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2 minutes reading time (479 words)

Poetry Corner: Nov/Dec 2017

Beethoven: Sonata No. 14

​for Roma


You were at the piano playing the "Moonlight,"

A name Rellstab gave it when he heard

The Adagio, and remembered moonlight

Flecking the waves of Lake Lucerne.

But this was afternoon, in Boston,

The sun lighting up your apartment

Like a flare, your fingers laboring

Against a dead middle-C, and an A

Which twanged in its several pitches.

But it was Beethoven nonetheless,

Surviving the accidents of time

And circumstance, and even the unlikely name.

Outside, three floors below,

The Asian children—Vietnamese, Cambodian?—

Recently arrived like the last of so many

Witnesses, were playing among themselves,

Squealing in their small voices to the ends

Of the street.You'd said you'd seen them

In winter, the girls in sun dresses and sandals,

The boys in short-sleeved shirts, as though

Their parents knew no changes of season,

As though one abyss, for them, were like another.

It's what we'd talked about the night before:

Privation, loss: how art, for instance,

Rises out or in spite of it, Beethoven

Tuning a deaf ear to the world, giving it back

Its notion of symphony, or Austen,

Locked at Chawton into spinsterhood and illness,

Retrieving for us from the eden of romance

A truer vision: love hard-won and difficult.

Art for life's sake we'd said: ours,

If not their own. But for the moment

We were happy as you kept on playing

Into the Minuet, a flower, Liszt had called it,

Between two voids. Always that nothingness

Which gives substance its joy, its generous

Presence. I remembered, then, my father

Visiting us on Sunday afternoons

And playing the same passages, the ice

Clinking in his Scotch as he tripped his way

To the end, his fingers never wholly accurate,

And I lingering by his side, glad enough

For all his false starts, all the repeats

Which kept him with us that much longer.

Such were the terms: each note become

A benediction and an elegy as well.

And as you slid into the Presto, that final

Whirlwind, I imagined myself among them,

The children below us, crouching to their size,

With them almost in body if not spirit

And only for the sake of being there

When, for the first time, they could hear

Beethoven's music falling down to them

From a third-floor window.

What could they have remembered,

Their faces turning upward, the arms

Stilled to their sides,

As the frenetic, ascending scales exploded

Into the sforzando chords?

Some insistent image they'd kept back?

Moonlight on waves on a lake?

The darkness which makes that possible?

-— Gregory Djanikian 


"Beethoven: Sonata No 14" from Falling Deeply into America. © 2011 by Gregory Djanikian. Reprinted with the permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press, www.cmu.edu/universitypress.

Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) was a German poet and music critic. Seven of the songs in Schubert's Schwanengesang are settings of Rellstab's poems. 

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