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MUSIC; Ezra Pound, Musical Crackpot

Published: July 27, 2003

Correction Appended

ACCORDING to an old and highly unreliable story, Pablo Picasso gave a few poems he had written to Gertrude Stein for comment. In the middle of the night, he was roused violently from sleep. It was Miss Stein, shaking him furiously and shouting: ''Pablo! Pablo! Get up and paint!''

There are times when -- listening to ''Ego Scriptor Cantilenae: The Music of Ezra Pound,'' a comprehensive sampling of the poet's little-known musical output -- one wants to shout: ''Pound! Pound! Write a poem!'' More often, though, one listens quite fascinated. Much of it is strangely compelling, if eccentric, stuff.

The career of no other artist, perhaps, so nakedly exposes the fineness of the line dividing crackpot from genius. Pound's crackpot theories of social, racial and economic justice famously landed him in a mental hospital (the only alternative to prison) after World War II. He loved playing the fool, describing his aesthetic theories, the authentic fruit of his genius, in a semiliterate patois familiar to anyone who has read his letters or scanned the titles of his essays (gathered, for example, in a volume called ''Guide to Kulchur''). And those theories drove him to compose music despite a confessed inability -- vouched for by his fellow poets William Carlos Williams and W. B. Yeats, among others -- to carry a tune.

His best music clothed poetry: never his own, but that of the ancient models on whom he based his revolutionary methods. Pound sought the means to ''Make It New'' (as the title of his testamentary work of theory would have it) by studying the very old. His main ''teachers'' included classical Greeks and Latins, but especially the early European vernacular poets in the Romance languages: 11th- and 12th-century troubadours like Arnaut Daniel and Gaucelm Faidit, who wrote in Provençal; 13th-century French trouvères like Guillaume le Vinier; and their 14th- and 15th-century heirs like Dante, Cavalcanti and Villon. From them he drew the convictions with which he challenged the romantic (or realist) assumption that emotion and form had become virtual opposites. The inevitable results, Pound insisted, had been amateurism and incompetence and a misguided directness of expression that only hindered the cause of poetry.

Pound's musical experiments were a byproduct of his studies in poetic versification. ''The grand bogies for young men who want really to learn strophe writing'' -- that is, composition in strict forms -- ''are Catullus and Villon,'' he wrote. ''I personally have been reduced to setting them to music, as I cannot translate them.''

The reason form was so important was that in it lay the ''music'' of all poetry, whether actually set to music or not, and in the music lay the magic (or as Pound put it, '' 'the sublime' in the old sense''). ''Don't ask me to explain it,'' Pound has Cavalcanti imaginarily exclaim about one of the poems Pound chose to set. ''You've not got to understand it, you've got to learn the damn thing.'' The poetry is in the sound aura, not the semantics. And for the same reason, Pound insisted that poetry was not ''literature'' but a performance art.

''The idea that music and poetry can be separated,'' he wrote, ''is an idea current in ages of degradation and decadence when both arts are in the hands of lazy imbeciles.'' Move over, Mr. Wagner, your successor (in theory, anyway) has arrived.

Pound's musicking, like Wagner's, mainly took the form of idiosyncratic operas. The first, after Villon, was finished in 1923 and performed both in public and over the radio during Pound's lifetime. Two others, after Cavalcanti and Catullus, were planned and partly realized. But calling them operas was as idiosyncratic as everything else about them. They are medleys of poems tenuously connected by action, or by mere narration, based on events in the lives of the poets. As Margaret Fisher points out in her notes for the new CD (produced by the San Francisco company Other Minds, www.otherminds .org), Pound surely got the idea from the song books, or ''chansonniers,'' in which the troubadour melodies are inscribed. The collected works of each poet are accompanied there by his ''vida,'' or much-embroidered life story.

The situation that motivates ''Le Testament de François Villon'' of 1923, Pound's magnum opus, is the poem in which the great poet-highwayman -- penniless, under sentence of death, taking refuge on the lam in the courtyard of a brothel -- sardonically wills his poems to various friends and relations, who then appear to sing them. As preface to the medley, Pound set ''Dictes Moy'' (''Tell Me''), the most famous lyric of Villon (yes, ''Where are the snows of yesteryear?''), and it can serve here as a prototype.

The tune is a fairly creditable (if anachronistic) imitation of a troubadour melody, worked out on a bassoon. It was a genre Pound knew well enough both from studying actual chansonniers and from making singing translations of troubadour verse for a publication by his friend the pianist William Morse Rummel, who equipped the tunes with ornate and conventional accompaniments that turned them into parlor art songs. (A tune by Guillaume le Vinier from this collection, shorn of both its accompaniment and its translation, found its way into the Villon opera, surrounded by Pound's imitations, from which it hardly seems to differ in any significant way.) Pound's own musical project was a revolt against the kind of genteel arrangement he had helped Rummel produce.

Instead, he left his tune unharmonized, merely doubling it with instruments according to theories then rife, now discredited, about troubadour practices. But Pound was after far more than historical verisimilitude; and here the crackpot took over. The accompanying instruments were deployed almost at random, changing colors phrase by phrase, or even in midphrase, and sometimes departing unpredictably from the solo line to make rather senseless harmonies. This much sounds like the kind of dubious decoration university collegiums and early-music groups used to apply ad lib. In fact the whole production (replete, when performed in full, with a plummy-voiced actor to recite the connective tissue) sounds like something the Hell Pro Musica might have put on, directed by the shade of Arnold Dolmetsch, a Pound friend and adviser.

At once more serious and zanier were the rhythms in which Pound cast his pseudomedieval sung lines. The troubadour originals used a notation that showed only pitch, not rhythm. That left Pound free to follow his own dogmatic theories, meticulously setting the poem not as a strophic song (the way the troubadours themselves had, as Pound knew perfectly well) but as a fanatically worked-out, through-composed replica of his own spoken performance, notated with impossibly finicky meter sequences (7/16, 25/32, 9/8, 1/4) that his composer friend George Antheil helped him capture on paper. This gave his score a forbidding modern-music look that long kept it from being performed -- a modernist triumph. It was only after Pound was persuaded to simplify the notation that anyone attempted it.

But of course the aim of the whole painstakingly artificial enterprise was to achieve an exact simulacrum of an effortless, ''natural'' spoken delivery. If Thomas Edison was right that genius is 2 percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration, the line dividing Pound the perspiring genius from Pound the contented crackpot looks blurrier than ever.

And yet, performed by singers who are knowing enough to know the effect at which the quixotic rhythms were aiming, Pound's settings can be somehow superb. Much as I tried to follow the translation of ''Dictes Moy'' that came with the CD, my eye kept straying back to the old French original, which I understood far from perfectly but which nevertheless spoke to me through Pound with uncanny force.

That went for all the other poems in the Villon ''opera'' as well: the 80-year-old whore Hëaulmiere's frantic lament over her withered charms (the opera's mad scene, if you will, or as Pound called it, ''the fireworks''); the poet's mother's appeal to the Virgin Mary for salvation (set exquisitely by Debussy, infernally by Pound in a manner that conveys a believer's fear); the drunkards' prayer (''Père Noé,'' performed by a raucous chorus with amazing turn-on-a-dime precision); and finally, ''Frères Humains,'' the bone-freezing plea, in weird Martian-medieval barbershop harmony, of a line of hanged corpses, Villon among them, for fellow feeling. No doubt about it: as George Szell once said of Glenn Gould, that nut was a genius.

''Le Testament de Villon'' was recorded complete, in 1971, by a cast from the touring and educational wing of the San Francisco Opera under Robert Hughes, a Bay Area composer and conductor who has devoted himself in a major way to unearthing and promoting Pound's musical legacy and who is the driving force behind the CD as well. That older recording was issued in 1972 by Fantasy Records, and I wish the performance it preserved had been reissued in its entirety.

The set of Villon excerpts included here, four drawn from the Fantasy recording and two from more recent stagings, do not come near to recreating its effect. Hëaulmiere's aria, in particular, suffers by comparison. The performance on the CD comes from a live recording at the York Festival in England in 1992. The singer, Anna Myatt, gives a messy, screechy rendition in miserable French. It may have been exciting to witness, but it sounds better suited to agitprop theater -- say, Eisler or Brecht -- than to the kind of dignified if harrowing enterprise Pound was trying to foster. Dorothy Barnhouse's version in the complete recording had fireworks to spare but also precision. It's worth seeking out.

The rest of the CD offers seven items from ''Cavalcanti,'' Pound's second opera, and the one number -- an epithalamium or appeal to Hymen, the wedding god, reconstructed by Mr. Hughes from a sketch -- that remains from the third, ''Collis o Heliconii'' (''You Who Abide on Mount Helicon''), after Catullus. They are interesting to hear, and well performed under Mr. Hughes (mostly from their belated premieres, in 1983 and 2001), but far less affecting than the Villon opera. Pound's inspiration was running thin. The music was becoming more derivative, even commonplace -- to the point, in one song, of inadvertently cribbing ''Joy to the World,'' the sort of hackneyed bric-a-brac that clutters everybody's musical memory, crackpot and genius alike.

Then there is a raft of unaccompanied items for violin, some of them collected into a suite called ''Fiddle Music,'' which Pound composed, mostly in the 1920's, for the American expatriate violinist Olga Rudge, his devoted companion. (Rudge was also one of the movers, along with Pound, of the Italian Vivaldi revival.) Sounding at times like the violin part from Stravinsky's ''Histoire du Soldat,'' at other times like ersatz medieval dances and at most times like nothing in particular, it is negligible stuff.

Including it is a fine testimonial to the devotion of Mr. Hughes, who searched for it high and low, and to that of Charles Amirkhanian, the equally indefatigable director of Other Minds. It is played with heartfelt reverence by Nathan Rubin, a beloved Bay Area musician. But if including it was the reason the rest of ''Le Testament de Villon'' got squeezed out, it was a crime. The Villon opera, and it alone, constitutes Ezra Pound's slim sound claim to musical immortality.

Correction: August 3, 2003, Sunday An article last Sunday about Ezra Pound's music misidentified the Pound expert who reconstructed a song from his third opera, ''Collis o Heliconii.'' It was Margaret Fisher, not Robert Hughes.

Photos: A page from the score of Ezra Pound's opera ''Cavalcanti,'' in Pound's hand. (Omar S. Pound and Mary de Rachewiltz)(pg. 24); (Barron Storey)(pg. 1)