Poetical Excursion: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Beethoven

I won’t post a poem each day of this National Poetry Month, but I’ll try to do so as often as I can! Here’s one I found in a collection of music poetry I have, which fits right in with my year-long focus on Ludwig van Beethoven. This sonnet, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, is titled On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven. Note that Millay does not specify which of the nine symphonies she has just heard! It could as easily be the light and good nature of the 1st, or the power of the 3rd, or the majesty of the 5th, the dance-like awe of the 7th, or the storm-turned-to-joy of the 9th.

Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace,
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain,
Enchanted in your air benign and shrewd,
With limbs asprawl and empty faces pale,
The spiteful and the stingy and the rude
Sleep like scullions in the fairy tale.
This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
Reject me not, sweet sounds! oh, let me live,
Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them,
A city spellbound under the aging sun,
Music my rampart, and my only one.

The lines that hit me hardest here are the ninth and tenth:

This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.

Unlike a painting or a sculpture or even a poem, a symphony (or any piece of music) can only exist in time. You can’t linger on a particular melodic moment that especially strikes your ear, the way you might stop in an art gallery to spend more time gazing upon a particular painting on the wall. Music is only meaningful in time, and thus music only exists as a momentary thing. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony does not exist in the same sense that Michelangelo’s David exists. Every performance is a singular event, ephemeral and blossom-like.

And since we’re here, let’s just go ahead and have a Beethoven symphony. We could hardly do better to honor Edna St. Vincent Millay. Here is the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the BBC Proms in 2012.

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