Sara Jane Bailes and Nicholas Till

The pervasiveness of music in Samuel Beckett’s writing and discussions of the alliances between Beckett and musicality now constitute a familiar critical province within Beckett Studies, one that continues to be informed by the still emerging evidence of Beckett’s own engagement with music throughout his personal and literary life, as well as by the ongoing interest of musicians and sound artists in Beckett’s oeuvre. It is of little surprise that Beckett’s lifelong relationship with the classical music repertoire is so evidently mapped throughout the two volumes of The Letters of Samuel Beckett (1929–1940; 1941–1956), published in 2009 and 2011. In his correspondence, the writer’s attendance at musical concerts and listening to old or new recordings is referred to as a matter of course in exchanges with friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Erudite in all matters that drew his interest, his knowledge and familiarity with the works of many composers (although, like John Cage, he had a deaf ear for Bach) is as apparent as his understanding of music’s relation to his own writing and the often frustrating limitations of the fabric of language, which, for Beckett, often lacked the capacity to be either as porous or as polyphonic as musical composition. In music, Beckett was able to hear other potentialities for communication and expression, and his concern with the musicality of language – its rhythmic, sonorous and structural possibilities as composition – suggested a way in which the writer could expand a crucial dimension of writing as a practice made up of words that one ‘hears’, whether they are spoken or read. In Beckett’s writing, words function not only as signifiers, they reach towards a place beyond meaning where a sense of the world is illuminated by the tonal and poetic qualities of language, shaped as much by a perfectly tuned ear for pattern and resonance as by an eye acutely trained on the intellectual value and weight of signification as words are meticulously arranged on the page.

In Beckett’s works for theatre, as well as in his prose writings and poems, this engagement with music and musicality plays out in implicit and explicit ways. First, and perhaps most obvious, is the way in which his writing refers to and sometimes includes music by canonical composers such as Schubert and Beethoven: All That Fall includes passages from Schubert’s string quartet ‘Death and the Maiden’; Nacht und Träume incorporates the last seven bars of one of Schubert’s songs; and the television play, Ghost Trio, includes passages from Beethoven’s Piano Trio, Op. 70 No. 1, nicknamed the ‘Ghost Trio’. Yet even when simply prescribing the inclusion of music in such a way in his plays, music is, as Mary Bryden points out, ‘delicately woven into its dramatic fabric’.1 It is never simply auxiliary, then, but rather part of the overall composition. Other works demand unspecified music as a compositional element, in dialogue or tension with text and image. In two of his radio plays, Words and Music and Cascando, Beckett engages directly with the tension between music and language, pitting them against each other as characters in the drama. There is also substantial evidence of his attempts to employ musical forms and devices in his prose and dramatic writings, from his first (unpublished) novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, with its numerous references to musical forms (a digression is described as a ‘cadenza’; repeated passages are ‘da capo’; whispers are delivered ‘pianissimo’; meanings are ‘orchestrated’; particular scenes may be described as ‘duos’, ‘trios’2) and its fanciful conceit of the characters as musical notes to be arranged like a melody, through Murphy, Watt (which contains two musical compositions by Beckett himself) and Molloy (in which the famous sucking-stones episode has been interpreted as a parody of serialism3), to a late work like Quad, described by Beckett as ‘a static fugue’.4

Beckett was also interested in the philosophical aesthetics of music, in particular the writings of Schopenhauer, for whom the abstraction of music permitted more direct access to the underlying forces (or ‘will’) of the world than the representational arts such as painting or literature, which could only convey the idea of phenomenal reality. For Beckett, in music one is (arguably) released from the burden of literal and figurative meaning, as well as from the constraints of linear narrative form and mimesis in particular, as dominant organizing principles within realist drama which is so often dependent on the representation of events, persons and encounters. Music offered Beckett a model for a more suggestive and perhaps intuitive way of capturing the experience of human existence with an air of refined abstraction while it dispensed with irrelevant detail. ‘Is there any reason’, he enquired in his oft-cited letter to Axel Kaun (9 July 1937),

why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as for example the sound surface of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence?’5

To be able to work with language as substance rather than surface, or to at least move between surface and depth, was a quest to which Beckett remained committed: to rethink the intrinsic way in which we understand the interpolation of surface and depth, where words are conceived as a surface one ‘drills’ into or ‘a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it’.6 In music, meaning emerges and spreads throughout a composition, rather than stabilizing a fixed set of ideas. In musical composition, motif, theme, repetition and silence can articulate a sense of progression, a moment of hiatus, an instance of return or an aporia with almost imperceptible precision whilst at the same time remaining diffuse. And for Beckett, as for John Cage, silence is considered to be ‘part of a continuum of sound’.7 Silence takes on concrete form, often becoming the means through which the desire for meaning to take place is articulated, even as one witnesses (as in ‘hears’ or ‘sees’) the thwarted efforts of such a necessity in that silence. There is always something to be heard; no ceasing of sound, in other words, merely those sounds that are more or less audible. If prose fiction and poetry were unable to deploy silence as an expressive component, then theatre finally delivered to Beckett what had been denied in these other forms.

Music meant many things to Beckett and informed the impulse, imagination and movement of his writing in such a profound way that he was able to investigate its correspondences across many forms. In the introduction to her edited collection Samuel Beckett and Music (1998), the first significant study of its kind to begin to articulate this rich area within Beckett Studies, Mary Bryden noted ‘the protean function of music in Beckett’s writing’.8 In seeking to engage with Beckett the writer, it is not surprising, therefore, that critics and artists interpreting or drawing inspiration from his oeuvre often note, in addition to the element of musicality in Beckett’s texts, the ways in which the reader/spectator’s encounter with his work might similarly be considered ‘musical’, focused as much towards the realm of the acoustic and auditory as to the visual and the seen. In this respect musicians have learned from Beckett too: creating music for a production of Comédie (Play) in Paris in 1965, Philip Glass came to the realization that the play did not need his music, but rather, as he put it, that his own life in music had been fundamentally changed by his experience of the intrinsic musicality of Beckett’s text. It is worth quoting Glass’s insight in his own words for his subtle understanding of the phenomenology of his experience of the play, as reported by the music critic Joseph Roddy:

Glass saw 15 to 20 performances of Comédie in Paris, and every time he would experience a catharsis, or epiphany, in a different spot in the play. ‘That struck me as very odd,’ he said. ‘I thought that if the play were really a classical tragedy, that big emotion should hit me at the same place every night. But it was always a different place. After a while I came to understand that the catharsis or epiphany happened very night when I reached a certain awareness of the play, and of myself.’9

Glass had recognized that Comédie’s gruelling method of repetitive variation conveyed affect through rhythm and pace, rather than meaning through dramatic narrative or structure. Such a process lies at the heart of Minimalism’s own musical emphasis upon surface rather than depth, the tension between repetition and difference, and the play between movement and stasis. It may be that Beckett should be recognized, in addition to the more often cited musical forbears of Minimalism such as Satie or African drumming, as a progenitor of the most important musical development of the second half of the twentieth century.

But what, precisely, does it mean to say that a piece of prose or writing for theatre, radio or screen is ‘musical’ or that it is characterized by qualities that we usually associate with music? How might we better understand the ways in which the notion of musicality occupies the writing, reading and influence of Beckett’s work beyond the more familiar tropes of literary criticism? This collection proposes a number of ways in which Beckett’s works engage the notion of musicality and are engaged by and through musical composition, whether in the use of methods that relate to the processes of musical form (e.g. Play or Ghost Trio, a ‘trio’ that Beckett constructed according to the structural principles of Beethoven’s music) or in aspects of writing that one attributes as ‘musical’, such as the lyricism, rhythm or dynamics of a text. Here, our knowledge of Beckett’s working processes in the theatre is as important as what remains on the published page. Finally, the shift in attention from seeing to listening (from the visual to the aural plane, therefore) itself warrants critical attention, for in earlier as in later works (such as All That Fall written in 1956, Not I and Ghost Trio, written almost 20 years later, or the playlet, Ohio Impromptu, written in 1980), the act of listening – to music, to speech, to the reading out loud of a text or even just to silence – is itself foregrounded and dramatized. For Beckett, listening provided a way of approaching the predicament of one’s existence and, in particular, encountering the self: a means of turning inwards – or rather, tuning inwards – towards a relationship of self to itself, as well as outwards to the encounter with the other and the material world. In his meditation on the act of listening, Jean-Luc Nancy states that ‘to be listening will always, then, be to be straining toward or in an approach to the self (one should say, in a pathological manner, a fit of self: isn’t [sonorous] sense first of all, every time, a crisis of self?)’ Listening establishes a set of resonances: from self to itself, between self and subject or, as Nancy continues, ‘one in the echo of the other and this echo is like the very sound of its sense’.10 The sonorous (as opposed to the visual) operates through referral and resonance – it is not ‘tendentially mimetic’, therefore, as the visual is, but rather ‘tendentially methexic (that is, having to do with participation, sharing or contagion)’.11 The ability of the sonorous (and the act of listening as an operative mode particular to the sonorous) to invite, share and induce participation is, it would seem, key to the role and function of musicality as a non-mimetic yet reciprocal mode of exchange and relationality that extends throughout Beckett’s work.

The chapters in this book address some of the above concerns and observations from a range of complementary perspectives. The book’s origins were in a two-day symposium, ‘Beckett and Music’, held at the University of Sussex in February 2009.12 One of the aims of that event was to begin to stage some of the conversations and equivalencies between written texts and musical compositions that Beckett was so attentive to throughout his writing career, and which scholars, composers, musicians and writers have engaged with in relation to that extensive body of work since. At the ‘Beckett and Music’ symposium, panels of papers were curated alongside performances of musical compositions, amongst those a staging of a hitherto unperformed music theatre piece, based on a poem by Beckett, by the Italian composer Stefano Gervasoni. Entitled Pas si, the piece was staged by one of the co-editors of this book (Nicholas Till)13 and was presented along with performances of a number of Beckett-inspired musical works, including Paul Rhys’s virtuoso solo piano piece Not I (discussed with insightful, personal detail by Rhys in this book) performed by Ian Pace, a staged presentation of Cascando, with music for solo cello written and performed by Peter Copley, and new works by Tom Hall and Fung Lam. Seven of the chapters in this book are based on papers given at that symposium (Boyce, Branigan, Mansell, Orzyńska, Rhys, Ristani and Surprenant) though all have since been developed considerably for this publication. Mary Bryden and Catherine Laws also contributed to the symposium, but their contributions here develop different materials. Franz Michael Maier’s chapter was to have been presented at the symposium but instead appears here in print. In addition we invited a further three contributions: from David Foster, who attended the symposium, and from two artists who have responded to Beckett in highly distinctive ways that engage with translations and digressions in form – sound artist Christof Migone and theatre artist and writer Matthew Goulish. Finally, Sara Jane Bailes, co-organizer of the symposium (and co-editor of this book), contributed a new piece.

As noted earlier, Mary Bryden’s Samuel Beckett and Music mapped out the field of study for Beckett’s relationship with music decisively and included two definitive essays on some of the broader aspects of what music meant to Beckett, from Bryden herself and from Harry White. We are therefore particularly delighted to be able to include a new essay by Mary Bryden in this collection. In addition, that collection contained a selection of essays on composers who have engaged with Beckett in different ways, such as Heinz Holliger, György Kurtág and Morton Feldman, and further interviews with Beckett-inspired composers, such as Luciano Berio and Philip Glass. A year later in 1999, Lois Oppenheim’s collection Samuel Beckett and the Arts included further valuable reflections on Beckett’s musical aesthetics by H. Porter Abbott, Daniel Albright and Charles Kranz. The present book adds to this body of understanding through closer focus on some specific works that incorporate music, such as Catherine Laws’s chapter on Beckett’s use of a Schubert song in the television play Nacht und Träume and Brynhildur Boyce’s chapter on the incommensurability of words and music in the radio drama Words and Music. It also offers new reflections on some of the broader aspects of Beckett’s relation to music, considering him as a writer for whom the concept of musicality must be understood as more than vague analogy (Ristani on the function of rhythm in Beckett’s writing, Orzyńska on the idea of ‘orchestration’, Bryden on the relation of sound and silence in Ghost Trio). Sara Jane Bailes reflects on the musical correspondence implicit in the dialogic structural relations of reading and listening in both Beckett’s and Maurice Blanchot’s work, with particular reference to Ohio Impromptu in which Beckett establishes a musical counterpoint between Reader’s words and Listener’s pattern of insistent knocks. Kevin Branigan examines a composer’s solution to supplying music for a lesser-known work in the Beckett canon, Rough for Radio I, whilst David Foster examines an even less familiar work, Marin Karmitz’s 1966 film adaptation of Comédie, rediscovered only in 2000, to suggest analogies to ‘atonality’ for the film’s visual composition. Through Beckett’s engagement with Schopenhauer via Proust, Céline Surprenant tackles some of Beckett’s earlier philosophical interests in music and in the formal possibilities of pastiche, whilst Franz Michael Maier examines a series of comments in a lecture by Beckett on Proust’s contemporary, Gide, in order to begin to think about Beckett’s search for a ‘symphonic’ mode of writing. Thomas Mansell considers Beckett’s interest in dance as a physicalization of music, surveying Beckett’s references to dance in his earlier prose works through to his obsessive concern for exactitude of gesture in his later work as director of his own plays. Finally, the book includes three chapters by artists who have responded in their own markedly different ways to Beckett’s musicality: composer Paul Rhys discusses and reflects upon his approach to adapting Not I for solo piano, Christof Migone offers a recension of his radio work Foursome in which he invited four choreographers to make spoken and inscriptive transcriptions of Quad, and Matthew Goulish offers poetic reflections on the music of Morton Feldman while engaging with some of the resonances and particularities of Feldman’s relationship to Beckett. The contributions in this collection span the entire arc of Beckett’s production, from his early prose writings through the plays for theatre and radio to his late works for television. We have arranged them here approximately according to chronology to give the reader a sense of how Beckett’s approach to music and musicality developed throughout his career, though the reader is also invited to discover alternative pathways through the chapters, each of which has its own distinctive engagement with the book’s theme.

Together, the range of work included here exemplifies, we hope, the value of such an inventive and eclectic variety of approaches towards the expanding field of thinking about Beckett and musicality with regards to terms and modes of analysis, subject matter, writing styles, disciplinary and critical tools and so on. In addition, these chapters draw attention to some of the productive ways in which one might listen to and through the musical registers and nuances that help to define Beckett’s work and which might parallel our more habitual tendency to ‘see’ what he wrote, particularly where his dramas are concerned. For in Beckett, it is not only that the function of music is protean; the modes of expression through which music manifests as a precisely structured exchange are transposed into the work and world of language and the stage. In his book on the musical turn in modernist writing Eric Prieto describes Beckett’s ‘musicalization of fiction’ as being characteristic of the modernist search, from Mallarmé onwards, for modes of writing capable of conveying the complexity of consciousness, evident in writers as varied as Strindberg, Joyce, Eliot, Huxley, Pinget and Leiris.14 Yet, the ‘musicalization’ of theatre, wherein Beckett is surely exemplary, is one of the definitive attributes that Hans-Thies Lehmann identifies in order to characterize the now ubiquitous concept of ‘postdramatic theatre’, itself indicative (despite Lehmann’s disclaimers) of the postmodern turn in theatre.15 Whether one understands this apparent paradox as evidence of the range of different functions that music served throughout Beckett’s career, from his exuberant modernism to his ascetic yet wilfully promiscuous postmodernism, or as evidence of the continuing diversity of critical approaches to the understanding of Beckett’s relation to music, we hope that this book will stimulate new modes of attention and listening for Beckett’s musicality.

1 Mary Bryden, ‘Beckett and the Sound of Silence’, in (ed.), Samuel Beckett and Music (Oxford, 1998), pp. 21–46 (p. 11).

2 See Eric Prieto, Listening In: Music, Mind, and the Modernist Narrative (Lincoln, NE, and London, 2002), p. 178.

3 Harry White, ‘Something is Taking its Course: Dramatic Exactitude and the Paradigm of Serialism in Samuel Beckett’, in Bryden (ed.), Samuel Beckett and Music, pp. 159–71 (p. 162).

4 Quoted in Bryden, ‘Beckett and the Sound of Silence’, p. 36.

5 The Letters of Samuel Beckett, vol. 1: 1929–1940, ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 518–9.

6 Ibid., p. 518.

7 Bryden, ‘Beckett and the Sound of Silence’, p. 27.

8 Ibid., p. 2.

9 Joseph Roddy, ‘Listening to Glass’, in Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Writings of Glass: Essays, Interviews, Criticism (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1999), pp. 167–75 (p. 171).

10 Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, trans. Charlotte Mandel (New York, 2007), p. 9.

11 Ibid., p. 10.

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13 See Nicholas Till, ‘Stefano Gervasoni’s Pas si: Staging a Music Theatre Work Based on a Text by Samuel Beckett’, Contemporary Theatre Review 23/2 (2013): 220–32.

14 Prieto, Listening In.

15 Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, trans Karen Jürs-Munby (London and New York, 2006).



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