The intersection of music and poetry is a fascinating one. There are song lyrics, which are almost always poetry, and then there’s the way in which poetry and music both can sometimes reflect the world in similar ways. There is often a mystery at the heart of both poetry and music, in that the poets and the composers have things to say about the world that really can’t be said in any other way.
This is a poem about music. Someone said something once to the effect that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” which is clever and pithy and…well, a little wrong. Words can never quite express what music does, but that doesn’t mean that words can’t point the way or capture something of the emotion we feel about a work of music. This poem does something else, though: it expresses gratitude that music even exists.
There is a story here, of course. When Sergei Rachmaninov premiered his Symphony No. 1, the work’s reception was so disastrous that it sent the young composer into a depression that lasted several years, until he finally received therapy that helped him recover enough confidence to finish his Piano Concerto #2, which is merely one of the greatest concertos of all time. Rachmaninov went on to a long life of composition, and lovers of his work — amongst whom I count myself — are indebted to Nikolai Dahl, the physician who conducted Rachmaninov’s therapy.
This poem, by Diane Ackerman, expresses that very gratitude. I read it in a book called The Music Lover’s Poetry Anthology, which I bought whilst in New York City last November. Nikolai Dahl is a curious footnote in music history, but what a footnote!
by Diane Ackerman
I’m listening to Rachmaninoff’s
Piano Concerto No. 2,
which he dedicated to Dr. Dahl,
the psychiatrist who guided him
through the straights of fever,
not long after Sergei had heard
his own first symphony played.
Horrified by its many defects
which seemed a sewage of noise,
he had fled the hall, ashamed,
a quagmire of self-doubt.
We cannot know all the sounds
Dahl and he exchanged,
but rubbing one word against another,
Dahl gradually restored
Sergei’s confidence. History tells
that Dahl used affirmations
“You will compose again.”
“You will write a piano concerto.”
“You will write with great facility.”
Repeated until the words saturated
His gift from head to fingers.
In truth, nothing can kill a gift,
but it may become anemic
from great shock or stress-
a sprain of the emotions will do,
or a traffic accident of the heart,
or a failure dire as a clanging bell.
For two years, Dahl worked
on Sergei’s shattered will.
at last he collected up his senses
in a burst of blood fury
and composed his triumphant
2nd Piano Concerto,
full of tenderness and yearning,
beguiling melodies, raging passion,
and long sensuous preludes
to explosive climaxes,
frenzy followed by strains
of mysticism and trance.
Loaded with starry melodies,
it was a map of his sensibility,
and a wilderness rarely known
-the intense life of an artist
seen in miniature, with rapture expressed
as all-embracing sound.
Will you tell me if you know,
how Dahl might have received
such a gift? I cannot imagine it.
With hugs and shared enthusiasm?
With an austere thank you?
In his private moments, did he weep
at the privilege allowed him?
For a time he held the exposed heart
of a great artist, cupped his hands
around it like a flame, blew gently,
patiently, until it flared again.
For that, he earned the blessings
of history, and soothed millions
of hungry souls he would never meet.
Listening to Rachmaninoff’s
concerto today, intoxicated by its fever,
I want to kiss the hands of Dahl,
but he is beyond my touch or game.
Allow me to thank you in his name.