Wednesday, June 3, 2020


by Gottfried Benn
translated by Michael Hofmann

Not much of a conversationalist,
ideas weren't his strong suit,
ideas miss the point,
when Delacroix expounded his theories
it made him nervous, he for his part
could offer no explanation of the Nocturnes.

A poor lover;
mere shadow in Nohant
where George Sand's children
rejected his attempts
at discipline.

His tuberculosis
took the chronic form,
with repeated bleeding and scarring;
a creeping death,
as opposed to one
in convulsions of agony
or by firing squad:
the piano (Erard) was pushed against the door
and Delphine Potocka
sang him
a violet song in his last hour.

He took three pianos with him to England:
Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood,
for twenty guineas
he would give fifteen-minute recitals in the evenings
at the Rothschilds' and the Wellingtons', in Strafford House
to the assembled cummerbunds;
then, dark with fatigue and imminent death,
he went home
to the Square d'Orleans.

Then he burned his sketches
and manuscripts,
didn't want any leftover scraps
betraying him–
at the end he said:
"I have taken my experiment
as far as it was possible for me to go."

Each finger was to play
to no more than its natural strength,
the fourth being the weakest
(twinned with the middle finger).
At the start, they occupied the keys
of E, F sharp, G sharp, B and C.

Anyone hearing
certain of his Preludes
in country seats or
at altitude,
through open French windows
on the terrace, say, of a sanitorium,
will not easily forget it.

He composed no operas,
no symphonies,
only those tragic progressions
from artistic conviction
and with a small hand.

The reader is confronted with disparate fragments about Chopin in a non-chronological order that elude unified view of the artist.  Though limited in scope, it sensitively sketches the musical life of a fragile artist.  Its unrhymed and free verse afford the poem an open character. Presumably, what fascinated Benn about Chopin was his manifold playfulness that does not go in depth. Benn characterized Chopin as a diffident lover and a shadow in Nohant whose advice on their upbringing would have been ignored by George Sand’s children. Following the topic of failure in everyday life, the third stanza thematizes illness and death, in order to deal with his artistic performance in the next verse. Benn clarifies that the preludes are not meant for “everybody” by referencing to the semipublic play in England to which Chopin had been invited by Jews and the nobility (Cummerbunds) . Because he wished to leave only complete works behind, Chopin is said to have burned his “sketches and manuscripts” before his death. The poem disregards the intimate details of his relationships. The penultimate stanza speaks about Chopin’s technical advice for the Piano, stressing the importance of activity of each individual finger, especially the notorious weakness of the fourth finger. The end of the poem thematizes the reception of Chopin after his death with great poignancy. This is a great poem that bathes in existential pathos.

Notes (source Wiki) : 

Delacroix was a great painter and a friend of Chopin. The first stanza sounds both ironic and tender, and fills me with joy when thinking of the modesty of a great artist like Chopin. The love affair between the novelist George Sand and Chopin is quite famous. The bucolic landscapes of the black valley that surround the George Sand  family château in the village of Nohantis where they spent long summers for seven years, from 1839 to 1846, skipping only 1840, when she was upset by the failure of her play, Cosima, and he was ill. They separated two years before his death for a variety of reasons. And it was at Nohant that the musician composed most of his works for piano, from the Third Sonata to the last of the Grand Polonaises.

Delphine Potocka (March 1807 – 2 April 1877) was a Polish countess and a friend and muse to Chopin . In 1825 she married Count Mieczysław Potocki (thereby becoming a countess), with whom she had two daughters. Unhappy in her married life, she eventually divorced Potocki. After parting with her husband, Potocka went abroad, where she maintained close contacts with Chopin. She studied piano with him, and their friendship continued throughout Chopin's life; two days before his death in 1849, at his request, she sang for him an aria from Handel's Dettingen Te Deum.  

Cummerbund:  It’s a pleated waist sash worn with single-breasted tuxedo jackets. Traditionally black, they are also available in other colors, most notably burgundy, bottle green, rich gold, and even white.