28 February 2013

March fun stuff etc addendum: the Berkeley Symphony

When I prepared my March preview the other day, I swear I checked my Berkeley Symphony press release and it said their next concert was early April. So I was a little startled to get a press release today saying the concert is 28 March. I should point out I've been having a really terrible time (earlier than usual) with allergies, and they've affected my eyes more than usual. Which is why I started panicking that I was losing my ability to read for comprehension. But I double-checked my season-announcement press release, and it does say the concert is in April, so I guess the date was changed some time after that was sent out last May. There may have been an update since then that I missed, so perhaps I should remain worried about my ability to read for comprehension.

So here's the info:

The Berkeley Symphony, Thursday, 28 March, in Zellerbach Hall, featuring The Stars and the Roses, a world premiere commission song cycle by Steven Stucky, setting the poetry of former Cal Professor (among other things) Czeslaw Milosz. Tenor Noah Stewart is soloist, Joana Carneiro conducts. The other piece on the program is the Bruckner 4.

Check it out here.

27 February 2013

anguished German nights, dreamy French afternoons

A few Sundays ago I headed out to Hertz Hall to hear Eric Owens (bass-baritone) and Warren Jones (piano) in recital, presented by Cal Performances. Owens had been scheduled to make his first recital appearance here last season, but had to cancel, which is why at the end of the afternoon he thanked Cal Performances for presenting him "again for the first time." New York City was being buried under snow but it was a balmy beautiful day in Berkeley; we were lucky they made it out, since most flights were being cancelled, and they said smilingly that they were grateful for the weather.

The charming remarks and the smiles came later. For the first, all-German, half, the two artists simply walked out and started. And that half was one of the most remarkable recitals I have experienced. Owens seems like a genial guy but seconds after he walked out he went to a very different place, and stayed there for the next forty-five minutes or so. It may have been a sunny afternoon outside, but it was a dark night of the soul in Hertz Hall. I have never heard a singer who could summon up sonorous nobility so quickly, so fully, and so much as part of himself - and not just nobility, but an inner anguish that comes from generous wisdom. It felt extremely unguarded and intimate, but almost as if I were seeing emotions I wasn't meant to see, that were usually and perhaps best kept hidden. It was like eavesdropping on Wotan when he thinks he's alone. I've heard a lot about (but have not myself seen) Owens's performances as Alberich, and now I can see what the raves were about; his would be an Alberich who truly is Wotan's double.

If you take a look at the repertoire (listed below) you can get a feel for the mood, even if your German is rudimentary: Michelangelo, Prometheus (two heaven-stormers!), Hades, Tartarus, melancholy, heart, soul. The songs bled into each other and created one mood, the mood of a man sleepless during an anguished night, looking deeply inward. I found it emotionally naked, and riveting.

After the intermission the second, all-French, half was enjoyable, but not I thought at the level of intensity of the first half. Look at the French songs below, and you can see the difference, even with rudimentary French: beauty, flowers, romance: soft honeyed hours! I've heard and loved these songs other times, but to me after the first half they felt almost like a cool-down after an exhausting, sweat-soaked, but exhilarating marathon. Ironically, since the first half sounded so much like out-takes from the Ring Cycle, the only actual Wagner piece on the program was a little curiosity he wrote for money during his early, desperate years in Paris. He took a poem by Heine translated into French and hoped its patriotic theme - two grenadiers, returning in defeat from Russia back to France, wish only for the return of their beloved, godlike Emperor - would make him some money. The Heine text also threw me, since I kept expecting an ironic twist or subtle insight and instead got  pretty much potboiler patriotism. It was kind of an enjoyable oddity, I guess. If you've ever idly wondered what Wagner would have done on piano with La Marseillaise, you could find out in this song.

There were two encores: Purcell's Music for a while was first. Usually I hear this sung by sopranos or countertenors, so hearing it sung softly in a bass-baritone's upper register created an eerie sort of unearthly mood. The snakes dropped from Alecto's head with soothing, regular plops, like overripe fruit falling. The second encore was the hymn Shall We Gather by the River, which seemed emotionally like the real completion of the first half: a calm-after-the-storm benediction to send us back out into the world.

The German songs:
Hugo Wolf: Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Michelangelo: Wohl denk ich oft; Alles endet, was entstehet; Fuhlt meine Seele das ersehnte Licht
Robert Schumann: Mein Herz ist schwer; Muttertraum; Der Schatzgraber; Melancholie
Franz Schubert: Prometheus; Fahrt zum Hades; Gruppe aus dem Tartarus

The French songs:
Claude Debussy: Beau Soir; Fleur des Bles; Romance
Maurice Ravel: Don Quichotte a Dulcinee: Chanson romanesque; Chanson epique; Chanson a boire
Richard Wagner (yes, that one): Les Deux Grenadiers

26 February 2013

the troubadour plays his guitar

Last week I went over to Berkeley to hear the young guitarist Milos, presented by Cal Performances. He grew up during the latest round of Balkan strife (I think he's 29 or 30 now) and describes himself as from Montenegro, and even more as from the Mediterranean (his first album was called Mediterraneo). He goes by his first name professionally; I suspect that's because he doesn't want to keep correcting the pronunciation of his last name (Karadaglic). As someone who constantly has to correct people who mispronounce my last name (it rhymes with "jazz"), I sympathize.

I was curious to hear Milos for several reasons. Primarily, I thought I would enjoy hearing him play, but of course that's my primary reason for hearing anyone. I have heard some classical guitar but not a whole lot so I wanted to hear some live and expand my live-music experiences. And the marketing push behind him has taken some interesting forms: last summer I was idly channel surfing one day and came across what seemed to be basically an infomercial: a thirty-minute show in which he was interviewed about his second album and its Latin American theme, intercut with scenes of him playing and shooting a music video. And I saw the album for sale from some unlikely source (could it have been QVC?). By the way, I guess I should make it clear I am not looking askance at these methods; I'm all in favor of creative marketing, and I get exasperated when people announce that certain types of music (for example, almost anything composed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries) "just won't sell" and I think, well, you're not trying.

But there's always a certain amount of backlash to perceived hype, particularly when the performer is also notably good-looking. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect last week at First Congregational Church. As the place filled up we saw an empty chair in front of the altar, and a white guitar case on the floor to the left of it. The concert started late (seriously, if you're not going to start a weeknight concert until 8:00, then at least start it on time). As the lights dimmed Milos came out, sat down, put his left foot up on the guitar case, and without looking up or speaking started playing Bach's Lute Suite in C minor, BWV 997.

I've realized over the years that I dislike electric guitar, and then I realized why: it seems a violation of the instrument's inherent intimacy: no wonder love serenades all feature acoustic guitar. I had assumed that there would be a microphone in front of the guitar, but there wasn't. The playing felt very pure and direct. When Milos finished the Bach piece, he then looked up and smiled and spoke. He speaks very much to the point, pausing occasionally and smiling. He said he liked to open with Bach, which was good for "clearing the ears." He mentioned how happy he was to be in this beautiful church and he praised the acoustics there several times. First Congregational has always had a very New England look to me; I wonder what associations he brought to it. He gave some historical background on the Bach piece, which was written before there were guitars. Then he talked about playing Latin American music, and how in Europe and also probably in the US there are fairly clear lines between  what is "classical" and "popular" music but the lines are blurred in Latin America.

So he played four pieces by Villa-Lobos: Prelude No. 1 in E minor, Etude No 11 in E minor, Valsa-Choro from the Suite Popular Brasileira, and Etude No 12 in A minor. He described the last piece as "a showcase of crazy." Milos is not a large man but his hands look large and his fingers are very long and tapered, moving swiftly over the strings. But what I found most impressive about his performance throughout was not the flash and dazzle, but the inwardness. His interpretations (all evening, not just of these pieces in particular) were very poetic, gossamer and fleeting but with underlying tensile strength, like a spiderweb. If you were wandering in a moonlit garden with a fountain splashing quietly, this is the music that would go with the scene. He's clearly a serious artist and one with integrity, which might be a way of saying he clearly thinks more about his playing than his marketing.

After the intermission he thanked us for coming back: "It's always nice when people come back," which he followed with another quick smile. He played some more pieces, but I think the order was different from that listed in the program. He announced that since he liked the acoustics there so much he would play four pieces. So there was Danza Brasilera by Jorge Morel, Milonga by Jorge Cardoso, Batucada by Isaias Savio, and Un Sueno en la Floresta by Augustin Barrios Mangore (these are among the pieces on his second album). He said that one of them (it might have been Milonga, but I'm not sure) was his mother's favorite, and he liked to play it and think of her since he hadn't seen her in a very long time. He seems to like pieces that transport himself and us to another place. His last piece, Domeniconi's Koyunbaba, was inspired by part of the Turkish coast, and when Milos saw the area, he was immediately reminded of his native Montenegro. So he described it as an inexpensive flight home, and he hoped it would conjure up a similar place for us. The audience was mostly very silent and attentive, but of course it was during the quietest portion of Koyunbaba that some guy behind me started sneezing with a weird high-pitched pew sort of pinging sound. Well, I of all people know that you can't control a sneeze. What was really irritating was that he followed this with the very very slow unwrapping of crinkly plastic around a lozenge. Just rip it off if you must! Better yet, buy the lozenges wrapped in paper! Sometimes people really are hopeless. That aside - that little flaw that throws the beauty of the rest into relief - it was a very impressive and enjoyable evening.

Milos went to the lobby afterwards and signed CDs and programs. (That's where the photos are from.) He was very genial and gracious and very tactfully kept the line moving.

25 February 2013

fun stuff I may or may not get to: March 2013

Other Minds presents its annual festival 28 February - 2 March at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco.

Awesome local chorus Volti sings new music by Dan Visconti, Harold Meltzer, Mark Winges, Kirsten Broberg, and Huang Ruo, 1 -3 March (with a San Francisco performance sandwiched in between two Berkeley outings).

American Bach Soloists present music by Handel (Dixit Dominus), Bach (Concerto for Oboe d'amore), and Vivaldi (Beatus vir and Concerto for Viola d'amore), 1 - 4 March, in their usual various locations.

Violinist Rachel Podger joins Philharmonia Baroque for a program of, not surprisingly, baroque violin music, featuring Corelli, Vivaldi, Mossi, Pergolesi, and Locatelli; 15 - 17 and 20 March, in the usual various locations.

At the Conservatory of Music, new-music ensemble BluePrint, conducted by Nicole Paiement, performs the world premiere of Ian Dicke's Grand Central, along with Lou Harrison's Tandy's Tango, Leo Brouwer's String Quartet No 4, and Armando Luna's Graffiti, on 2 March. For some reason the Conservatory website is not set up with links to individual events, but if you click here you will get the performance calendar for the current month and it's easy enough to slide over to March and then down to BluePrint - check out their other offerings along the way!

Cutting Ball Theater presents Ionesco's The Chairs, in a new translation by Cutting Ball Artistic Director Rob Melrose, directed by Annie Elias, 1 - 31 March.

Shotgun Players continues through Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy with Part 2, Shipwreck, 22 March - 21 April (they are also presenting Part 1, Voyage, 6 April - 4 May, in case you missed it last year).

Earplay performs music by Yao Chen, Tiffany Sevilla, Mikel Kuehn, Arnold Schoenberg, and Peter Josheff, on 18 March (7:30 at ODC Theater).

The Oakland East Bay Symphony performs Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks (Michael Morgan conducting), Britten's Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes (Bryan Nies conducting), and Faure's Requiem (Lynne Morrow conducting, with soloists Carrie Hennessey and Zachary Gordin), on 15 March at the Paramount.

San Francisco Ballet presents three programs: The first features the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov's version of The Rite of Spring, as well as Beaux (choreographed by Mark Morris* to music by Martinu), and Guide to Strange Places (choreographed by Ashley Page to music by John Adams); that's Program 3, 26 February to 10 March. The second features the world premiere of From Foreign Lands (Alexei Ratmansky choreographer; no composer is listed), as well as Within the Golden Hour (Christopher Wheeldon to music by Ezio Bosso), and Scotch Symphony (George Balanchine to Mendelssohn); that's Program 4, 1 - 9 March. The third features the return of Onegin, by John Cranko to music by Tchaikovsky (but not from his Onegin opera); that's Program 5, 21 - 28 March.

* Mark Morris's own new version of The Rite of Spring will be coming to Cal Performances in June as part of Ojai North.

Speaking of Cal Performances, they have another busy month in March. Here are some highlights: The Secret Garden, a new opera (co-presented with the San Francisco Opera) by Nolan Gasser (music) and Carey Harrison (libretto) based on the beloved childhood classic, 1 - 10 March; the Brentano String Quartet, playing Haydn, Purcell, Bartok, and Beethoven, 3 March; baritone Nathan Gunn, accompanied by Julie Gunn, will sing Schubert, Schumann (Dichterliebe), Barber, Ives, and Bolcom, 9 March; pianist Jeffrey Kahane playing Chopin, Liszt transcriptions of Bach and Schumann and Schubert, Pavel Haas, and Gabriel Kahane (his son), 10 March; Trisha Brown Dance Company, 15 March; the Afiara String Quartet playing Haydn, Beethoven, and a new work by Brett Abigaña, 17 March. Check here for a full listing, though be advised that Wynton Marsalis and the Tallis Scholars (those are separate concerts, which is really too bad) are sold out.

[UPDATE: The Jeffrey Kahane concert has been cancelled due to injury.]

San Francisco Performances presents violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis playing Mozart, Schubert, Lutoslawski, and Saint-Saens, 4 March; mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and pianist Vlad Iftinca, singing and playing many different things, 17 March; pianist Jonathan Biss completing his four-concert series on Schumann and his influences with a solo concert on 17 March featuring Janacek and Berg as well as Schumann and then a concert with the Elias String Quartet on 29 March featuring Schumann, Purcell, and a new work by Timothy Andres (Andres is a pianist as well as composer and will present a "musical self-portrait" on 27 March at one of SFP's Wednesday 6:30 Salon at the Rex concerts); and violinist Midori playing all of Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin in two concerts, 23 and 24 March.

Over at the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducts selections from Mozart's Zaide with soprano Nadine Sierra along with Bruckner's gorgeous 7th Symphony, 28 February - 2 March; he is joined by dazzling pianist Yuja Wang for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 4, along with the Brahms 1 and Samuel Carl Adams's Drift and Providence, 6 - 9 March (be advised that the Thursday 7 March concert is up in Sonoma); and then he conducts the Mahler 9 on 14-17 March.

The Exit Theater presents Behind the Curtain, a mini-festival of "dramatic readings" of three backstage dramas by three local playwrights: In the Wings by Meghan O'Connor (28 March), The Rose of Youth by Marissa Skudlarek (29 March), and Pastorella by Stuart Bousel (30 March).

Normally I don't list Los Angeles performances here, since I don't live down there, but I received a press release that included the magic words "inspired by American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, The Artist of the Beautiful" so here it is: The Ghost Road Company presents The Bargain and the Butterfly, 26 March - 7 April, at Artworks Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard. Ghost Road has also been influenced by Jerzy Grotowski, so they're just full of magic words for me. More information here.

Poem of the Week 2013/9

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay;
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company;
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought;

For oft, when on my couch I lie
in vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth

It's late February in California, which means spring is well on its way, manifested not only in the watery (or dry) itchy eyes and running noses and sneezes and bad headaches of allergy attacks, but also in happier signs of the changing season; years ago I planted some daffodils in my backyard, and though I've done nothing with them since but look at them when they bloom around this time of year, and though there are fewer than there once were, they still spring up faithfully and dance in the breeze, just as Wordsworth said they did. I always think of this poem when I see them, though I have neither a crowd nor a host of daffodils.

I can hear the boys next door playing basketball, and the children on the other side will no doubt soon be out screaming again, and the people behind me are chain-sawing down a tree. Solitude is very important to this poem; the speaker discovers the flowers while out wandering alone - actually, while lonely. He typifies himself as a cloud, not a man, and we don't know exactly where he is when he sees "a crowd, a host" - there's a sense of being in Nature, but that's only because he's brought a cloud floating high into our minds; that might have been an emotional metaphor, and there's nothing to prevent this from being in a city, and the crowd being one of people, or the host being armies on a plain. It's a dazzling surprise when we suddenly come across the wild spread of the daffodils (I can sense some of the same broad golden effect when I look at the oxalis that has taken over various portions of my yard).

The man is a cloud and the daffodils are personified as a crowd, but at least it's a dancing crowd. The dancing effect is mentioned twice in the first two stanzas, and the nearby waves are also said to dance, though not to such striking effect as the flowers; but the mention of the waves and the bay and the earlier mention of the stars brings a lot of the natural world into conjunction with this glimpse of spring flowers. But it's in memory that the sight has the most power, and in memory that the wanderer also comes into conjunction with the world around him; later, his loneliness turned to solitude, he discovers bliss when the vanished moment returns inwardly to him, and his spirit joins with the remembered daffodils in dance: the lonely man finds company united with the splendors of undisturbed nature.

Wordsworth of course wrote during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution that would remake the world's landscape and climate. I wonder if his bayside stretch of daffodils is still around, possibly saved only as a marketing possibility for Lake Country tours, or if development has taken over such a desirable spot. (Now my neighbors behind me are playing their crappy music too loudly.) If I ever moved to another house I would plant some daffodils there too, and wait for spring despite its attendant allergies.

I took this poem from the Penguin edition of the poems, Volume 1, which appears to be out of print, but it's one of his greatest hits and would be in most Wordsworth collections, including this one from Penguin.

18 February 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/8

I've received some hints that it's been a bit gloomy here at Poem of the Week, so I thought I'd lighten things up with a song about syphilis:

Oh my darling Paquette,
She is haunting me yet
With a dear souvenir
I shall never forget.
'Twas a gift that she got
From a seafaring Scot
He received he believed in Shalott!

In Shalott from his dame
Who was certain it came
With a kiss from a Swiss
(She'd forgotten his name),
But he told her that he
Had been given it free
By a sweet little cheat in Paree.

Then a man from Japan,
Then a Moor from Iran,
Though the Moor isn't sure
How the whole thing began,
But the gift we can see
Had a long pedigree
When at last it was passed on to me!

Well, the Moor in the end
Spent a night with a friend
And the dear souvenir
Just continued the trend
To a young English lord
Who was stung, they record,
By a wasp in a hospital ward!

Well, the wasp on the wing
Had occasion to sting
A Milano soprano
Who brought home the thing
To her young paramour,
Who was rendered impure,
And forsook her to look for the cure.

Thus he happened to pass
Through Westphalia, alas,
Where he met with Paquette,
And she drank from his glass.
I was pleased as could be
When it came back to me;
Makes us all just a small family!

John La Touche / Richard Wilbur, from Candide

This might be the wittiest song ever written about venereal disease, with the possible exception of the other song in Candide that's also about syphilis. Two songs on STDs might seem excessive, but Bernstein's musical has such a convoluted textual and staging history that directors can probably use either, neither, or both numbers. And given how many musicals have multiple songs about love, why not more than one about the possible consequences? When the San Francisco Symphony performed the work several years ago, V and I took her daughter, who turned to me at intermission and said, "Am I to understand that syphilis is a major plot point in this work?" I assured her that she was indeed to understand that. This sort of subterranean transmission of disease underlies much of the sexual anxiety in works that predate the discovery of a cure (just part of the biological imperatives behind our morality). Perhaps a song with this light tone could only be written once a cure had been discovered; on the other hand, dancing on in the face of disease and death is a common and even praiseworthy reaction. The short, two-beat lines and the clever rhymes move us through rapidly; rapidity, as well as elaborate rhyming, are hallmarks of light verse in English, a language which is famously less rich in rhymes than some other European languages, but perhaps the very difficulties in rhyming are what make them seem so smart and witty when they're done right. I love the line "And she drank from his glass," which reminds me of a comic I once heard (I can't remember her name) who said that if she ever came down with an STD she was going to tell her mother by saying, "Oh, Mom, you were so right about toilet seats!"

For reasons I'm still pondering, I don't really respond to Bernstein's persona or most of his music, but I love Candide and it's been one of my favorite musicals since I first heard it. These lyrics are taken from Bernstein's 1989 recording. It's complete, and authorized, and all that, and that's usually enough for me, but I'm not crazy about some of the singers, and the recorded sound itself is odd (and that's usually not something I'm really picky about): mostly very recessive except for the loud parts, which are way too loud (this might have changed, of course, on a re-release; I bought it when it first came out). The original cast album is a classic - Barbara Cook is still the gold standard for "Glitter and Be Gay" - but it's nowhere near complete. I think I read somewhere that Wilbur wrote these particular lyrics alone, but the booklet attributes them to John La Touche as well, perhaps because they are embedded in the auto-da-fe scene ("What a day, what a day / For an auto-da-fe!"), and that might be what La Touche wrote. (If anyone knows for sure, please let me know). Pangloss is about to be publicly hanged by the Portuguese inquisitors but insists that they can't hang him since he's too sick to die. The crowd, reluctant to be cheated of the expected entertainment, demands an explanation, and he launches into the song. (I have omitted the choruses.)

12 February 2013


Seven years of reverberating, so happy blogaversary to me. Many thanks to all who visit. Please continue to do so!

These are the BART tracks that take me off to events in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. I spend a lot of time staring at them.

11 February 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/7

Lament 10

Ursula, my sweet girl, where did you go?
Is it a place or country that we know?
Or were you borne above the highest sphere
To dwell and sing among the cherub choir?
Have you flown into Paradise? Or soared
To the Islands of the Blest? Are you aboard
With Charon, scooping water while he steers,
And does that drink inure you to my tears?
Clad in gray feathers of a nightingale,
No longer human, do you fill some vale
With plaintive song? Or must you still remain
In Purgatory, as if the slightest stain
Of sin could have defiled your soul? Did it return
To where you were (my woe) before being born?
Wherever you may be - if you exist -
Take pity on my grief. O presence missed,
Comfort me, haunt me; you whom I have lost,
Come back again, be shadow, dream, or ghost.

Jan Kochanowski, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Seamus Heaney

Jan Kochanowski (1530 - 1584) was the major pre-Romantic Polish poet, one of those whose adopted forms and use of the vernacular (as opposed to the humanists' universal language, Latin) paved the way for those who followed him. His beloved youngest daughter Ursula died before she was three years old; he responded with a series of nineteen elegies. Here is number ten, in which the poet emphasizes our uncertainty about what happens after death by rapidly shifting among the many post-life possible alternatives: is she in Heaven? Limbo? the classical realm of the Underworld? reincarnated? in Catholic Purgatory? Just . . . gone? His ache for his lost darling is so strong that he doesn't really care what the truth is, as long as she abides with him in some form.

This is from the 1995 translation of Laments by Baranczak and Heaney.

04 February 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/6

The rainy Pleiads wester,
  Orion plunges prone,
The stroke of midnight ceases,
  And I lie down alone.

The rainy Pleiads wester,
  And seek beyond the sea
The head that I shall dream of,
  And 'twill not dream of me.

AE Housman

The constellation Pleiades - the Seven Sisters - sets in the west shortly before dawn in the late fall months, signalling the oncoming winter weather for civilizations that were guided by the stars. The constellation Orion follows after the sisters in heaven as the hunter Orion did on earth. This poem seems like echt Housman, with its sea and stars, its deep emotion held in by a strict structure, its spare lyricism, its stoic sense of loneliness and unrequited love. It seems like a deeply personal poem. And as children of the Romantics, we tend to think that this is what poetry is - what it must be: deeply personal, sprung directly from the writer's soul and closely linked to his or her daily life. But there's another tradition, dating in Western tradition back to the Greeks and Romans, one of which Housman, a classics scholar by profession, was well aware: that of building off existing tropes, revising, revisiting, and extending the work of past masters. And this very Housman-like poem is actually based closely on a centuries-old fragment from Sappho. Here it is in the Loeb Classical Library rendition:

The moon has set and the Pleiades; it is midnight, and time goes by, and I lie alone.

Sappho, Fragment 168B, translated by David A. Campbell

Since the purpose of the Loeb volumes is to provide a crib on the right-hand page for those working through the original Greek or Latin on the left, we can assume that this is a straightforward, fairly denotative version. Here's another rendition in English that takes a slightly more flexible approach. Several months ago I was suddenly gripped by a need to read Sappho in different translations; of all the ones I read, this is the version of this particular fragment that I found most haunting, most memorable as a stand-alone English poem:

Tonight I've watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard

Adding "Tonight I've watched" really sets the frame for this piece; it adds a note of self-awareness, as the speaker literally watches time, in the form of the regular movements of celestial bodies, pass her by. "The night is now half-gone" is equivalent to "it is midnight" and "youth goes" is surely the implication of "time goes by" but half-gone and youth goes emphasizes, in their repetition, the going, and though the moon and the Pleiades will continue their rounds, the watcher's youth will never come back. The line breaks slip downward and the stanza breaks emphasize the thoughts rising up in her sleepless night.

These lines make a very complete emotional statement, but of course, as with almost all of Sappho's surviving poetry, this is a fragment, and though the temptation is to read these lines as Sappho pouring her heart out, we have no idea what the actual context is (in fact, according to a note in the Loeb edition, some scholars reject the attribution to Sappho altogether). This might be a personal poem, it might be for some public ceremony, it might be about the speaker, or about someone else, it might be part of retelling a myth, it might be about any number of things. But does this really matter to us? This is what we have left, centuries later, and if the way the words are put together and the emotions they conjure are real and meaningful, do the personal and public pressures that went into these lines ultimately matter? (Leave it to a dramatist, and therefore a master of inventing intense emotions, to see the situation clearly: "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?" Hamlet raises, but does not answer, the question; instead, he takes the emotions raised by the First Player's poetic speech and relates them back to his personal dilemmas and struggles.)

Back to what Housman did with this fragment. He brings out the atmospheric touch of the rain implicit in the mention of the Pleiades, and he changes the moon to Orion - another hunter, like the moon goddess Artemis/Diana, but one that never catches his prey - indeed, one who was punished for the pursuit. In Barnard's version of Sappho, it seems the speaker is already in bed, alone, lying awake (unable to sleep), pondering time - her life - passing her by. In Housman, just the conjunction "and" ("and I lie down alone") makes the speaker's lying down seem dependent on the stroke of midnight ceasing, as if he were waiting for something or someone and finally admitting to himself that nothing will happen and no one is coming.

Then Housman takes the Sapphic fragment and narrows the possibilities down to one: he makes it a poem about unrequited love. I'm fascinated by the use of "head" for the distant lover: there are several Housman-like possibilities that would have fit there: girl, lass, youth, lad, even one if he wanted to avoid specifying gender. Why is the loved one's existence reduced to a head? Specifying head reduces the physical aspects of  the speaker's love, as if he is looking for an intellectual or emotional connection even more than a physical one (though he won't get any of them). It emphasizes the interior, unspoken and thoughtful, nature of the speaker's love, as if it exists only in his head, and may or may not ever be expressed outwardly. Given the loved object's distance and indifference, such expression seems unlikely. Whatever personal pressures and feelings went into Housman's, or Sappho's, urge to write their lines is mostly irrelevant for readers, for whom Housman's poem, like Sappho's fragment, now exists independently of the dead writers, as an arrangement of words waiting to strike a respondent chord in our possibly very different lives.

I took the Housman poem from this edition of his works, which appears to be out of print though available; there is also a Penguin edition. The Loeb Sappho is in Greek Lyric I: Sappho & Alcaeus. Mary Barnard's translation is available here.