a word man, a fantastic word man. And I always felt that I was a note man. I think that's what brought me to him. A kind of shared longing: this saturated, unending longing that he has, and that I have. (51)

He had been acquainted with Beckett's work for some time.

I learned a lot about Beckett by reading his very early study on Proust. It told me a lot about him. It told me about the way he thinks. It's a kind of clinical understanding. And I'm a very clinical composer at the same time that I'm a note man. (51)

The two men had met in Berlin in 1976. Feldman wanted to do something with Beckett for the Rome Opera. Beckett indicated that he did not like opera --and Feldman agreed. Out of this understanding grew the collaboration on Neither (1977), and Beckett's pleasure with that work accounts for the fact [End Page 106] that he recommended Feldman for the music of Words and Music ten years later. That composition was one of he last of Feldman's; his final work was an orchestral tribute entitled "For Samuel Beckett."

The appropriateness of Feldman's musical gestures for Beckett's texts is noticeable throughout Words and Music, after reaching a high level of parallel realization in Neither ten years earlier. Parallel, not convergent. Here the music exists in its own right, and so does the text. The music is the equivalent of the text and thus the two kinds of creation "comment" on, rather than illustrate or interpret each other. This collaboration is similar to Beckett's granting carte blanche to Jasper Johns for Foirades/Fizzles: the writer left the artist full freedom to work out his own fragmented vocabulary alongside the literary text. Feldman began composing the opening material before he ever received Beckett's text, because he was already at home in the Beckettian world. When the text arrived it turned out to be a short poem (87 words only) divided into 10 small units--not a dramatic text. Out of this Feldman shaped a lyrical monologue (but with dramatic moments) for soprano and orchestra. A chamber opera, if a classification is necessary. The poem, Neither, is--like all of Beckett's work from its very inception--about the instant "when the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being" (Proust, 8) familiar to us since Waiting for Godot and Endgame and Watt and Molloy. The poem, in its quietly suffering stillness, is a pendulum between two nothings; it begins with a thematic notation

to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable self
by way of neither

and this is poignantly elaborated over a Beckettian landscape to arrive at "unspeakable home"--a journey that is both movement and stasis.

In many ways this text was perfect for Feldman, whose music has a way of moving and not moving (though not quite for the same reasons as Beckett). The music is, in effect, a "translation" into another language, similar to the way Beckett's translations from French into English (or vice versa) constitute a transposition, or correlation. Feldman here uses the voice as he had always done in his vocal compositions: to utter sounds instead of words. The soprano does sing the text but without striving for comprehension; and there is a plethora of syllables that amount to laments or wails, expressing grief at times, and solitude at all times. The words of the poem are generally short, the only exceptions being the negations: "unfading," "unheeded," [End Page 107] "unspeakable," and particularly "impenetrable." The instrumental texture changes from dark to bright, and from reiterated chords to static short melodic fragments, which are generally repeated, sometimes interrupted by occasional vocal melismas. The entire work moves--if it can be said to move --into a zone of quiet resignation, as though the singer had learned to "suffer better." And so this masterful operatic scena, this intimate spectacle reminiscent in its staging of Happy Days (the singer's head emerged from a white conical robe, as though the robe were an enclosure, a tent, a hill enclosing her. "All silence is the recognition of a mystery," Nabokov said in one of his stories ("Sounds," in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov," 20), and this short opera is like the enactment of a mystery.

The old quarrel about the primacy of words over music is no longer relevant here. Since the early part of the century, the perception of the relationship between words and music has been altered. Pierre Boulez has argued in favor of a parallel conception of music and text (notably with reference to his own settings of Char, Mallarmé and Cummings). Texts are no longer "set" to music; music accompanies, reinforces, comments on the words: it no longer illustrates them. The contemporary manner is coordination, not subordination; interpretation is coexistence, bilateral, bifocal, bi-vocal. Elliott Carter's and Luciano Berio's song cycles are good examples of this conceptual change. In Neither Feldman and Beckett have done similarly, giving over their distinctive voices to a celebration of the elusiveness of time, memory and self.

Walter A. Strauss
Case Western Reserve University