Why, I wonder, does Byron, whose intellectual curiosity was enormous and who loved the opera, the theatre, drama — and dramatic individuals — make no reference in his greatest poem to the musical revolution that was going on in Europe at the time he was writing Don Juan?
In his great epic, Byron wanders over an immense landscape of contemporary politics (not only British), elections, science, cuisine, tableware, education, liberty, the rights of women, the markets for marriage (and servitude), war and tyranny. The poem is Byron’s Anatomy of Melancholy: a catalog of feints and diversions, certainly, but also a kind of wunderkammer.
Yet he hardly mentions music except in rather conventional ‘poetic’ metaphors such as, for example, the sound of Haidee’s voice or the name “Adeline Amundeville”.
In the late 18-teens and early 1820s when Byron was composing Don Juan, Schubert, Beethoven, Hummel, Rossini and Donnizeti were also publishing major works and their popularity was already immense from Leipzig to Dublin. In England, the Royal Philharmonic Society, which had presented four of Beethoven’s symphonies in its first London season in 1815, begged him to visit in 1820 — offering 300 guineas for two new symphonies should he do so.
Here was a composer who shared Byron’s deep desire for the liberty of Europe and his bitter disappointments with Napoleon. Here was another huge and fascinating personality — although perhaps more obsessive and without the charm that Byron possessed — admired by Goethe, as Byron was, for his embodiment of the finest spirit of the romantic rebellion.
Here, too, was an artist almost as much lionised as Byron had been in London around the same time. Yet, to judge from Don Juan, Byron and Beethoven might as well have inhabited different planets.
Perhaps the closest Byron comes to an extended musical reference in Don Juan is in the facial episode in Canto IV when Juan finds himself chained in a slavers’ galley with a travelling Italian opera company. Here, Byron develops one of his most successful minor characters in Raucocanti, the voluble and vain director of the company who delivers a damning, but delightfully ‘bitchy’, survey of his own troupe in a sort of comic Neapolitan english. The scene, irrelevant to the action of course, is a comically sour vignette of theatre life that Byron must have known well from his days on the “board” of the Drury Lane theatre.
Byron could not have had a ‘tin ear’ because he clearly had a wonderful capacity for the consonance of words and phrases. Besides we know he went regularly to Opera in Venice and Ravenna. Nor do I suggest that the absence of musical performance or even references is a fault in the poem. After all, Byron has given us a wonderful recompense for his small attention to music in the astonishing music of his verse.
There: I’ve finally arrived at the subject of Byron Bits No. 9. It’s about the uncanny capacity Byron has for rhyming and his unequalled mastery of the challenging but completely satisfying Ottava Rima form that he adopts for Don Juan. Somehow, he manages to give thousands of eight-line verses, with a tight rhyming pattern devised for Italian jingles, embedded in the rhythms of English speech. It’s nothing short of miraculous (and riddled with ‘ear-worms’).
But I’ve tested your patience long enough. Here is the recording of my talk with several examples of what I mean, and the text, too, in case you’d like to read more.
Please listen here or download the audio file. You may also download the text of the talk, below.
Please do let me know what you think of these talks in the comments. There’s no point in continuing this series unless you welcome it. Thank you.