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Things That Have Interested Me

Voices from the Past

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published 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 see complete.

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 was one.

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).

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