Byron Bits 9: Virtuosic Rhyme

A roman­ti­cised por­trait of the young Beethoven. In 1818 when Bry­on began Don Juan, Beethoven was 48

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. 

BB9.mp3. About 9 MB.

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.

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