Musical Authors: Ezra Pound (2)

In 1920s Paris Ezra Pound began writing music criticism for The New Age under the name William Atheling. He befriended the iconoclast composer George Antheil, and even wrote a book of musical theory, Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony. He also began composing his first opera, The Testament of Francis Villon. The opera had to wait until October 1931 before it gained widespread attention through a BBC broadcast organized by the innovative producer Archie Harding. But although Harding commissioned a further opera, Cavalcanti, which Pound spent much of 1932 working on, his bosses became worried about Pound’s “amateur” status as a composer and the second work was never broadcast.

Another major influence in his life, both musically and poetically, was the musicologist and concert violinist Olga Rudge, his long-term mistress and the muse who helped inspire him to complete the Cantos. She was born in 1895 and died in 1996, aged 101. During the 1930s she was a central figure driving the revival of interest in the music of Vivaldi. Pound reviewed her concert of November 1930 (poster above), met her properly in 1922 and then encouraged his friend Antheil to write some music for her to play. But he also composed some pieces himself, premiered alongside Antheil’s three violin sonatas in Paris in late 1923 and London in May 1924. Some of these pieces were subsequently put together as Fiddle Music, first suite in 2004 and recorded on The Music of Ezra Pound. There are six movements, all less than one minute long. This is Pound’s only absolute music. The use of the word “fiddle” rather than violin points to the Celtic folk influence they display.

Pound’s operatic music was somewhat influenced by the anti-romanticism of Erik Satie and Les Six – and the recitative nature and sometimes the starkness of his settings certainly brings Satie’s Socrate to mind. But it also looks back to the homophonic music of medieval music, and goes much further than any of them in its focus on the rhythm of speech.

According to Margaret Fisher, it was Pound’s radio work at the BBC which led to his involvement with Rome Radio and the radio activities of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the leader of the Italian futurist art movement. Through Marinetti he began to broadcast the series of propaganda talks that led to his indictment for fascism and a thirteen year incarceration at St Elizabeth’s Federal Hospital for the Insane in Washington. There he wrote what many consider the finest of his poetic works, the complex and highly musical Pisan Cantos.