|Voices from the Past
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
30 December 2006
Both WH Auden and Louis MacNeice come up for
centenaries next year, having been born in 1907. MacNeice died
in 1963, just before I reached the age at which I began to read
him. I do not remember his death as such. What I do remember
is a celebrated television reporter called Fyfe Robertson reciting
"Bagpipe Music" on a programme called Tonight. There
is nothing else in the language like this poem, and it made
a great impression on me. I had no clue what it was, until coming
upon it on the page some years or months later, but I can only
guess that the reason why Fyfe Robertson, a bearded Scot, was
reciting the poem on an early evening news programme was that
MacNeice had just died. Naturally, I always hear the poem in
Robertson's much-imitated accent - a good way to remember it.
The first Auden poem I heard must have been
"Night Mail", and again at the time I had no notion
of Auden or his authorship of this, again, unusual poem - less
singular than MacNeice's but unique in the sense that it was
written for the soundtrack of a film about the night-mail trains
it evokes. How many such soundtracks stay on the brain, or live
on the page, in the way "Night Mail" does? I remember
hearing it, because at some stage in childhood I was shown the
film that it was written for. So the point of interest was the
train, not the poem.
MacNeice's collected poems have been edited
afresh and will appear shortly. Auden's memory will be celebrated
in various readings. His collected poems need no new edition:
the edition we have represents his wishes very well, while the
volume called The English Auden gives us all the early work
in the versions that we may well wish to read. Both of these
were edited by Edward Mendelson, Auden's literary executor.
The one thing Auden did really well, by common consent, was
to choose Mendelson as his executor. He made a mess of the rest
of his estate, since his will, which a friend of mine witnessed
in the office of a Vienna lawyer, was somehow never found. But
the posthumous publication of his works has been admirable.
It is striking that we already have three volumes of Auden's
collected prose, but only selections of TS Eliot's. I don't
say that these selections are bad, but of all the poets of the
last century, surely Eliot is the one we would most like to
Auden's complete poems, when it eventually
comes, will be much bigger than the collected, since it will
include work never published as well as poems later suppressed.
Among the poems not yet published (unless I've missed it) is
a private new year's letter sent to friends from Brussels in
the 1930s, a copy of which Tom Driberg used to show to friends.
Driberg, a wicked old man who, when he showed me round the House
of Lords, gave the distinct impression of having had his carnal
way with a large number of the police force on duty there (he
liked blokes in uniform), produced this poem at a dinner party
and asked me to read it, which I did with great pleasure. I
stumbled at the word "heter" (as an abbreviation of
heterosexual), which I had never heard before. This was coterie
slang in a poem addressed to Auden's coterie, of whom Driberg
A recent newsletter informed us that Benjamin
Britten's music - or rather the vocal part - to "Roman
Wall Blues", hitherto believed lost, turned up in the possession
of someone who happened to pick it up after the original performance.
It was suggested that Britten never wrote down the piano part,
but simply improvised it. All kinds of things that Auden did
have been happily recovered over recent years, most notably
his Shakespeare lectures in New York.
I was recently involved in examining a thesis
on Auden as a translator of poetry. He translated a great deal,
from a large number of languages, including Swedish and Russian.
But Auden's most familiar poetic translation will probably turn
out to be the song text he wrote for Samuel Barber's Hermit
Songs, based on an Old Irish poem about a scholar and his cat.
For all I know, Auden could have tossed this off without giving
it much thought, but he did it well, and Barber's "The
Monk and his Cat" is one of the classic American art songs
of its kind. The original 1953 performance of these medieval
Irish songs, sung by the 26-year-old Leontyne Price, with Barber
at the piano, is on CD. Auden did two songs, and his partner,
Chester Kallman, did one. This latter will perhaps end up as
Kallman's only known work apart from his collaboration with
Auden as a librettist.
Listening to the Hermit Songs I thought about
Kallman, and how thrilled he would have been to know that this
Library of Congress recording survived and had been released
(its first complete release) on CD. He was a great opera-goer,
and a great listener to records. (That's what Auden and he would
do together in the evenings in Austria.) I remembered suddenly
Kallman saying to me: "If you're going into Florence, could
you go to the Piazza della Republica, and in the corner nearest
the Straw Market, under the arcade, there's a man who sells
cheap LPs, and he has a particular recording of ..."
It would have been Tosca, I should think. It
would have been a recording Kallman already possessed, but had
probably played to pieces. Or perhaps, having a copy in Austria
for the summer, he wanted one for Athens, where he spent the
winters. At all events, it was something he needed. Again.
The three songs (the two by Auden and the one
by Kallman) were the only special commissions in the cycle,
which was initiated by the Coolidge Foundation. Presumably Barber
approached Auden and he split the commission with Kallman as
a way of putting a little money in his direction (as later happened
with Stravinsky). If you want to know what Barber himself sounded
like as a singer in 1938 (he had a very nice voice), or how
Auden and Kallman's work was sung by Price at its world premiere
(splendidly), the disc is Vol 19 of Great Performances from
the Library of Congress (Bridge 9156).