Vivaldi, Bird and Angel or Il Cardellino


For Diana
Indem sie über den Don Juan, über ihre Rolle sprach, war es, als öffneten sich mir nun erst die Tiefen des Meisterwerks, und ich konnte hell hineinblicken und einer fremden Welt phantastische Erscheinungen deutlich erkennen. Sie sagte, ihr ganzes Leben sei Musik, und oft glaube sie manches im Innern geheimnisvoll Verschlossene, was keine Worte aussprächen, singend zu begreifen.
[Hoffmann: Don Juan, Eine Fabelhafte Begebenheit.]

I. The Poet

A life that moves to music cannot fail
And a real music moves my fictive tale.
Vivaldi’s goldfinch gave me my idea
And Canaletto’s Venice the place; the year
(A guess) is seventeen twenty seven or eight;
The scene, imaginary, like the date,
Is furnished with a bird, a flowering tree
In the walled garden of a nunnery,
An angel, poised in air, who views the bird,
And both can see unseen and hear unheard
Through a great window of the Pietà,
Europe’s best school of music, where there are
Grouped in spring sunlight round a cembalo
Five girls in scarlet habits with fiddle and bow.
A seated nun behind them, old and grave,
The chorus mistress, sees that they behave.
Chosen from foundlings the Venetian state
Takes in to nurture, rear, and educate,
Figlie del coro, their ages range between
A budding twelve, a radiant eighteen;
Bright eyed as birds, as lively and as shrill,
Daughters of Venice as one sees them still
In Longhi’s paintings and Goldoni’s plays.

But there is one girl more on whom the gaze
Rests with that sense of wonder and unease
Which perfect beauty imposes on the heart;
Holding a flute she stands a little apart
As fits a soloist who has won the right
Of privilegiata.
Here the light
Holds the fine planes and hollows of her cheeks
And her whole body listens while he speaks,
The chorus master, pointing to her score.
Nineteen years old, perhaps a little more,
She looks in slender strength and fine-drawn grace
A young Diana, breathing from the chase
And with that noble brow and eloquent eye,
The high small breasts, long flank and tapering thigh,
Among these plump, full-bosomed Venetians, she
Seems of a rarer breed and pedigree,
A falcon among doves, the formal pride
And challenge of an orchid set beside
Some cheerful vase of pinks or marigolds.
Now as the master speaks, she nods and holds
The flute against her mouth and tries a phrase.
That ripple of liquid notes has just the grace
Of her own motions, shoulder, neck and arm;
A gust that sweeps the corn from calm to calm
Gives just that sense of effortless ease and skill.
Her eyes question the master, grave and still;
He listens, smiles; she turns away released.

Antonio Vivaldi, the Red Priest,
Though the once flaming hair is ashen now,
Begins next to rehearse the cembalo.
Past fifty, though less old than he appears,
He has lived music all those fifty years.
His father, the first violinist of his day,
Gave him three crafts: to teach, compose and play;
But, though he is acknowledged in all three
The foremost master in all Italy,
A restless spirit, a contemplative mind
Take him beyond his age, to look behind
The mirror of art for that first cause which flies
Man’s deepest and most passionate surmise.
And since a still-recurring weakness has
Meant he could never celebrate the mass,
His priesthood has been music: it is said
He consecrates its forms like wine and bread
And turns to this perpetual sacrifice
The service of the altar God denies.
Well that’s as may-be: no man knows the heart
But there’s a miracle in this great art,
A transubstantiation, a profound
And terrible joy to which the physical sound
Is but the body, the outward mould, the dress.

Today we see him in his happiness
Rehearsing his six pupils in a score
Of his composing, something never before
Tried, he believes, in music; soon to be
Pattern for the concerto and the key
To a whole pattern of music in our age.
He smiles, leafing the score to the last page,
Sits at the keyboard and begins to play
The bird theme, improvising by the way.
And, as the simple melody swells and grows
A sudden nimbus round the angel glows,
The bird stirs on its nest and all the air
Trembles as though the Spirit descended there
And made this room and garden holy ground.
And now he pauses: as the last notes sound
The moment passes and he takes his place
To start rehearsing for the thorough-bass.

Such are my actors: all will speak but one;
And though she cannot speak, she is the sun
Round which their questions all revolve, and she
Is both their answer and the mystery.
But as for two of them, I must give to each
The attributes of human thought and speech,
Give bird and angel minds which correspond
To ours because I cannot go beyond
My human limits. I let the music state
In its own terms what I, at best, translate.
Yes, trust the music: it completes my task;
Judge it by that. And, last, should someone ask:
Why have I chosen this point in time? Because
Somewhere beyond this frame of natural laws,
Moving in time on its predestined grooves,
I hear another music to which it moves.
Wherever I go, whatever I do, I seem
To step in time to that resistless stream
And though, I trust, a rational man, I vow
I heard it as a child, I hear it now;
With every year I live, it sounds more clear,
More vast, more jubilant to the inward ear;
Beyond my power to imagine or invent
That choir of being, or this sole instrument
Of my response to that invisible world.
Gift? or delusion? or defect unfurled
From genes that I inherit? I cannot tell;
I only know I hear it and, as well
That when I hear them humbly, as I do,
I know with pride, the masters heard it too.

II. The Bird

So clumsy, so gross, so awkward and so slow,
For hours they lurch and straddle to and fro,
For hours they grunt and splutter, I watch them there
Dull grovellers at the bottom of the air;
Yet, pointless, aimless creatures though they seem,
They live, they may be happy; perhaps they dream
And the dream helps them live, however absurd,
A swift, bright, effortless dream of being a bird!
It seems absurd indeed, and yet they do
Make love, defend their territories, build nests too,
And sometimes, as they are doing now, appear
To make long sequences pleasing to the ear
Even of birds, though meaningless enough,
Song, but a song I can make nothing of.
What are they doing there in that dark den?
Some mating ritual natural to men,
Such as birds practise, song, pursuit, display?
Yes, there it comes again, those curious, gay,
Disturbing sequences. …
Why there … and there …
It touched, it caught it … I could almost swear
It was indeed our mating song. …
Ah, no
It could not be … so clumsy, gross and slow
How could they … yet I wonder … there again!
So different, such strange joy … could things like men
Know rapture? Sing as birds will sometimes sing
For sheer delight? …
or even … my thoughts take wing;
I lose them … could they have some kind of song
Beyond my thought? I cannot tell … I ….

III. The Composer

So much for the continuo. As for the flute,
You, my dear Julia, must be absolute
For this performance, all depends on this,
Your reputation, and mine perhaps: it is
My bird concerto, Il Cardellino. See,
There she is peeping at us from that tree,
My little musician with the crimson mask,
Warming her five pale eggs. She does not ask
To go beyond her nature, but I do
Because I ask it even more of you.
God gave you beauty, a woman’s shape and mind,
But not the voice; our ospealiere find
Fine husbands if they can sing pure and true;
God, who is just, denies that gift to you.
Ask, why should that be just? Perhaps it is
To strengthen some other, higher gift of his:
Yours is a genius for the flute, a rare
Skill for your age, a tone beyond compare,
And music in your very bones.… Well, well,
You know I do not flatter. Now I shall tell
You just what hard perfections I require:
You have the exquisite tact, the joy, the fire;
All I have asked, you mastered as I spoke;
Each time you played, new grace, new strength awoke;
Yet I need more from you: that perfect thing
Which makes the frame of being respond and sing,
Which goes beyond all effort, wit, intent:
The body united with the instrument.
The soul so deep in the composer’s thought
That from the heart, inevitable, unsought
It plays itself—and then beyond the score
Beyond the players, another voice, a third
Presence, a new intelligence is heard.
But this you know already; you smile; I see
You recognize that sign, the mystery
By which each artist knows himself. …
Well now,
My bird concerto: the goldfinch, as you know,
Gave me my clue. The flute must catch the clear,
Pure goldfinch note throughout and yet, my dear,
You must not play it as though you were a bird
For that would make my whole design absurd,
No musical trifle, no imitations of
Brooks, birds, such as our light Venetians love.
No, I have tried, imagine if you can,
How a bird might compose it, if a man
Shared the bird nature; yes, and something more:
A bird that had an angel’s heart might soar
Into an ecstasy past man’s reach which still
Might lie within the grasp of human skill.
If you, my dear maestra, were that bird
So you would play and so it should be heard:
Bird’s innocent rapture and man’s pure technique,
Out of your angel’s heart the flute must speak,
And all as of one nature.
Now at last
Try the whole consort. Keep that clear contrast
Of solo part with cembalo and strings.

Our cognoscenti who despise new things
Will pull sour faces, neither shuffle nor cough
Unless your very brilliance brings it off;
But if we triumph, it is a victory
Which may set instrumental music free,
Strike off the chains of our Andromeda
And finish in Venice what our morning star,
Fra Monteverdi with his magic bow
Began here round a hundred years ago.
He loosed sonata, to cantata tied:
I, in my turn, perhaps the first, have tried
To break the consort’s interwoven flight.
One instrument, the flute, in its own right
Now speaks and leads the dance and, like a queen,
Commands and rules. You see here what I mean:
Here all is for the flute, even the key,
Re maggiore, I chose for her, for she
Avoids so those cross-fingerings which entail
Poor tone and in low notes may outright fail.

I have rested. Come now! Let us try once more!
Strings ready? Hand me here the master score!
Cembalo? So, so … Julia, give the note!
Take this first tempo, now, as though the throat
Of one rejoicing creature poured out all,
One angel heart, one bird voice, yet recall
The flute must lead in every note you play.
So now, allegro, one! two! and away.

Ah, God in heaven, they have it, it is done,
The lift, the ecstasy, the brilliant tone.…
My lovely Julia, that rapt face of hers,
That tone! … See, on her nest the goldfinch stirs
At the first trilling bird-call … ah, those trills,
What spirit, what ease! …
so effortless, yet it fills
All space and makes of time a living thing,
Soars like the bird itself.… Look at her now,
This exquisite child, that line of jaw and brow,
That faint flush coming and going against the white,
Those eloquent fingers, creatures in their own right
Dancing upon the dark shaft of the flute;
So unlike these other foundlings, common fruit
Of all too common beds, adulterous sheets,
Rapes, brothels, drunken nights and carnival streets;
No not their kind! She has the stamp of one
Got in the noble bed of Solomon
To Sheba’s royal breed.… I miss my way
In thoughts like these.…
Enough, girls! Well, you play
Like angels as I hoped. Remember now:
This second tempo, cantabile, let it flow
With the pure singing tone, sustained and clear;
As though remote, contemplative you hear
The incantatory, grave voice of Spring.
Continuo? … Julia? … ready? Now let it sing.

They have it, they have it, it comes sweet and true
—Ah, but the flute, no! No, that will not do.
Stop there again! … Now Julia, for the tone:
Exquisite, rich, the crystal, the bared bone
Of melody white on Time’s deserted shore!
But time! the time, my child! It should have more
Free, breathing ease. You would not have them say
We use in Venice, as someone surely may
Hearing this tap, tap, tap of even feet,
One of these new French pendulums for our beat,
Not Nature’s, no, not our Venetian test!
For us Zacconi said it first, and best:
“The pulse of the heart is our true measure of time.”
Let that pulse guide you: here a little climb,
There fall behind a little, as does the heart
Responsive to the moment, so in art.
Note puntate!—Look, child! Here’s your score:
What did you think my dotted notes were for?
Now try it from the beginning without a break!

She has it now: there will be no mistake.
Now I may sit and listen and hear them through,
As God in Eden saw his work and knew
It good and took his pleasure in that sight.
Yet we musicians, perhaps, have more delight
Even than He: He saw the world he made;
We first review our works, then hear them played,
And I by his creation am doubly blest
In this child’s beauty, crowning all the rest,
A beauty so like music … well, who knows?
Sometimes when I am settled to compose,
At night, beside my window, when the moon
Frets bright arpeggios over our lagoon,
The shining city, the mist, the sliding stars,
I hear, behind my score, the opening bars
Of a great harmony, tremendous tides
Of sound in which the whole creation rides.
Once while I knelt to hear them sing a mass
Of my composing, I knew for sure what was
That language which they spoke in Paradise:
Not Hebrew as some scholars still surmise,
But music. All their thought was melody,
Love a duet echoed from tree to tree;
The morning stars together began the day
Singing; all creatures sang at work or play;
From earliest dawn to latest afternoon
Each knew his part and none fell out of tune.
Then, as the twilight crept from hill to hill,
God walked among them and the air was still;
And in that solemn hush His voice was heard
Utter those primal chords which are the Word,
And as its resonant sweetness rolled and rang,
Untutored Adam raised his voice and sang.
The Snake, the Woman, the apple brought us this
Rabble of sound, clatter of grunt and hiss,
Which we call language; Babel made it worse.

Well, girls, you do well: you turn back the curse
Eve brought us. Think, on you the onus lies
To bring us back the tongue of Paradise!

IV. The Angel

All creatures seek their food, and ours is song:
Each bodiless intelligence all day long
Both takes and proffers this transcendant cheer;
Yet when we range abroad beyond our sphere
On errands through this world of time and space,
Sometimes the burning messenger of grace
Will pause to hear a bird upon the wing,
A shepherd pipe, girls dancing in a ring,
Much as a prince who feasts at home each day,
Might stop to pick wild berries by the way.
I stopped to hear this bird; I stayed to hear
This concert: music for the physical ear,
Though crude beside those harmonies that fill
And move the universe, is music still
And in that mightier consort has some share.
It moves in every creature unaware;
All being is music, as Pythagoras thought;
But he, being only man, had scarcely caught
What that implies: that there are beings in time
As bodies in space. An angel in that prime
World of pure intellect, may move in space
Yet fills none, though for men to see his face
He must take visible shape. The eddy and swill
Of airy particles his creative will
Transforms to a bright plasma; in the grains
Of this rare state of matter, his spirit maintains
A body in space, where each related part
Subsists together, ruled by mind and heart,
A body in space because humanity
Cannot conceive of beings they cannot see.
But men born blind might easily defy
This slavery to the concepts of the eye,
And then I could as easily from air
Compel its molecules otherwise, appear
And take a body of sound, a being in time.
Such beings in their species match and rhyme
With those in space: each has inanimate
And living forms: the airs these girls create
Are not self-moved but, like their instruments,
Structures composed from lifeless elements
For all their intricate rational design;
Their minds like this intelligence of mine,
Are living beings and as the melodies grow
From flute and violins and cembalo
The living bodies sustain their spirits here,
Though it is otherwise in our timeless sphere.
Men, not being angels, do not know these things,
As though they knew the bird but not its wings
That give it flight, the throat but not the song.
Yet angels, though pure intellects, may go wrong:
A paradox of their natures is to know
The mind of God because he wills it so,
Yet not to read the minds and hearts of men,
Lower beings than we, and yet beyond our ken.
The music of this bird that sings for love
Is something, too, we have more inkling of
Than this rich harmony of strings and flute
The one a means, the other an absolute;
The one all instinct shared from heart to heart,
The other’s sole end and purpose: itself as art,
A blind and questing eloquence which flows
Not conscious whence it came or where it goes.
Since God has means beyond an angel’s powers
This human art is still a riddle to ours;
For we, in the Great Music all immersed
Think it our nature and purpose last as first,
Where all compose, all know their parts and all
Contribute unbidden to that festival
Which is the dance of being, the universe.
There no one needs to learn, comply, rehearse.
So man is the exception, only man;
And yet we know, he too is in God’s plan.
There’s something in the human hid from us:
His solitude: no angel need discuss
Question or argue, disagree or brood:
All share with all. Man in his solitude
Creates, as though in ignorance of the real
Great Music by which angels think and feel
And feeling take their part without dissent.
Is it what God himself cannot prevent:
Natures which to be free must be apart,
Separate, inscrutable in mind and heart,
Wrestling alone with doubtful good and ill,
Where spirits, consenting in a higher will
Untroubled, by force of their consent are free?

Music for this bird in the flowering tree
Is pure communication, or almost so:
By song he calls his love or warns his foe,
And, if song gives them pleasure, like their gay
Colours, it is the enchantment of display.
Their exquisite language has some counterpart
In our great music which is neither art
Nor, in a sense, do we communicate
One with another in that perfect state;
Each knows the whole and by his part each finds
Total participation of lucid minds.
Unlike the music of men, our symphony
Is a great animate being, self-moving, free,
A living eloquence, a spiritual sun
Where all our energies rejoice as one;
And for this cause, perhaps, we angels find
Such strangeness in the music of mankind,
As draws us still to hear them when we can
And wonder at God’s ways and ends in Man.

Yet men in the Great Music, I surmise
Must also share, for what in reveries,
In separateness, in silence they create,
They only play if they participate.
These six girls and their master play as one
Perfected creature; in that unison
They touch, at least, the state in which we move:
A mutual ecstasy of consenting love.

V. Coda

This love, which opened in sonata form
For these two solo instruments alone,
Began fugato, in a minor key;
Subject and answer, challenge and the calm
Sad, questing melody probed towards unknown
Diminished thirds that spoke for you and me.

And though their end we hardly yet surmise,
We took this as the statement of a theme
In which each bore an equal part, where each,
Like earth and heaven caused a sun to rise
Out of the dark foredawning of our dream
And brought its jubilant noon within our reach.

But with the second subject, what we thought
Improvisation, impromptu at the least,
Led into a full symphony. We found
Ourselves, in those imperious energies caught
And caught up. Could our prelude have released
This mastering, terrifying tide of sound?

Its battering fugue drowns ours; in that eclipse
Chords are articulate spirits more real than we;
Archangels of sound sweep through us to evoke
For us the temporal world’s apocalypse
And, as we merge in its entelechy
Its trumpets tear us like a lightning stroke.

What we had thought our pure, complete design,
We glimpse as random phrases, swept along
Into those hurricane harmonies, our two
Chance instruments mere notes in the divine
Rage of a cosmos rapt in its own song,
Allegro, allegro molto!—Yes, but who,

What then is the composer? How and why
Were we two chosen to set his forces free?
… Listen! His second movement has begun:
Transfigured, exalted, radiant, you and I
Emerge in one grave, soaring melody,
Lento e sostenuto; one by one

All voices of the universal frame
Join in and swell that great polyphony.
There sounds the answer, though we could not know
Till this vast, triumphing andante came
Like some calm estuary widening to a sea
Which welcomes and contains its mighty flow.

Chosen, subsumed, translated by such powers
And purpose as we could not understand,
How should we question, how challenge what is done?
And still, we know this music is not ours;
Lost to our own and to each other we stand
For his last movement, that unrisen sun,

Not facing towards the splendour still to come
Heralded by this march of rising chords
Which fill all space with their superb design,
But back to where we touched in our small room,
Looked, listened and knew without the help of words
That I was then your music and you mine.

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