In Guy Maddin's quirky 2003 film, The Saddest Music in the World, Isabella Rossellini holds a contest (to award the movie's title) in order to save her struggling Winnipeg brewery. I recently received a review copy of a book that anoints Barber's Adagio for Strings for the crown, entitled, The Saddest Music Ever Written.
The saddest music written in the western world is found in the death-haunted song cycles of Franz Schubert, and in his two Wilhelm Müller cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, in particular. If there is music more painfully hollow than the close of the latter set, than I can't wait to be so devastated by it.
Schubert's great cycles affected every song writer who followed him, and that influence continues to be felt--not only in classical music but in the worlds of jazz, pop, dance & theater. The composer most obviously in Schubert's debt was Robert Schumann. Even when finished, the miniature form of the art-song leans toward the fragmentary, and Schumann relished this fact in his great song-cycle, Dichterliebe. The opening song famously begins in the middle of a phrase, and ends with an unresolved cadence echoing its ambiguous beginning.
What is it about the romantic fragment? Charles Rosen's book, The Romantic Generation (based on his Norton lectures at Harvard) devotes nearly a third of its 700 pages to two chapters: "Fragments" and "Mountains and Song Cycles." Musicians know his more famous The Classical Style, which is rightly one of the ur-texts on the period of Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven.
Slowly sip the following sentence (about Schubert's Schöne Müllerin) to understand why I love this book so:
"The time of this song cycle is that of Romantic landscape: not the successive events of narrative but a succession of images, of lyrical reflections which reveal the traces of the past and future within the present."
Speaking of images, he simply lists the resonances of one of the cycle's primary symbols, the color green: "green is the color of hope, the color of the fading ribbon with which the poet hangs his lute upon the wall, the traditional color of the huntsman's [rival of the poet/composer] costume, the color of cypress, of rosemary, the color of the grass that will grow upon the poet's grave. Fluctuations of meaning replace narrative: they stand duty for action."
"Fluctuations of meaning" describe one aspect of the open-endedness of fragments, symbols and images. Fragments, aphorisms & epigrams, memory & dreams, relics & ruins--each and every one may be independent, sufficient unto itself.
Like water's inexorable need to stream--its restless coursing for a path in & through which to flow--is our human desire for space, room to breathe, and literal and figurative openness.
Rosen quotes the Romantic poet (under-appreciated in the English speaking world) Friedrich Schlegel on our subject:
"A fragment should be like a little work of art, complete in itself and separate from the universe like a hedgehog."
As I imply above, the fragment satisfies one of our needs for openness: to not have everything explained, every punchline spelled out. But if the hedgehog reference is opaque:
"The hedgehog (unlike the porcupine, which shoots its quills) is an amiable creature which rolls itself into a ball when alarmed. Its form is well defined and yet blurred at the edges. This spherical shape, organic and ideally geometrical, suited Romantic thought: above all, the image projects beyond itself in a provocative way."
And isn't that what we want from any "image" (or work of art)--to project "beyond itself" and provoke/evoke/invoke thought, feeling, response, release &/or relief?
We are stimulated when the familiar is made strange and the strange made familiar (to borrow from another under-appreciated romantic, Novalis).
Barber's Adagio is itself fragmentary in that it is the central movement of a three-movement string quartet. Many fans of this piece are unaware of both its origin and the vivacious music Barber wrote to encapsulate it. That it can be taken out of context and so beloved is but one sign of its value.
Another fragmentary torso (see Rilke's great sonnet, "The Archaic Torso of Apollo," referenced often in my essays and program notes) is Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony. The visionary Adagio he left behind would have been the opening movement of another epic symphonic canvas. The last of his own works he heard performed was his 8th Symphony. His song-cycle symphony, Das Lied von der Erde (his 9th entry in the symphonic genre) his 9th symphony and his unfinished 10th form a valedictory--if fragmented--triptych of posthumously received masterpieces.
In the literary world, a similar phenomenon is still occurring with the posthumous publications (in English, especially) of the Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño.
I am a promiscuous reader. One version of purgatory would limit me to only one book at a time (not being able to read would be hell). In addition to a half-dozen or so open books at any given time are a number of magazines and journals I look forward to receiving regularly. My favorite section of Harper's magazine is the "Readings" section near the front. I finally opened August's issue to find an excerpt from a Bolaño "story," "Literature + Illness = Illness" from yet another posthumously published collection (he died in 2003 from liver failure at age 50).
Bolaño's fame in the English-speaking world materialized like a brilliant star in the sky we hadn't noticed. Never mind that the source of its light was extinguished. The Savage Detectives, 2666, and Nazi Literature in the Americas (novels of 700, 1,200, and 200 pages, respectively) form the triptych on which this wildly ambitious writer's fame took shape in the US beginning in 2007.
Bolaño's output during the last years of his short life is astonishing. He only began writing fiction (poetry preceded it) in his last decade. As a result, each new volume that appears is eagerly anticipated by nerdy bibliophiles like myself. Bolaño was a bibliophile himself who also lived pretty hard during his fifty years. His work, like that of many an artist, has the patina of autobiography. He lived hard and worked feverishly. The line between working one's self to death and partying one's self to death must be as gray as his diseased liver was before it--and life--failed him. Equally gray is the line between autobiography and invention in his stories.
In the recent Harper's excerpt, "The Writer is Gravely Ill," death haunts the paragraphs as it does Schubert's syphilis-tinged songs. The narrator is in hospital and is suffering from liver disease. His "story" leaps from a thin narrative thread to references ranging from French poetry to German philosophy to sexual appetite and travel, ending with the narrator's--and author's--favorite modernist, Kafka. Bolaño's wit is as unpredictable and various as the Borgesian (and Kafka-esque) layers of reference that fill his tales with a deliciously dense polyphony.
Novalis said "fragments of this kind are literary seeds...if only a few were to sprout!" In tales like Bolaño's, they have--and whether or not helped by the tragic irony of posthumous "fame"--they continue to.
Who knows if Bolaño's life may be the stuff of great theater or opera (his passionate voice certainly sings with verismo fervor). His brief life's work is sprouting with meanings, beautifully provocative as a hedgehog.