A History of Western Music: Chapter 11

August Kleinzahler

Per le donne famiglia Paciotto-Piernera & Jeff-e

The beauty –
the way the swallows gather around the Duomo
for a few moments at dusk then scatter,
darting away across the Vale
with its checkerboard pastels dissolving into smoke
along with the hills beyond.
We saw it that one time from the Maestro’s apartments,
through a little oval window above the piazza
while that awful American baritone – what’s his name –
was mauling the love duet with Poppea at the end,
and she so wickedly angelic, a Veronese angel . . .
When de Kooning, drunk, crashed into us,
then the lot of us staggering off to that bar
overlooking the Ponte delle Torri
and finally drinking in the dawn outside Vincenzo’s.
I remember the violist and cor anglais
enjoying some passion in the doorway.
Didn’t they later marry? Perhaps not.
And the mezzo from Winston-Salem –
I won’t tell you her name; you’ll know it.
She was only a girl then, pretending
to be native, with her Neapolitan accent
and dark looks, that extravagant manner
and big laugh the divas all seem to cultivate.
But then she was only a girl, peeking
to check if her act was really coming off.
These actresses and stage performers are always a trial.
By the time you get them home
and properly unwound, the cockerels and tweedie-birds
already at it, they either collapse
into tears or fall dead away, shoes still on,
snoring and farting like drunken sailors.
But that night, that night it was the English poet
(now much beloved but in those days known as the Badger)
who was after her, her and her friend,
the pianist from Ravenna, the quieter one,
the heart-attack brunette, renowned for her Saint-Saëns.
You’ll know her name too, and the recordings
she made later on with the mezzo of the Schubert lieder.
But then they were just kids, figuring it out,
suffering dainty little sips
of that tall awful yellow drink, a favourite here,
meanwhile taking the measure of it all,
as if rehearsing for a more important moment down the road.
The cunning, energy and fortitude of these creatures
almost never fails to horrify and amaze,
especially two thoroughbreds like these.
One might easily hate them for it,
but as well hate some magnificent cat in the tall grass
scanning the savannah for signs of meat.
Anyhow, the Badger was on form that night.
You wouldn’t know him. He was young then,
really quite presentable, even appealing, I suppose,
with a shock of blond hair
and that pale distracted feral look he chose to wear.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a human being drink like that.
I mean now the swollen old cunt could pass for Uncle Bertie
but in those days . . . Anyhow, the Badger
was well along into his routine: a few bon mots,
feigned interest, the learned quote and the rest,
then his signature:
I don’t suppose a fuck would be out of the question?
The girls took no notice, giggling between themselves
and the inevitable band of toffs and toff-y rent boys
who gather round these things. Love culture,
the toffs, can’t live without it: mother’s milk,
penicillin for the syphilitic.
And where would we all be without them: their dinners,
soirées, art openings, their expensive drink;
and whose appalling wives could we so generously appal?
Can’t get enough of it, these toffs. Or the wives.
So this particular evening the Badger was right on chart,
watching, waiting, picking his spot:
Ha, ha, listen, I don’t suppose …
when just then Signore Cor Anglais struggles to his feet,
humongous hard-on like a prow in advance of the rest,
and proceeds to blow a heavenly riff from Bruckner,
one of those alphorn bits the Bavarians so adore.
Well now, this provoked an enormous display
on the part of the toffs, sissies, remittance men,
ex-pats – those orphans, those sorry deracinated ghosts –
the lot of them in the ruins of black tie,
shrieking like eight-year-olds at the circus
when the clown takes a flop, out of their gourds,
full up with helium, Eeeeeeeeee
la vie bohème, right out there on the Corso,
a moment to be savoured and regurgitated for years to come,
when the cor anglais decides to pass out,
Signora Viola all over him, beside herself,
like the final scene from – well, you name it –
the toffs etc, carrying on like they had a ringside seat
at Krakatoa erupting on New Year’s Eve;
and then I hear the mezzo – all of us,
everything else falling away, the air rippling with it –
up on her feet, singing the ‘Adagiati, Poppea’,
that lullaby of foreboding the nurse Arnalta delivers
in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione, warning
of the iniquitous union ahead, but sung
with such tenderness, rinsed with an unearthly sweetness.
The entire street falling silent around us,
and the Badger just sitting there like the rest,
hypnotised, but now his face gone slack:
astonishment? epiphany? grief? but clearly shaken
and – unimaginably out of character – about to weep.