Sep. 30, 2013

Dog Dreaming

by W. S. Merwin

The paws twitch in a place of chasing
Where the whimper of this seeming-gentle creature
Rings out terrible, chasing tigers. The fields
Are licking like torches, full of running,
Laced odors, bones stalking, tushed leaps.
So little that is tamed, yet so much
That you would find deeply familiar there.
You are there often, your very eyes,
The unfathomable knowledge behind your face,
The mystery of your will, appraising.
Such carnage and triumph; standing there
Strange even to yourself, and loved, and only
A sleeping beast knows who you are.

"Dog Dreaming" by W.S. Merwin, from Green With Beasts. © Knopf, 1956. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of American writer Truman Capote (books by this author), born in New Orleans (1924). Even as a child, Capote wanted to become famous. He moved with his mother to New York City and applied to the prestigious Trinity School. He was given an IQ test as an entrance exam, and he scored 215, the highest in the school's history. Capote said: "I was having 50 perceptions a minute to everyone else's five. I always felt nobody was going to understand me, going to understand what I felt about things. I guess that's why I started writing."

It's the birthday of the former poet laureate of the United States: W.S. Merwin (books by this author) born in New York City on this day in 1927 and raised in Union City, New Jersey. He won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Carrier of Ladders and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for The Shadow of Sirius (published in 2008). He also won the 2005 National Book Award for Migration: New and Selected Poems.

He started writing poems when he was four or five years old, he said — at first, they were mostly hymns to give to his father, a Presbyterian minister. He studied literature and Romance languages at Princeton, gained the admiring attention of W.H. Auden, and published his first book of poems, A Mask for Janus, the year he turned 25.

He wrote plays for the Poets' Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, edited poetry for The Nation, and translated a lot of other people's poetry. He has translated verse from French and Spanish and Italian and Portuguese and Latin, and also from Yiddish and Japanese and Sanskrit. He translated Dante's Purgatorio and works by Pablo Neruda.

He said: "I think there's a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there's still time."

On this date in 1791, Mozart's opera The Magic Flute premiered in Vienna. It opened at the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, which was — for all intents and purposes — out in the suburbs. It was a 20-minute walk from Mozart's apartments, and it was surrounded by tenements. The theater, and the troupe that performed there, attracted a less sophisticated audience than other, more traditional venues. Technically speaking, The Magic Flute is a Singspiel, which is similar to the musical theater we're familiar with today. It includes some spoken dialogue rather than operatic recitatives, and the music is easier to sing. It's also written in German, a language considered too lowbrow for "serious" opera.

The libretto was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, who was also the leader of the troupe and played Papageno in the production. Late in the spring of 1791, Schikaneder asked Mozart to compose the music for his Singspiel. Even though Mozart was, by this time, very ill, and also at work on another opera, he agreed. He finished the overture just two days before the premiere. The plot is a hodgepodge: part slapstick comedy, part allegory of the struggle between the repression of knowledge and the ideals of the Enlightenment. Schikaneder and Mozart were both Freemasons, and the libretto is full of Masonic symbolism. Even the score contains Masonic elements: the repeated three chords in the overture are meant to represent an initiate's three knocks on the temple doors. It's been called Mozart's "own spiritual will and testament."

Schikaneder wasn't interested in penning a masterpiece; he was a businessman, and he just wanted to fill the seats. But the musical score more than makes up for any of the book's shortcomings. Mozart's skill and versatility enabled him to compose music that fit all the chaotic and contradictory plot elements and yet still hung together as a cohesive whole. He tailored the music for the members of the troupe who would be performing it. His sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, played the role of the Queen of the Night. She was an accomplished singer, and Mozart's music for that character was very challenging to perform. However, he was aware of the limitations of many of the other singers, and he propped them up with the orchestra as much as possible.

There weren't any reviews of the opening performance, but it was well attended by a cross section of Viennese society even on its first night; Schikaneder staged it nearly every night in October. Mozart was really fond of The Magic Flute and attended nearly every performance of it until his death just over two months after the premiere. He was very proud of its reception, and although he was gravely ill, it buoyed his spirits to attend the performances with family and friends. He wrote to his wife, Constanze, about the numerous encores that were called for. "But what always gives me the most pleasure is the silent approval!" he wrote. "You can see how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed." Today, it's one of the three most performed operas in the world.

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