Themes for Piano and Poetry

                         —after compositions by P.S.
Catharine Savage Brosman

i: Lamentation

It’s an ancient theme, lament—not prelapsarian,
but old as exile from the garden, old
as birth and dying, love and war,
connected to them all, with failure, loneliness,
and pain—each wound felt in the heart: that mother
in a legend from Tierra del Fuego,
mourning her dead son: “He was too young to die!”;
that prophet—Jeremiah or another—

lamenting lost Jerusalem, the Temple burned,
the Hebrews captive; Antigone,
who grieved over brother, still unburied;
François Premier, a prisoner, after his enemies
carried the day—wailing aloud, but not
at his own plight—rather, his servant’s, borne away
in chains; Milton, Shelley, Tennyson
deploring loss of friends and poets, taken

young.  Thus, while modern in its intervals,
your music echoes notes from everywhere, and all
antiquity, as well as this, our misbegotten
century.  You sketched it out some fifty years
ago, not knowing what you would lament
in later times—anticipating, though,
inevitable loss.  Those chords!  You say they mean
an absence: acts undone, and promises

left unfulfilled.  Who can measure, finally,
the deeds of man?  Yet to dismiss
another’s judgment of himself, as though its worth
were doubtful, is to question him
“Oh, the horror of it all!”—time lost,
great gifts distracted, and that sense of emptiness,
the space between the notes, the silence
riffling the air, the heartache when the music ends.

ii: Conjecture

; Perhaps our whole world is conjecture, supposition,
truth acknowledged but unproven—like
the bold, intuitive idea of Christian Goldbach,
who proposed that even integers of four
and odd integers of three.  A game,
now played to astronomical degrees.  This music—
written as a tribute, or itself conjecture

in the realm of musical ideas—suggests, not just
between the world—such otherness!—and me,
but in myself, an incommensurable
gulf.  Why this, not that?  While integers
follow their patterns, we are chance,
arranged a bit by choice, compounded with more
chance and variables in dizzying array.  What if
my father had not died so suddenly in 1969, leaving

me bereft?  Would I have married then?  If not,
my daughter would remain unborn, a wish.
Or you could so easily have died,
in ’64, with those thromboses—or been paralyzed,
if you’d agreed to one proposal of the doctors.
And so on, until the nose of Cleopatra
shortens, and the battles are not fought, and history
is all rewritten.  Such contingency,

expressed in rapid rising and descending phrases,
accidental notes, and most of all that mournful
minor key, natural once, elsewhere
harmonic, with its augmented seventh, bright,
like our finest moments flashing
in a firmament of darkness.  So it has been
for me since my fifteenth year.  The quarter notes
meet chords in fifths; conjectures settle in the bass.

iii: Romance

This too is in a minor key, quite necessarily so
if one considers the trajectories of love.
The music has strange intervals, and, you say, sour
notes, pointed out by question marks
in the notation.  But the whole piece is beautiful,
slightly wistful, I suppose, but reminiscent
here and there of Viennese sonorities,
before returning to contemporary modes.  What

would life be without romance?  Did Goldbach love
a woman, once, at least?  Love, like music,
clothing, architecture, art, cuisine,
and courtesy, is the redoing or disguise
of immemorial needs or aspirations, most fulfilled
collectively and making us what we call
“human”; art and music are renewed—a stream
of many freshets, and each man, each woman

reinvents the heart.  Oh, my beloved!  What piece
of music, even by the great Romantics,
or what poem might depict a more extraordinary
feeling than was mine when, after more
than forty years, you wrote that you still loved me?
“Romance,” you say, dates from long ago,
of yours, but, rather, to the sense of failure

any man will have who loves in vain.  But I admire
the brilliant chords, how they exploit,
and then resolve, dissonance—just as, with ease
almost miraculous, we leapt across
long separation—a fire-blue electric arc, singing.
The charge is powerful, casting light
backwards, and creating retrospective harmony—
two staves parallel, lines counterpointed, meeting.

“Conjecture.”  The conjecture alluded to here, concerning prime numbers, was proposed in 1742 by the Prussian mathematician Christian Goldbach (1690-1764).   It was Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) who noted that the history of the world would have been different had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter.

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