Auden on Mozart et al

I was going to send my mother the poem by W.H. Auden that I quoted recently, which doesn’t seem to be on the internet anywhere, so I thought I might as well post it here, where, after all, she’s likely to read it. There is an audio file of Auden reading the poem via the New York Times, but it’s very late in his life and he seems to make it a little more trivial, so I recommend reading it yourself first. It’s one of my favorite poems about music ever, with some sagacious observations about the changes in performance practice wrought by time and mores:

Metalogue to The Magic Flute

(Lines composed in commemoration of the Mozart Bicentenary, 1956. To be spoken by the singer playing the role of Sarastro.)

Relax, Maestro, put your baton down;
Only the fogiest of the old will frown
If you the trials of the Prince prorogue
To let Sarastro speak this Metalogue,
A form acceptable to us, although
Unclassed by Aristotle or Boileau.
No modern audience finds it incorrect,
For interruption is what we expect
Since that new god, the Paid Announcer, rose,
Who with his quasi-Ossianic prose
Cuts in upon the lovers, halts the band,
To name a sponsor or to praise a brand.
Not that I have a product to describe
That you could wear or cook with or imbibe;
You cannot hoard or waste a work of art;
I come to praise but not to sell Mozart,
Who came into this world of war and woe
At Salzburg just two centuries ago,
When kings were many and machines were few
And open atheism something new.
(It makes a servantless New Yorker sore
To think sheer Genius had to stand before
A mere Archbishop with uncovered head;
But Mozart never had to make his bed.)
The history of Music as of Man
Will not go cancrizans, and no ear can
Recall what, when the Archduke Francis reigned,
Was heard by ear whose treasure-hoard contained
A Flute already but as yet no Ring;
Each age has its own mode of listening.
We know the Mozart of our fathers’ time
Was gay, rococo, sweet, but not sublime
A Viennese Italian; that is changed
Since music critics learned to feel “estranged”;
Now it’s the Germans he is classed amongst,
A Geist whose music was composed from Angst,
At International Festivals enjoys
An equal status with the Twelve-Tone Boys;
He awes the lovely and the very rich,
And even those Divertimenti which
He wrote to play while bottles were uncorked,
Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked,
Are heard in solemn silence, score on knees,
Like quartets of the deafest of the B‘s.
What next? One can no more imagine how,
In concert halls two hundred years from now,
When the mozartian sound-waves move the air,
The cognoscenti will be moved, then dare
Predict how high orchestral pitch will go,
How many tones will constitute a row,
The tempo at which regimented feet
Will march about the Moon, the form of Suite
For Piano in a Post-Atomic Age,
Prepared by some contemporary Cage.
An opera composer may be vexed
By later umbrage taken at his text:
Even Macaulay‘s schoolboy knows today
What Robert Graves or Margaret Mead would say
About the status of the sexes in this play,
Writ in that era of barbaric dark
‘Twixt Modern Mom and Bronze-Age Matriarch.
Where now the Roman Fathers and their creed?
“Ah where,” sighs Mr. Mitty, “where indeed?”
And glances sideways at his vital spouse
Whose rigid jaw-line and contracted brows
Express her scorn and utter detestation
For Roman views of Female Education.
In Nineteen-Fifty-Six we find the Queen
A highly-paid and most efficient Dean
(Who, as we all know, really runs the College),
Sarastro, tolerated for his knowledge,
Teaching the History of Ancient Myth
At Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Bennington, or Smith;
Pamina may a Time researcher be
To let Pamino take his Ph.D.,
Acquiring manly wisdom as he wishes
While changing diapers and doing dishes;
Sweet Papagena, when she’s time to spare,
Listens to Mozart operas on the air,
Though Papageno, we are sad to feel,
Prefers the juke-box to the glockenspiel,
And how is – what was easy in the past –
A democratic villain to be cast?
Monostatos must make his bad impression
Without a race, religion, or profession.
A work that lasts two hundred years is tough,
And operas, God knows, must stand enough:
What greatness made, small vanities abuse.
What must they not endure? The Diva whose
Fioriture and climactic note
The silly old composer never wrote,
Conductor X, that over-rated bore
Who alters tempi and who cuts the score,
Director Y who with ingenious wit
Places his wretched singers in the pit
While dancers mime their roles, Z the Designer
Who sets the whole thing on an ocean liner,
The girls in shorts, the men in yachting caps;
Yet Genius triumphs over all mishaps,
Survives a greater obstacle than these,
Translation into foreign Operese
(English sopranos are condemned to languish
Because our tenors have to hide their anguish);
It soothes the Frank, it stimulates the Greek:
Genius surpasses all things, even Chic.
We who know nothing – which is just as well –
About the future, can, at least, foretell,
Whether they live in air-borne nylon cubes,
Practise group-marriage or are fed through tubes,
That crowds two centuries from now will press
(Absurd their hair, ridiculous their dress)
And pay in currencies, however weird,
To hear Sarastro booming through his beard,
Sharp connoisseurs approve if it is clean
The F in alt of the Nocturnal Queen,
Some uncouth creature from the Bronx amaze
Park Avenue by knowing all the K‘s.
How seemly, then, to celebrate the birth
Of one who did no harm to our poor earth,
Created masterpieces by the dozen,
Indulged in toilet-humor with his cousin,
And had a pauper’s funeral in the rain,
The like of which we shall not see again:
How comely, also, to forgive; we should,
As Mozart, were he living, surely would,
Remember kindly Salieri‘s shade,
Accused of murder and his works unplayed,
Nor, while we praise the dead, should we forget,
We have Stravinsky – bless him! – with us yet.
Basta! Maestro, make your minions play!
In all hearts, as in our finale, may
Love be crowned, assume their rightful sway.