Poetry Friday: To Music

h1 December 12th, 2008 by jules

The other day I heard Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and Strings in D Minor (2nd Movement). This piece of music pretty much stops me in my tracks every time. I think it’s transcendently beautiful. It also always reminds me of the scene in the film adaptation (from way back in ’86) of Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God in which James Leeds, played by William Hurt, is trying to describe that exact piece of music to his girlfriend, who is deaf, played by Marlee Matlin (for which she won the Oscar, damn skippy). Knowing that he loves the piece, she’s put the record on, walked into the room, and signed, “show me the music.” He tries, but he can’t quite find the words, so to speak.

And then that reminded me of the scene in Philadelphia (from not so far back as ’93), in which Tom Hanks’ character is asking Denzel Washington’s character if he’s ever heard Maria Callas sing La Mamma Morta. And the music moves him so much that he stands up with his IV drip to listen and tries to describe it and lets the music wash over him and the camera’s swinging around him slowly and then red washes over it all and the filming is just so GORGEOUS and it makes me cry so hard like a blubbery fool that the first time I saw it in a dark theater, I thought I’d BUST.

Same for that Children of a Lesser God scene. They are both so moving in that here are two mere mortals trying to capture the very ineffability of music. Valiant efforts, indeed, but can we really do that?

Well, Rainer Maria Rilke tried. I’m always drawn to those poets and authors and musicians who try to articulate the inexpressible, who venture out beyond all words into that mysterious realm. And Rilke is rather the master of all that, yes? Those two cinematic memories—brought to me by a serendipitous moment of Bach on public radio this week—invited Rilke’s “To Music” to mind, which has always been one of my favorite poems. “Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps: silence of paintings. You language where all language ends.”{*} Ah. Sublime.

So, for my Poetry Friday entry today, that poem is below — followed by the scene from Philadelphia and the scene from Children of a Lesser God. (For the latter, you must move up to minute 6:38 in the video footage, as that’s the scene in particular I’m talking about. This was the only version of it I could find online, but you can skip everything before 6:38.)

“To Music”
Rainer Maria Rilke

Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps:
silence of paintings. You language where all language
ends. You time
standing vertically on the motion of mortal hearts.

Feelings for whom? O you the transformation
of feelings into what?—: into audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You heart-space
grown out of us. The deepest space in us,
which, rising above us, forces its way out,—
holy departure:
when the innermost point in us stands
outside, as the most practiced distance, as the other
side of the air:
pure,
boundless,
no longer habitable.


{Again, for Children of a Lesser God, move the arrow up to moment 6:38-ish for the specific scene I’m talking about.}

The Poetry Friday round-up today is being handled by one of my favorite people, Elaine Magliaro, over at Wild Rose Reader. Enjoy.

* * * * * * *

* That poem was translated by Stephen Mitchell. In another volume of his poetry I have, translated by J.B. Leishman, he writes: “Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps: / stillness of pictures. You speech, where speeches / end…” That translation gives an all-new meaning to the Children of a Lesser God piece, but that’s a post for another day…





20 comments to “Poetry Friday: To Music”

  1. I’ve never seen either of these movies –and I can’t say that anything other than little kids singing makes me tear up even a little (I remember being cynically baffled by the opera scene in Pretty Woman — ho, hum, another noble scene from the Whore With the Heart of Gold trope) but the lighting here really does a number on the scene, as does Hanks’ interpretation. And of course, Rilke is always so full of sort of breathless nuance — you imagine hearing this poetry read aloud with appropriate pauses. My favorite part –

    You heart-space
    grown out of us. The deepest space in us,
    which, rising above us, forces its way out,—
    holy departure:
    when the innermost point in us stands
    outside,

    – The whole thing is worth committing to memory, and I’m grateful for the people who can weep during operas and hearing poetry — the world needs people who can allow their innermost point to stand outside more often.


  2. That’s fascinating, TadMack. I think what is so moving to me about scenes like that (though I am with you on the “Pretty Woman” scene — didn’t move me a whit, and I generally never liked the movie) is that this is how I respond to certain pieces of music. I guess I feel such empathy for those trying, struggling, flailing to find the words to describe it. It’s almost like I find it so stirring, because I feel like they understand how I feel when I hear, say, Arvo Pärt. (Holy crap, let’s just say that if Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten comes on, people need to just clear the room.)

    I agree that the poem is worth committing to memory. It’s one of Rilke’s most beautiful poems.

    I totally meant to ask readers if they have their favorite music-movie moment/scene. There’s also always Spinal Tap for me, but then “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” and “(Listen to) The Flower People” fall into another category altogether.


  3. Totally heart the Rilke. It’s one of those poems originally written in a language other than English which make me wish I could read it in the original. The translations of this one use a sort of fractured syntax which (in my mind) carries the meaning in a way like music itself does — almost pre-verbally, or on a railroad track running parallel to the verbal but independently of it, with its own stations and switching system and schedule.

    Favorite music-movie moments (sorry, more than one): “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Love” as sung by Madelin Kahn in Young Frankenstein (what a coincidence!); “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now; Bach’s Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor overlaying The Godfather‘s climactic baptism scene. Also, not an easy movie to watch, but I must say the excellent music-movie moments are many in A Clockwork Orange.


  4. [...] 2008-12-12: Over at the inestimable Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast site, coincidentally, Jules is also thinking about great movie-music [...]


  5. The Rilke poem surpasses sublime. I once tried to explain what music was in a graduate school essay on James Joyce. The whole stream of consciousness thing was mind’s music — abstract, a verbalizing of the nonverbal. Music, I concluded, was “feeling,” not sound. I fell so far short, but it challenged my thinking. Rilke has nailed it here, though, with “the deepest space in us,” and the “other side of air.”
    You’ve inspired me to listen to more classical music!


  6. John, thanks for your movie-moment contributions. I see that great minds think alike today (well, not really, as TadMack likes to point out) and that you posted similarly today. Looking forward to going to see that.

    Now I’m wondering what my other music movie-moments are….hmmm…..

    Oh, and I ALWAYS wish I could read Rilke in the original. Have mercy, he was brilliant.

    Jama, I once read an essay in college about the different levels on which we listen to music, the first one being feeling, reacting emotionally. Not being a music major or music history major or that kind of thing, I was fascinated by it, ’cause I thought, that’s the only way I DO listen to classical music. I felt like I was missing out on something big — that there are other ways to listen I’ve been missing all this time. Do music majors/musicians/experts listen to them differently? I’m sure they do. I wish I knew that world.


  7. I’ve never seen Children of a Lesser God, and now I want to! Everything makes me tear up lately–today it was these words:
    O you the transformation
    of feelings into what?—: into audible landscape.
    You stranger: music. You heart-space
    grown out of us.

    That’s why I sing. I just didn’t know it before. Lovely.


  8. Oh, and (from the sublime to the ridiculous) favorite movie-music moment? “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the back of the Gremlin (or is it a Pacer?) in Wayne’s World. Too silly.


  9. Libby, that is a moment of utter joy (the one in Wayne’s World). Plus, in high school—during his SNL years—I wanted to marry Mike Myers. (He’s really very talented, though he only seems to do Austin Powers anymore).

    The ridiculous moments are more than welcome.


  10. I am so musically uneducated that I’m always reduced to “I love that” and “I hate that” when I try to talk about it. And pretty much EVERYTHING in Philadelphia made me sob like a baby. Talk about unfair.

    What also strikes me is that TadMack and Jules are with me in the I Don’t Get What the Big Deal Is about Pretty Woman Club. WOO! Can we get a t-shirt or something? Every time someone’s like, “Oh, that’s my favorite movie!” I’m like, “Really? Really? Have you seen other movies?”


  11. I’m with adrienne in the “musically uneducated” category and in a category all by myself of “no musical talent whatsoever.”

    But ” You time / standing vertically on the motion of mortal hearts” makes me understand how music works—a little. I’m grateful that I don’t have to understand much or be able to produce it in order to love and experience it.

    As to movies, I instantly thought of Dangerous Liasons, not just because it’s one of my favorite movies and filled with glorious music, but because I adore that last scene where they boo Glenn Close at the opera and she goes home to strip the makeup from her face. It’s dead quiet for awhile, and then there’s a snippet of ominous music right before the blackout, and then the music of the credits, which becomes beautiful and lively again. It gets me everytime. Like the world is ending for her, but carrying on for all the rest of us. shiver

    Here is is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8f2gtCdNio


  12. Adrienne, I’ll be club secretary (just ’cause I’m a good note-taker), and either you or TadMack can be Prez.

    Sara, wow. That’s intense. I don’t remember why she got boo’ed, and now I want to watch it again, but that’s some acting right there.

    I thought of another great music movie-moment, (though it’s not someone trying to express why they love a piece) — It’s from The English Patient. I thought the Hana and Kip story line in that movie was waaaay better than The Count and Catherine (was that her name?), and this, I think, is one of the most memorable movie scenes of all time, when Kip takes Hana to that church. Anyway, their interactions in the movie call forth Bach’s “Aria” from “The Goldberg Variations,” since when they first meet, she’s at the piano playing it (and I can vouch for the fact that this is a killer good soundtrack). Anyway, what a beautiful scene this church moment is. Go, Kip!

    I also think “Ada Plays” from Cold Mountain (composed by Gabriel Yared) is so beautiful. I’m a bit partial to the title.


  13. Thought of another: In the movie, Once, where they stumble into that duet in the piano store and it becomes all longing and unsaid stuff.

    Jules, I can’t NOT watch DL if I surf into it on TV. So evil. So heart-breaking. Glenn Close–well, her character, the Marquise de Merteuil— deserves every last boo in that scene. You should watch it to remember why.


  14. Sara, I really want to see “Once.” Keep hearing great things about it.

    And, yeah, I want to see DL again now.

    You know, I heard The Writer’s Almanac today, and Keillor was talking about Gustave Flaubert and quoted him as saying, “You must not think that feeling is everything. Art is nothing without form.” I found that fitting to this conversation today, what with us all discussing feeling and trying to put some form to the nonverbal and inexpressible.


  15. OK. Well. First of all, I’m putting Dangerous Liasons on my netflix list right now. I forgot how much I loved that movie.

    Everyone in my little house here knows more about music than I do, but y’know what? I’m the one to cry over it. More often than not. So I kinda think I’m not missing out. Y’know?


  16. Way to pull it all together! I love that “heart space” part too. Rilke is really genius. As are the actors in those scenes…


  17. Oooh. Excellent poem, and excellent examples of goose-pimple worthy music moments in film. I’m also a big fan of the Philadelphia scene, and the Glenn Close scene at the end of Dangerous Liasons. A couple more I can think of: the very beginning of In the Name of the Father, where a happy crowded pub suddenly explodes, leading into the U2 song of the same title. I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters, but I remember it was pretty powerful. Also, the excellent use of the Pixies’ song “Where is My Mind??” at the end of Fight Club.


  18. FIGHT CLUB! I found myself just the other day wanting to watch that again. And one day I just gotta read the book….

    Good examples, E.

    I also wept — just WEPT (as quietly as I could) — at the very end of the movie adaptation of “About a Boy” when the kid got up on stage to sing the geeky song just for his mom. I just KNEW that everyone else was sobbing, and I was quite embarrassed, when the lights came up, to see I was the only one.


  19. [...] I’m writing to direct you to a wonderful post I just discovered at Seven Impossible Things. It’s dated 12/12, written by Jules, and titled, “Poetry Friday: To Music.” [...]


  20. Hi, I love this site and LOVED your post on music. Rilke is amazing, of course, and I can’t think of him without thinking of my oldest brother, who died of AIDS back in 1993. Somehow they are linked in my mind. And then there’s Demme’s film, “Philadelphia,” and that great, great scene you highlighted (the single best moment in a good, flawed film). Demme has always been unusually sensitive when it comes to music, and is one of my favorite directors. Anyway: thanks! Great post, beautifully written.


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