This week’s poem, by Robert Browning, was inspired by the music of Baldassarre Galuppi. His most familiar work is his sonata in C major, which you may have heard before – once you hear it, anyway, you will feel like you’ve always known it.
As for the poem, it is one worth swatting up on notes and commentary to get the most out of. There is a great reading of the poem on youtube by a pianist who interposes snippets of Galuppi’s music into it. I was helped in my understanding of the poem, both by the notes and commentary in Oxford’s Browning by Adam Roberts and Daniel Karlin, and those on the excellent webpage victorianweb.org. My own commentary, with the usual diversions (and a few old holiday snaps from Venice, circa 2007), is provided beneath the poem below.
A Toccata of Galuppi’s
Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I take your meaning, ’tis with such a heavy mind!
Here you come with your old music, and here’s all the good it brings.
What, they lived once thus at Venice where the merchants were the kings,
Where Saint Mark’s is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings?
Ay, because the sea’s the street there; and ’tis arched by . . . what you call
. . . Shylock’s bridge with houses on it, where they kept the carnival:
I was never out of England — it’s as if I saw it all.
Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May?
Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to mid-day,
When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do you say?
Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red, —
On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed,
OÕer the breast’s superb abundance where a man might base his head?
Well, and it was graceful of them — they’d break talk off and afford
— She, to bite her mask’s black velvet — he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?
What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh
, Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions — “Must we die?”
Those commiserating sevenths — “Life might last! we can but try!
“Were you happy?” — “Yes.” — “And are you still as happy?” — “Yes. And you?”
— “Then, more kisses!” — “Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?”
Hark, the dominant’s persistence till it must be answered to!
So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
“Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay!
“I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!”
Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.
But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve,
While I triumph o’er a secret wrung from nature’s close reserve,
In you come with your cold music till I creep thro’ every nerve.
Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned:
“Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
“The soul, doubtless, is immortal — where a soul can be discerned.
“Yours for instance: you know physics, something of geology,
“Mathematics are your pastime; souls shall rise in their degree;
“Butterflies may dread extinction, — you’ll not die, it cannot be!
“As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
“Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
“What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?
“Dust and ashes!” So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too — what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.
At the start of the poem a man, an Englishman, addresses the long dead Galuppi. He thinks he has divined the ‘message’ of his music, but it weighs heavily on him. How can music have a message? There was an idea current in the 19th, expressed by the philosopher Schopenhauer among others but also oft expressed now, that music is the purest art form, the purest expressions of man’s emotions or higher feelings, on which theme and subject, in the narrative sense, let alone a moral or a message, can not intrude. This is the second suggestion that the man in the poem is ever so slightly gauche – our narrator has already got off to a bad start by getting the composer’s name wrong, and now he is rather crudely thinking he can ‘read’ messages from music. Rather like Hardy’s ‘respectable burgher’, the speaker here is a man who isn’t quite as clever as he thinks he is.
Is the poem meant to be as gloomy and fateful as the speaker would seem to suggest, or are we to take his reflections with a pinch of salt? Perhaps there is a clue in the poem’s rhythm. In his introduction to the collected poems, Daniel Karlin notes in ‘A Toccata’ two different possible rhythms. There is the natural ‘English’ way to read the poem, with sombre dipodic lines – i.e. with alternate hard and soft stresses:
OH ga / LUppi/ BALda / SSAro / THIS is / VEry / HARD to FIND
But if we follow the rhythm of the title, putting a stress on every third syllable in four we get the more Italianate, jauntier:
ohgaLUppi / BaldaSSAro / this is VEry / hard to FIND
He comments, ‘whether you take the melancholy or the jaunty rhythm to be ‘given’, the other will shadow and haunt it’ and explains that this may be Browning’s way of reminding us not to take the speaker’s reading of Galuppi, or of Venetian culture, as being the only ‘right’ one.
Perhaps the man’s gloom has more to do with his own experience of life, and more to do with 19th century England than with 18th Century Venice. Putting aside Browning’s use of irony and the distance it puts between ourselves and the narrator, however, there is another interesting reason why the poem may have this double rhythm – to mimic the way a pianist plays a piano, with the left hand providing a steady rhythm, which is overlaid with the delicate playful melodies of the right. Perhaps this is why the pianist in the youtube clip chose the sonata to accompany this poem – the two moods provided by left and right hand match the two moods of the poem very well.
After a gloomy opening stanza the narrator seems to be positively enjoying himself as the music transports him (as Browning’s poetry transports us) to the glorious, decadent, soon to be extinguished 18th century civilisation of Venice: powerful and glorious, mercantile and aristocratic, semi-pagan and sensual. Oh, especially sensual. There is a hint of condescension in his wistfulness, mind – in Victorian times Venice was a tourist trap, and the ellipses suggest his reluctance even to say ‘Shylock’s bridge’, a silly touristy sort of conceit, he might think. As he focuses in on two aristocratic lovers, there is a rather strong undercurrent of sexual longing barely concealed beneath his disapproval: that bosom, the biting on the mask, the touching of the sword – how lascivious these Latins are: only this is all happening in the Englishman’s head! Like many an untravelled man, he is projecting his fantasies onto a foreign land he has no experience of.
(There is a microcosm of English snobbery right there by the way, the upper-middle class Browning looking down his nose at his middle-middle class narrator who is disapproving/secretly jealous of those foreigners, just as haughty metropolitan Guardian readers look down their noses now at outraged suburban Daily Mail readers. But I digress.)
Before anyone buries anything in anyone’s anything, of course, the couple break off their cavorting to listen to the music of Galuppi, nearby on his clavichord (an early piano). Well, thank decency for that!
As we reach the 7th stanza, I – and some other readers, no doubt – begin to feel my musical ignorance keenly, as Browning’s Englishman talks of lesser thirds and diminished sixths; grasp of course the kind of thing our speaker means – of certain chords, notes or keys having certain moods or attitudes, but I wouldn’t be able to match the terms to their sounds. Browning, no doubt, would have, as would most people brought up in the classical music loving, Victorian upper middle classes. In those days, long before gramophones, the main medium of music was sheet music, and to hear the latest pieces one would buy the score and play it for oneself. The link between written and aural communication, then, was perhaps a little more intimate.
The Englishman reckons that for the two listeners what is communicated is in equal parts grave and joy, but he, with the benefit of hindsight, sees the futility of it all…
Because now Venice, as it was, is gone. Each of those playful aristocrats, each wealthy merchant-cum-king is dead and gone, some having left no legacy or an ill one (our gloomy speaker doesn’t seem to consider that some could have had a good legacy!).
And thus, to those listening to Galuppi after Venice’s great ages, the grave far out weighs the gay – in fact, the gay underlines the grave: Browning gives us the image of a cricket ‘creaking’ in the ruins of a once great civilisation, mocking ‘dust and ashes, dead and done with’. This mocking cricket – the delicate beauty of Galuppi’s relic – becomes a symbol of the inevitability of death and decline, something comparable, strange as it may seem, to Shelley’s huge disembodied stone legs in the wilderness in the poem Ozymandias. Both stand for the remnants of a once confident, now defunct civilisation.
The difference between Ozymandias’s once great empire and Venice are quite telling, however. Nothing remains around those two trunkless stone legs but ‘the lone and level sands’, whereas Saint Mark’s and ‘Shylock’s Bridge’ and the beautiful old medieval city in the lagoon are still there. What does Browning’s speaker mean by talking about a house burned, by hearing ‘dust and ashes, dead and done’ in the music?
Perhaps, if we are being unkind, he is obsessively morbid, and quite wrong. But actually, something he is saying about Venice is quite right: its buildings still stand, and its people survive, but its independence and its culture are long gone, subsumed first into Austrian, then Italian Empires. The Englishman doesn’t stop to consider any parallels between the old defunct Venetian civilisation and the predominant civilisation of his own day, that of the British Empire. A twenty-first century wag might note that something quite similar has become of that Empire’s capital; but whereas the glory of Venice lingered on as a tourist trap, London has found a second life as the centre of international capital (or of ‘spivs and gamblers’ as our perspicacious business secretary has noted).
The Englishman does not think of the fate of London, however, as much as his own. From a faintly Bible-tinged Platonism, the Englishman has derived confidence that for him, unlike those pleasure-seeking Venetians, some degree of immortality is assured. ‘Souls shall rise in their degree,’ he intones, by which he means the degree to which you paid attention at school. This is not the sort of immortality to appeal to everyone. Nothing in our immortal souls will remain of kissing or mirth, only of that part of us that imbibed the abstract principles of physics, geology and maths. How very dreary! No wonder the Englishman finishes the poem feeling old and chilly.