(poems from the Chinese translated by Arthur Waley)
Last night the clouds scattered away;
A thousand leagues, the same moonlight scene.
When dawn came, I dreamt I saw your face;
It must have been that you were thinking of me.
In my dream, I thought I held your hand
And asked you to tell me what your thoughts were.
And you said: ‘I miss you bitterly . . . “
As Helen drifted into sleep the source of that imagined voice in her last conscious moment was waking several hundred miles away. For so long now she was his first and only waking thought. He stretched his hand out to touch her side with his fingertips, not a touch more the lightest brush: he did not wish to wake her. But she was elsewhere. He was alone. His imagination had to bring her to him instead. Sometimes she was so vivid a thought, a presence more like, that he felt her body surround him, her hand stroke the back of his neck, her breasts fall and spread against his chest, her breath kiss his nose and cheek. He felt conscious he had yet to shave, conscious his rough face should not touch her delicate freckled complexion . . . but he was alone and his body ached for her.
It was always like this when they were apart, and particularly so when she was away from home and full to the brim with the variously rich activities and opportunities that made up her life. He knew she might think of him, but there was this feeling he was missing a part of her living he would never see or know. True, she would speak to him on the phone, but sadly he still longed to read her once bright descriptions that had in the past enabled him to enter her solo experiences in a way no image seemed to allow. But he had resolved to put such possible gifts to one side. So instead he would invent such descriptions himself: a good, if time-consuming compromise. He would give himself an hour at his desk; an hour, had he been with her, they might have spent in each other’s arms welcoming the day with such a love-making he could hardly bare to think about: it was always, always more wonderful than he could possibly have imagined.
He had been at a concert the previous evening. He’d taken the train to a nearby town and chosen to hear just one work in the second part. Before the interval there had been a strange confection of Bernstein, Vaughan-Williams and Saint-Saens. He had preferred to listen to *The Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. There was something a little special about attending a concert to hear a single work. You could properly prepare yourself for the experience and take away a clear memory of the music. He had read the score on the train journey, a journey across a once industrial and mining heartland that had become an abandoned wasteland: a river and canal running in tandem, a vast but empty marshalling yard, acres of water-filled gravel pits, factory and mill buildings standing empty and in decay. On this early evening of a thoroughly wet and cold June day he would lift his gaze to the window to observe this sad landscape shrouded in a grey mist tinted with mottled green.
Andrew often considered Berlioz a kind of fellow-traveller on his life’s journey of music. Berlioz too had been a guitarist in his teenage years and had been largely self-taught as a composer. He had been an innovator in his use of the orchestra and developed a body of work that closely mirrored the literature and political mores of his time. The Symphonie Fantastique was the ultimate love letter: to the adorable Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress. Berlioz had seen her play Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (see above) and immediately imagined her as his muse and life’s partner. He wrote hundreds of letters to her before eventually meeting her to declare his love and admiration in person. A friend took her to hear the Symphonie after it had got about that this radical work was dedicated to her. She was appalled! But, when Berlioz wrote Lélio or The Return to Life, a kind of sequel to his Symphonie, she relented and agreed to meet him. They married in 1833 but parted after a tempestuous seven years. It had surprised Andrew to discover Lélio, about which, until quite recently, he had known nothing. The Berlioz scholar David Cairns had written fully and quite lovingly about the composition, but reading the synopsis in Wikipedia he began to understand it might be a trifle embarrassing to present in a concert.
The programme of Lélio describes the artist wakening from these dreams, musing on Shakespeare, his sad life, and not having a woman. He decides that if he can't put this unrequited love out of his head, he will immerse himself in music. He then leads an orchestra to a successful performance of one of his new compositions and the story ends peacefully.
Lélio consists of six musical pieces presented by an actor who stands on stage in front of a curtain concealing the orchestra. The actor's dramatic monologues explain the meaning of the music in the life of the artist. The work begins and ends with the idée fixe theme, linking Lélio to Symphonie fantastique.
Thoughts of the lovely Harriet brought him to thoughts of his own muse, far away. He had written so many letters to his muse, and now he wrote her little stories instead, often imagining moments in their still separate lives. He had written music for her and about her – a Quintet for piano and winds (after Mozart) based on a poem he’d written about a languorous summer afternoon beside a river in the Yorkshire Dales; a book of songs called Pleasing Myself (his first venture into setting his own words). Strangely enough he had read through those very songs just the other day. How they captured the onset of both his regard and his passion for her! He had written poetic words in her voice, and for her clear voice to sing:
As the light dies
I pace the field edge
to the square pond
enclosed, hedged and treed.
in the still air.
At its bank,
I let my thoughts of you
float on the surface.
And like two boats
at the season’s end,
our reflections merge
in one dark form.
His words he felt were true to the model of the Chinese poetry he had loved as a teenager, verse that had helped him fashion his fledgling thoughts in music.
And so it was that while she dined brightly with her team in a Devon country pub, he sat alone in a town hall in West Yorkshire listening to Berlioz’ autobiographical and unrequited work.
A young musician of extraordinary sensibility and abundant imagination, in the depths of despair because of hopeless love, has poisoned himself with opium. The drug is too feeble to kill him but plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by weird visions. His sensations, emotions, and memories, as they pass through his affected mind, are transformed into musical images and ideas. The beloved one herself becomes to him a melody, a recurrent theme [idée fixe] which haunts him continually.
Yes, he could identify with some of that. Reading Berlioz’ own programme note in the orchestral score he remembered the disabling effect of his first love, a slight girl with long hair tied with a simple white scarf. Then he thought of what he knew would be his last love, his only and forever love when he had talked to her, interrupting her concentration, in a college workshop. She had politely dealt with his innocent questions and then, looking at the clock told him she ‘had to get on’. It was only later – as he sat outside in the university gardens - that he realized the affect that brief encounter might have on him. It was as though in those brief minutes he knew nothing of her, but also everything he ever needed to know. Strange how the images of that meeting, the sound of her voice haunted him, would appear unbidden - until two months later a chance meeting in a corridor had jolted him into her presence again . . . and for always he hoped.
After the music had finished he had remained in the auditorium as the rather slight audience took their leave. The resonance of the music seemed to be a still presence and he had there and then scanned back and forward through the music’s memory. The piece had cheered him, given him a little hope against the prevailing difficulties and problems of his own musical creativity, the long, often empty hours at his desk. He was in a quiet despair about his current work, about his current life if he was honest. He wondered at the way Berlioz’ musical material seemed of such a piece with its orchestration. The conception of the music itself was full of rough edges; it had none of that exemplary finish of a Beethoven symphony so finely chiseled to perfection. Berlioz’ Symphonie contained inspired and trite elements side by side, bar beside bar. It missed that wholeness Beethoven achieved with his carefully honed and positioned harmonic structures, his relentless editing and rewriting. With Berlioz you reckoned he trusted himself to let what was in his imagination flow onto the page unhindered by technical issues. Andrew had experienced that occasionally, and looking at his past pieces, was often amazed that such music could be, and was, his alone.
Returning to his studio there was a brief text from his muse. He was tempted to phone her. But it was late and he thought she might already be asleep. He sat for a while and imagined her at dinner with the team, more relaxed now than previously. Tired from a long day of looking and talking and thinking and planning and imagining (herself in the near future), she had worn her almost vintage dress and the bright, bright smile with her diligent self-possessed manner. And taking it (the smile) into her hotel bedroom, closing the door on her public self, she had folded it carefully on the chair with her clothes - to be bright and bright for her colleagues at breakfast next day and beyond. She undressed and sitting on the bed in her pajamas imagined for a brief moment being folded in his arms, being gently kissed goodnight. Too tired to read, she brought herself to bed with a mental list of all the things she must and would do in the morning time and when she got home – and slept.
*They came and told me a messenger from Shang-chou
Had brought a letter, - a simple scroll from you!
Up from my pillow I suddenly sprang out of bed,
And threw on my clothes, all topsy-turvey.
I undid the knot and saw the letter within:
A single sheet with thirteen lines of writing.
At the top it told the sorrows of an exile’s heart;
At the bottom it described the pains of separation.
The sorrows and pains took up so much space
There was no room to talk about the weather!
The poems that begin and end Being Awake are translations by Arthur Waley from One Hundred and Seventy Poems from the Chinese published in 1918.