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Concerto for Double Bass -- John Fuller

(Poem #963) Concerto for Double Bass
 He is a drunk leaning companionably
 Around a lamp post or doing up
 With intermittent concentration
 Another drunk's coat.

 He is a polite but devoted Valentino,
 Cheek to cheek, forgetting the next step.
 He is feeling the pulse of the fat lady
 Or cutting her in half.

 But close your eyes and it is sunset
 At the edge of the world. It is the language
 Of dolphins, the growth of tree-roots,
 The heart-beat slowing down.
-- John Fuller
Pity the poor music critic - his is a hard lot indeed. The inimitable Frank
Zappa put it best: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture";
the task, though not insuperable, requires a sure hand and a delicate touch.
And a good ear, not just for the music being described, but also for the
language used to describe it. Too much detail [1], and the audience miss the
symphony for the staves; too little [2], and they're left groping for solidity
in a mist of vague verbiage.

Which is why I'm not a fan of the excessively literal approach to music
criticism; I find it tedious and uninspiring at best, actively off-putting
at worst. In seeking to reduce music to its descriptive essence, this
approach lessens its emotional impact.

What's called for is something altogether more subtle and elusive. An
approach which eschews direct expression for suggestion and hint; an
approach which replaces acres of detail with a few carefully chosen phrases.
An approach which seeks to reproduce the experience, not just depict it. The
approach, in short, of poetry.

John Fuller uses precisely this approach in today's poem. The first two
stanzas are spent on the physical aspect of the performance. But instead of
painstaking (and boring) detail, the poet uses metaphor: the double bass is
a dancer, and the musician is a suitor whispering into her ear. Or the
double bass is a fat lady [3], and the musician, running his bow athwart its
strings, is a magician cutting her in half. Or the musician and the
instrument are two drunks, the former's wandering fingers buttoning up the
latter's long coat.

The third stanza is where the poet really comes into his own. The music
itself is not described, either structurally [1] or interpretatively [2].
Instead, Fuller dives straight into the heart of the musical _experience_,
with words that evoke the same reaction as the notes themselves:
  "But close your eyes and it is sunset
   At the edge of the world. It is the language
   Of dolphins, the growth of tree-roots,
   The heart-beat slowing down."
This is where the poetic approach scores over the descriptive one, and this
is the high point of the poem. You can almost hear the throb of the bass,
the deep resonances, the long silences, the power and the stillness.


[1] "Delicate glissandi on the strings make way for a single, clear high F
on the piccolo, a note which heralds the entry of the woodwinds in a complex
fugal setting. These in turn are swept away by a strong, almost chromatic
brass line which is augmented by the occasional incursions of tympani and

[2] "A hushed prelude sets the stage for a driving, swirling mid-section,
leading into a climax which is all emotion, a maelstrom of triumphant

[3] "It ain't over till the fat lady sings" - hence the comparison, I


Born in Ashford, Kent, the son of the poet Roy Fuller and Kathleen Fuller.
He was educated at St Paul's School and New College, Oxford. He lectured in
New York and at Manchester and became a fellow of Magdalen College Oxford in
1966. His first publication Fairground Music demonstrates an early mastery
of the different forms of conventional verse and an ability to write
descriptively with wit and sophistication. His subjects are wide-ranging.
His skill is also apparent in the next volume, The Tree that Walked. One of
his best known poems is The Most Difficult Position, a wonderful pastiche
that describes a famous battle of chess between two 19th century masters.
All his poems are technically sophisticated.
        -- [broken link]

13 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Martin DeMello said...

This is a beautiful poem, but it is not by any means music criticism. True, it
is a poem about a performance, but it could be a poem about *any* performance;
there is very little reference to the specifics.

Speaking of music criticism done right, don't miss PDQ Bach's "NEW HORIZONS IN
MUSIC APPRECIATION", being Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with running commentary.

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