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Samuel Beckett and Music (review)

From: SubStance
Issue 92 (Volume 29, Number 2), 2000
pp. 104-108 | 10.1353/sub.2000.0023

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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 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 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...

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