- Poe and the Idea of Music: Failure, Transcendence, and Dark Romanticism by Charity McAdams
Edgar Allan Poe has inspired generations of musical compositions and sonic experiments; most notable among these, perhaps, are the operatic adaptations by Claude Debussy and Philip Glass of one of Poe's most popular tales, "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), which memorably evokes music as a figure for both diseased sympathy and madness. If the suggestiveness of Poe's writing makes it attractive to composers, the same quality poses a challenge to its translation to the opera stage. Recently, Gregor Herzfeld has described Glass's adaptation of "Usher" as a "poetic meditation" that maintains a "loose and vague connection between text and music."1 From Herzfeld's perspective, however, Glass's use of "repetitive patterns" and "sound effect[s]" that promote "a very clear emergence of the uncanny 'tone'" reflect affinities and "overlaps" between the two artists.2 Others have been even less generous in their appraisal of Glass's work. In his July 16, 1989, New York Times review of an American Repertory Theater production of Glass's opera, for example, Bernard Holland remarks that "rather than adapt opera to Poe; they adapt Poe to opera. The heretofore unseen is made to be seen and the alluded to is spelled out." Consequently, Holland observes that the performance "reflects no trace of Poe's original potency." Glass's opera, from this perspective, stages something of a missed encounter with the tale, replacing the textual effect of "indefiniteness" in the original with the dramatic presentation of a concrete, symbolic artifact—namely, a mysterious music box "with the figures of a man and a woman in an embrace standing on top of it"3—that is presented to Roderick Usher by his visiting childhood friend, William. While Herzfeld identifies some formal similarities between [End Page 290] Glass's and Poe's respective compositional styles, Holland maintains that the musical adaptation of Poe's tale is ultimately too concrete, too reductive in its re-presentation, evidently overcompensating for what neither the operatic mise-en-scène nor the music itself can adequately convey.
These responses to Glass's opera, I believe, help to illustrate a signature feature of Poe's musically inspired (and inspiring) literary art. Although Poe's writing frequently makes use of formal musical elements (repetition, sound effects, dramatic shifts in tone, musical terminology and allusions); and even though Poe, himself, famously identified music as the artistic medium through which "the soul most nearly attains . . . the creation of Supernal Beauty" ("The Poetic Principle" , H 17:274–75), the "original potency" of his writing is decidedly textual in nature. Moreover, as Charity McAdams explains in her recent book Poe and the Idea of Music: Failure, Transcendence, and Dark Romanticism, Poe's writing depends on the idea of music—rather than what she calls "real-world music" (1)—as a way of generating peculiar textual effects. Poe, she argues, deliberately "complicates and obscures music" (127), thereby distinguishing "otherworldly, impossible music" (ix) from the "vulgarly musical" (127) performances of everyday life. The apparent difficulty of translating Poe's literary works into "real-world music" might be viewed, in light of McAdams's critical perspective, as a reflection of Poe's own complex understanding of the aesthetic and theoretical implications of music.
Poe and the Idea of Music is the most recent installment in the Perspectives on Edgar Allan Poe series published by Lehigh University Press. McAdams acknowledges that while this work is not the first critical study of the role of music in Poe's aesthetic theory, it is the only in-depth, book-length exploration of the topic to date. This fact, along with its erudite and nuanced analyses of a great many of Poe's works, make it a valuable new addition to Poe scholarship. In her brief (and rather compressed) introduction, McAdams describes the role of music in Poe's aesthetic theory, noting that his "oblique references to music seem to mirror Romantic...