Margaret Fisher






Prefatory remarks

The Sappho aria Poikilothron from Pound’s unfinished third opera Collis O Heliconii offers me an opportunity to remember Michael André Bernstein with gratitude and affection. Michael’s seminal work Tale of the Tribe, Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic traces the inclusion of history in Pound’s epic poem The Cantos. Michael mentored my return to academia and my dissertation on Pound’s third opera as chair of my committee at the University of California Berkeley. Having read three chapters on Catullus and Sappho, he wrote to me he was now persuaded that examination of “Pound’s musical writings is one of the keys to understanding his notion of continuity and transmission throughout history” (27 December 2002. Email).Michael asked, “Does the recovery of the music supplement our existing knowledge? Or does it inflect our knowledge in a new way?” (ibid.) In our verbal conversations, no matter my arguments, he always concluded with a question, “But why did Pound compose?” He was never satisfied with my explanation. When I discovered a correspondence between Pound’s spoken and musical durations and proportions, I believed I had come upon an answer he could accept. Sadly, we never had an opportunity to discuss the matter further. Though Michael died May 25, 2011, his writing and contributions to Modernist studies continue to stimulate, provoke, and inform a second generation of scholars.  


With two acts of the second opera Cavalcanti completed in early August 1932 and forwarded for comment to Agnes Bedford, Pound reminded her of “the Latin song 25 minutes long, which you once considered pleasantly impractical. Got that to write now” (Letter. August 3, 1932. Quoted in EPRO 276 n54). The “25 minutes” probably refers to a musical setting of the entire Catullus 61 that begins Collis O Heliconii and not to the length of an opera. Pound set 14 of the 47 strophes of poem 61 to music. He also set the first five strophes and part of the sixth of Sappho’s Poem 1, which begins with “Poikilothron’ Athanat’ Aphrodite,” to be sung in classical Greek in an original non-Western musical idiom.1 The composer’s music scores for each aria end abruptly. No sketches for the remaining strophes have been found. This article discusses Pound’s treatment of the Sappho aria.

Composed: 1932-1934(?)

Performances: No public performances to date.


Critical Gestures in Ezra Pound’s setting of Sappho’s “Poikilothron”

            As far as we know, Pound did not translate Sappho’s poem 1 that starts “Poikilothron’ athanat’ Aphrodite.” He highly recommended an 1885 prose translation by Henry Thornton Wharton (L 87) and the 1910 verse translation by John Myers O’Hara (1870–1944), reprinted here:




Aphrodite subtle of soul and deathless,

Daughter of God, weaver of wiles, I pray thee

Neither with care, dread Mistress, nor with anguish

   Slay thou my spirit.


But in pity hasten, come now if ever!

From afar, of old, when my voice implored thee,

Thou hast deigned to listen leaving the golden

   House of thy father


With thy chariot yoked, and with doves that drew thee

Fair and fleet around the dark earth from heaven,

Dipping vibrant wings down the azure distance

   Through the mid ether:


Very swift they came; and thou gracious Vision

Leaned with face that smiled in immortal beauty,

Leaned to me and asked, “What misfortune threatened?”

   Why I had called thee?


“What my frenzied heart craved in utter yearning,

Whom its wild desire would persuade to passion?

What disdainful charms madly worshipped, slight thee?

   Who wrongs thee, Sappho?


“She that fain would fly, she shall quickly follow

She that now rejects, yet with gifts shall woo thee,

She that heeds thee not, soon shall love to madness,

   Love thee, the loth one.”


Come to me now thus Goddess and release me

From distress and pain; and all my distracted

heart would seek, do thou, once again fulfilling

                           Still be my ally!

[Selected by Pound for inclusion in “Hellenist Series, IV Sappho.” Egoist 5.10 (1918): 130-131]




Pound described his third opera as half-finished (GK 368). A libretto, two arias, and three instrumental works are the sum of materials we have to inform the staging of the opera Collis O Heliconii. Pound’s libretto refers only to the Catullus poem (see my comments and transcription of Pound’s libretto, COLLIS xvi–xix; 102–111). The joining of the opera’s central aria in Latin—Catullus’ carmen 61—and a secondary aria in Greek—Sappho’s “Poikilothron”—continued the pairing of languages heard in the second opera Cavalcanti (Italian and Provençal). The composer’s principal motivation for relating the Latin and Greek poems in an opera was to anchor modern English lyrics in the Greek rhythms while demonstrating how a grasp of Latin will refine a poet’s style.

The four key actions of Sappho’s Poem 1 are Sappho’s invocation to the goddess Aphrodite; the goddess’s descent from heaven; Aphrodite’s direct address to Sappho regarding her dominance over human will; and Sappho’s invitation to Aphrodite to take action side by side to reverse an unrequited love.

The relationship of the Sappho invocation to the Catullan poem, which is widely accepted as an epithalamium, is not an obvious one. But even if we overlook recent scholarship that depicts carmen 61 as a lampoon of an epithalamium, we can find structural resemblances between the two poems. Sappho’s poem provides an authorial match to Catullus’ carmen 61: each poet inserts her- or himself into the poem; each writes in a way that distances the poet as author from the passions written about; and each poem includes a theme of same-sex preference. It was Henry Wharton who first introduced the English reader to Sappho’s love for a female and possibly Theodor Bergk who earlier had done the same for the German reader (Williamson 51–52).2

For contrast and drama in his opera, Pound would develop the literary relationship between Sappho and Catullus. He had named them in his 1929 essay “How to Read” as among the essential canon of authors "who actually invented something" (LE 27). In 1934, Pound praised Catullus for his treatment of sapphics: “. . . the only man who has ever mastered the lady’s metre” (ABCR 47). He published the essay “Date Line” the same year, claiming that the musical setting of a poet’s words was a fourth form of criticism (LE 74). Had Pound’s attempts at setting the two poets’ words to music led him to these declarations?

Pound’s preference was for us to hear the two poets’ words in the original language, their rhythms and styles brought directly to our ear through the music—the successful formula he had used to dramatize the Cavalcanti–Sordello literary relationship in his second opera. Pound’s pairing of Sappho’s 1 with Catullus 61 removes Sappho from the sphere of influence of Ovid, where most readers became acquainted with her through reading the Heroides. The opera was to place her Latin legacy clearly on the side of Catullus. For more on this, see COLLIS, chapter V, “Sappho.”




rsz score 1

Ezra Pound's holograph score of his setting of Sappho Poem 1 from his 3rd opera,
Collis O Heliconii.
Shown: Introduction to End of Stanza 1 with sapphic stanza and transcription of Pound's lyrics added in red.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (YCAL 53, Box 46/1015)
Reprinted by permission, Second Evening Art. All rights reserved.


Pound’s musical events in the Poikilothron convey a feeling for the meter through quantity and syllabic durations. Only the first stanza (see music score above) corresponds wholly to the sapphic stanza as defined by the Alexandrian grammarian Hephaestion (2nd century A.D.). Here is the sapphic meter as it has come down to us from Hephaestion’s manual of Greek meters, the Enchiridion:             

        – ˘ – x       – ˘˘ –       ˘ –  x
˘ – x       – ˘˘ –       ˘ –  x
˘ – x       – ˘˘ –       ˘ –  x
˘˘ – –

[The x represents an “anceps” in which the syllable can be short or long.]

O’Hara, too, conformed only his first stanza to the Hephaestion sapphic. He maintained the feeling of sapphics through quantity (eleven syllables in the first three lines, five in the fourth), through a liberal use of the choriambic foot   – ˘˘ –   (though not always in the Hephaestion choriambic position), and through sounds in English that evoke the Greek sounds. Pound follows suit in the music (see the entry on Stanza 4 below).


Musical Influences

When Pound approached the setting of a Greek poem accompanied by lyre, he did not attempt to imitate ancient Greek music. Though he had acquired vol. 1 of the Lavignac Encyclopedia of Music which features Maurice Emmanuel’s entry on Greek music, he relied on this text more for its relevance to poetic meter than for compositional ideas.He lent Mary Barnard his own volume, recommending it as the preferred source for understanding how to write sapphics in American English using Emmanuel’s system of musical forms and strategies (Barnard, 56, 58).

For his melodies, Pound looked beyond Greece, east to Indonesia. Pound turned his attention to the Javanese scale as had Claude Debussy, but distanced himself from the composer, lamenting that Debussy had turned to composing ‘mush.’3 Debussy had been influenced by performances of the Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Access to information about and recordings of world music were random and haphazard, the nascent field of ethnomusicology being represented by only a few key individuals until well into the 1950s.

The specific source for Pound’s approach to the Sappho aria, however, is traceable to the Austrian Erich von Hornbostel, one of the earliest musicologists to make field recordings of the music of Indonesia. Hornbostel reported his findings in “Phonographierte Melodien aus Madagaskar und Indonesien” in 1909. Pound most probably learned of him from his friend, the American concert pianist Katherine Heyman, who mentioned Hornbostel in her 1921 book The Relation of Ultramodern to Archaic Music (58).On July 7, 1924, Pound programmed an arrangement of a Hornbostel Javanese transcription for solo violin, played by Olga Rudge in Paris.5


Pound’s Musical Strategy: Modality and Tonality

To the ear accustomed to a diatonic scale, the intervals of Pound’s unusual scale join with the rhythms “to cut a shape in time” (Barnard, 55). Pound’s single accidental of C# in his scale for the Poikilothron aria resembles the transcriptions of Sumatran music compiled by von Hornbostel at the turn of the century.

Pound employs six tones —A, C#, D, E, F, (G)—and avoids B altogether. The use of five tones only in stanzas one through four creates a sense of modal music, i.e., a type of scale that is sui generis, where each tone has equal weight, rather than tonal, which is a hierarchical system of music with a central pitch to which the other pitches relate. In modal music the notes do not function as harmony. Only in the fifth stanza does Pound introduce the G to create the sense of a musical key with the stable relationships of the fourth between D and G, and the already present fifth between D and A. The six-tone scale, with certain features acting like a diatonic scale which has seven tones, implies the key of D minor. B is simply avoided and the C# serves as a raised “seventh” step which wants to resolve to D.

When the tritone sounds between G and C#, the composer moves from modal to tonal music. In Stanza six, he resumes modality.

The contours of Pound’s melodies arise from the qualities of spoken word in the poem—supplication, solicitation, question, demand, and judgment—, the intervallic movement expanding and subsiding with the emotion. The composer brings forward the contours of Sappho’s words through timbre, dissonance, tritone, and accent. Guided by the belief that he can recover the form apart from the formulaic metrics passed down by tradition, he does not attempt to recover ancient Greek melody, but presents new composition as his fifth form of criticism (LE 74–75).


 Audio example :

Because the aria has yet to receive its world premiere, the audio example given here has the melody played on violin.

Poikilothron’ athanat’ Aphrodita
Private recording. Violin: David Abel
Courtesy Second Evening Art. All rights reserved.


Examples of Music as Criticism [from COLLIS 77-79]

Stanza 4: Inner form in Sappho’s Poikilothron:

In stanza four, Sappho’s rhetorical devices lead to a highly structured colloquy between the poetess and goddess, even as the language remains colloquial. The composer strives to make this duality salient—structural formality/linguistic familiarity—not only to transmit Sappho to a modern audience but to promote his own interest in Sappho as a mortal poet conversant with the gods.

At stanza four we find rhyming patterns in the syllables: otti deute / kotti deute. Here, Pound foregrounds Sappho’s word play by striking the repeating hard surfaces of her Greek consonants—t, d, p, k—against his neo-Sumatran scale, the strangeness of the scale serving to inflect each sound. Sappho’s voice rings out, resonant and striking in her Poundian afterlife, with none of the Ovidian invention and melodrama qualifying her poetic achievement.

Stanza 4, lines 3–4, bars 45–49

“You asked, what pray tell have I suffered and why pray tell do I call?”

score 2

Following three breathy vowels on the same pitch, “e-re ot-”, the consonant load of the syllables, “ti”–“dau”–“te”–“pe”–“pon”–“tha,” meets each of the descending pitches with percussive impact. The final syllable pepontha (“have I suffered”) hits the bottom of the singer’s tessitura on A,an octave and a minor sixth below “e-re ot-.” The word kotti (“and what”) rebounds one octave higher on the A, then C# and A again,before a second leap downward to the low A. There follows a third and lesser rebound and descent. The word melody kalemmi (“do I call”), broken by a sixteenth rest, gives the illusion that all is settling down. Pound delivers the last syllable “-mi” on the less-than-resolute e to end the stanza (supported by an A in the violin).


Stanza 5: the tritone in Pound’s aria Poikilothron:

The Music Column of Make It New 2.1 discussed Pound’s use of the interval of the tritone to insert a critical marker indicating genius within the music. In the Sappho aria, we might expect that when Sappho refers to herself in the poem’s fifth stanza (“kotti moi”), Pound will employ the tritone, and he does not disappoint. He makes the tonality of the tritone salient by preceding it with modality in the preceding four stanzas and in the subsequent sixth stanza.


What Pound said:

“The more Greek a man knows the better his English cadence is likely to be, and the greater richness, variety, height, precision, colour of his criteria; the greater the variety of his ideas and memories of what verbal melody can be and should be; and the finer his perception of all verbal sounds whatsoever.”

(Ezra Pound. “Dust upon Hellas.” Time and Tide XV.45 [November 10, 1934]: 1429–1430).


“Greek seems to me a storehouse of wonderful rhythms, possibly impracticable rhythms. If you don’t read it and if you can’t read Latin translations from it, it can’t be helped. Most English translations are hopeless. The best are in prose.”

(Ezra Pound. Letter to Iris Barry. July 1916. L 87).



Areas of study


The following suggested areas of study are designed to augment the above discussion of Pound’s compositional techniques with the aim of determining the extent to which, if any, they relate to Pound’s poetics.

1. Why would Pound have Sappho come forward to us through Catullus rather than through Ovid? Give examples of how he might accomplish this with music, or give examples from the music itself.

2. What could Pound accomplish with music that he could not with the printed or spoken word?

3. How could Pound transmit history through song? Are Pound’s song settings an extension of the idea proposed by Michael Bernstein that Pound is writing history while also making history? Support your reasoning using examples from Pound’s music.

4. Download the music score to be able to describe how Pound creates movement in Stanza 4 of his aria Poikilothron. Does he mirror the movement of Sappho’s verse or the spatial movement Sappho describes in the poem, or both? How?

5. Download the music score to be able to discuss Pound’s treatment of Sappho’s consonants and vowels in Stanza 4, with musical examples.

6. The most sustained discussion of sapphics occurs in Pound’s letters to Mary Barnard, where he refers to “proper quantitative sapphics in the amurikun langwidge” as a combination of quantity and stress (Barnard 56). Give several examples of how Pound uses music to bring quantity and stress to bear on a poem.

7. Describe Maurice Emmanuel’s terms for the long and short durations of Greek meter and how they differ from traditional scansion of classical meter, as stated in his entry in vol. 1 of the Encyclopédie de la Musique et Dictionnaire du Conservatoire (online). Find two examples in Pound’s music that illustrate Emmanuel’s points.





1. While outside the scope of this article, it is worth mentioning that Pound’s setting fits well with North American avant-garde perspectives on world music that could be heard in the work of the Canadian composer Colin McPhee (1900–1964) and the American composer Henry Cowell (1897–1965). The American composer George Antheil (1900–1959) most likely kept Pound current on such developments, regularly reported in Cowell’s New Music Journal and other serial publications on modern music. Pound’s immediate source for his musical scale in the Sappho aria can be traced to Eric van Hornbostel, discussed below. While Robert Hughes and I could find no tangible evidence that Pound ever met Cowell, Pound’s theory of rhythm parallels that of Cowell; it is quite likely Pound discussed Cowell’s work with George Antheil, both having attended Cowell’s Paris concert in 1923 (CPMEP 129-130).

2. Again, outside the scope of this article, but worth mentioning, is that same-sex preference was very much a contemporary issue in the 1920s and the 1930s when Pound was composing this opera, and one that would prove to be at odds with Pound’s developing thoughts about the sanctity of the marriage bed and the trajectory of his trilogy of operas on love. Le Testament was about counterfeit love; Cavalcanti was about the philosophical pursuit of love, and Collis appears to be about the sanctity of marriage consummated by physical love. We don’t know how Pound would have shaped this subject matter within the third opera.

3. Pound attended a performance of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1892–1902), which he felt was a “mush of hysteria,” and was “. . . encouraged to tear up the whole bloomin era of harmony . . . ” (Pound to Bedford. Letter 5. [Spring 1921]. CPMEP 18).

4. Heyman (1877-1944) toured as a concert pianist specializing in the music of Alexander Scriabin, and later, that of Charles Ives. Pound had acted as her concert manager in 1908 in Venice. She sent Pound a copy of her book.

5. At the Salle Pleyel (CPMEP 156–157). One hand-copied transcription from the music collected during the S.M.S. Planet voyage, identified as “Java” by Hornbostel, is with the Olga Rudge Papers, YCAL 54 (Beinecke). In “How to Write,” Pound expounds on music, “There is a man in Berlin named Hornbostel. He does not give public performances; he attends to the African Kultur for the German government. He has a pitch sense so exact that he does not write his melodies on the stave simply but with the pitch marked at its vibration number per second” (MAOW 96).




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