by Margaret Fisher



Part II

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Critical Gestures in Pound’s setting of Catullus’ Carmen 61


This column continues the discussion from MIN 2.3 regarding Pound’s setting of Catullus’s Carmen 61, the principal aria of Pound’s unfinished third opera Collis of Heliconii, with one example of each critical gesture embedded in the music: these follow markers of genius, of variants in the manuscript tradition, and of language unique to the poem. These markers often recur, inviting the interested listener to trace the words of the poem to extra-textual history; to sources that place the poem in context and keep it in the canon; and/or to Pound's theater of personae.  


Modality and Tonality

One will remember that Pound applied the interval of the tritone twice between the voice and English horn to identify Guido Cavalcanti’s voice in the opening five-note melody of the canzone “Donna mi prega” in the opera Cavalcanti (MIN 2.1). The interval of the tritone is the augmented fourth in the music scale, (e.g., C to F) and marks the midpoint in an octave of eight notes. It contains three whole steps, ascending, for example, from middle C to F# and ascending from that same F# to the C above. Western harmonic rules discourage the use of this interval not so much for its dissonance as for the sense of instability created in the sound; the tritone resists resolution and in doing so heightens the tension of the line. This tension, not the inability to resolve, is key to Pound’s use of the tritone in connection with genius.

Pound’s setting of Carmen 61 also employs the tritone in the opening melody to identify the voice of Catullus, master of ceremonies at the wedding that is the subject of his poem. The poet calls to the God of the Wedding Bed on the Helicon hill to come down to bless the marriage taking place between Manlius Torquatus and Vinia Aurunculeia. This strong melodic line employs pomp and projection as Catullus intones the first of five invocations to the god.

rsz hymen4refrains

The tritone of this first line is not just a single interval but the principal strategy that forms the harmonic armature to the invocation built upon E to A#. This first line of the Collis aria opens on a prolonged E (a half note), and ends an augmented fourth higher on two consecutive A#s (whose combined duration is also a half note). Because five of the eight notes comprising the line participate in the tritone between E or A#, we can say that the tritone structures the line. The tonic is finally secured for the ear by the strongest accent in the line which occurs at the posé or downbeat of “-con-.” Additionally, the scoring for bass soloist and the slow tempo all aspire to formality for his marriage rite. These are Pound’s additions to Catullus’ poem.

Collis O Heliconii, opening bars:                                          the tonic   

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The first line of Pound’s music is always important as, like Campion, he uses the line to set the emotional tone of the entire poem and melody. The tritone in the melody operates as a leitmotif of the poet of genius who inserts himself into the text of his poem.

Pound creates special rules governing the intervals of his otherwise diatonic scale of B major—B, C#, [D#], E, F#, [G#], A#: the use of the third and sixth steps is minimized and the ascending and descending lines obey different intervallic rules (the strategy disappears as the song progresses). The result approximates the sound of Asian pelog penta-scale, giving the feeling of a distant time and exotic place. This is not the France of Villon or the Italy of Cavalcanti. The pelog feeling extracted from B major anchors the music within the composer’s interest in an unbroken line of influence from Eastern antecedents to the ancient Greek communal rites regarding sexual union, the primary subject of carmen 61. This is an example of Pound using music composition to place carmen 61 within a historical context that predates Rome and Greece. While we know too much today about world music to allow Indonesian sounds to be a surrogate music for the entire East, the strategy in the 1930s was novel and unencumbered by ethnomusicological distinctions. All was “exotica” in the way that “early music” was “medieval.” In Collis the approach is understated and effective.

Pound’s indication of an Eastern culture through sound mirrors Catullus’s own inclusion of references to Asia by way of his botanical selections (Stanzas 2 and 5). Calling to Hymenaeus to attend the wedding, Catullus asks the god to bind his brow with the flowers of the aromatic marjoram plant (cinge tempora floribus suave olentis amaraci). Robinson Ellis writes, “If, then, amaracus was marjoram, it must have been an exotic, indeed an oriental, variety hardly comparable with the plant as known in the colder parts of Europe.”1 Later in the poem Catullus refers to the plant myrtus Asia in association with the Hamadryades, the tree nymphs.2

At the proper name of the bridegroom Manlio (Stanza 4), the composer sets the stage for the first use of the G#. This new and, in context, strange sound appears on the second and third syllables of Manlio’s name. While the fact that Pound held the G# pitch in reserve for Manlio is significant, it is unclear what he intends. The rare D# occurs three times in this passage, suggesting the composer’s shift to tonality—the B major scale—is his way of placing Manlio firmly within the Western tradition.

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Textual Variants

Pound used music to settle differences in the manuscript tradition, as he had done in the Cavalcanti. At stanza 10, line 1, he chooses to set to music the text from the codex Romanus, magis amatis. Textual variants to this first line include magis est ama—, magis ah magis, and magis anxiis (Catullus 70).

Codex Romanus, lines 46–50. Note the crossed-out fifth line.
The copyist accidentally inserted the poem’s secondary refrain.
(Ottoboni Lat. 1829, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana)

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Pound works against the poem’s strict glyconic meter

x –  ˘ ˘–  ˘ –

qui de-us ma-gis a-ma-tis

to persuade the ear that magis amatis is the best poetic choice. Each rise in pitch to a longer duration falls on the word accents, which, given the reins of the melody, bring the entire sequence of vowels in the line into prominence:

Collis O Heliconii, Stanza 10, lines 1-2: “What greater god, ah what greater, shall lovers seek” (trans. E. Pound)

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If we look at the technical construction of the disputed phrase magis amatis we find that the composer secures his decision by choosing pitches he believes correspond to the tonal leadings of the vowels and consonants—his guiding principle for setting words to music. Using the melodic cell B–A#, he makes a sonic rhyme between amatis (two half notes) and amantibus at the end of the stanza’s second line (two sixteenth and dotted eighth figures sounded first on the B, next on the A#), one word anticipating the other. He conforms the music’s rhythms to the glyconic meter only at the four durations of amantibus. The composer’s goal is to have the “rightness” of his choice of word seem apparent by dint of its participation in a pattern, enhanced by the music, and warranting, even demanding, variation on the meter. The pitches chosen as the tonal leadings for amatis do not work for anxiis, where they would sound post-modern. When applied to magis est amatis, the result is an awkward sequence for the short vowels in the syllables “is,” “est,” and “tis.”

Note that the deviation from the glyconic supports Pound’s translation with a rising line and longer durations by the end of the line (see caption to the music example above). Being readily singable, Pound’s interpretation stays in the memory. Why would Pound counter Catullus’ chosen meter?

The rhythmic strategies applied to Catullus’ Latin represent a fresh approach on the composer’s part to gauge the time interval as brought into focus by his theory on harmony:


In “Collis,” the focus is on durational proportions between the poetic feet and the verse line of the poem. The relations of time units within words—the elapsed time of the syllables—become the basis for larger relations within the verse line.

In the hierarchy of relations in the Latin language, quantity is the basis of verse construction, to which word accent is “subordinate.” In the Greek language, the ictus or voiced stress determined by the meter is “independent of the word-accent.”4 For his musical setting Pound sought a systematic interface to reconcile these differences, which in carmen 61 are structural: Latin words/Greek meter.

These are but a few examples within the “Collis” aria of Pound’s criticism in the setting of another poet’s words. If Pound intended the compositional structure itself as criticism, we might expect to find durations of phrases, verse lines, and melodies to bear relational proportions in discernible (either by analysis or by listening) patterns throughout a finished version of the music. Pound, however, abruptly ceased his work on this aria.

Looking back on the three poets of Pound's three operas, we find very different approaches to melody, rhythm, pitch and harmonic relations in each. The operas have elements in common, such as the poet-as-protagonist within the musical work, and the use of the tritone to identify the poet's voice (We do not know if the latter was Pound's superimposed construction, or if Pound believed the leading tones arising from the words required the tritone.). The body of music as a whole demonstrates a singular accomplishment by a poet within the "language" of music. The use of music to closely observe a poet's methods, to bring out the poet's voice in tonal leanings, and to pursue arguments concerning the manuscript tradition represents a unique approach to criticism, which in its earliest form referred to the division of a work into its various parts.

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1. Ellis provides the most extensive documentation of Catullus’ botanical references in A Commentary on Catullus, 212–216. The term olentis amaraci was unique to the Catullan oeuvre, while myrtus Asia was not (Wetmore 1912).

2. Asia could refer to the Roman-held territories in Asia or the areas of Lydia and Ephesus in Asia minor (Ellis 215–216).

3. Pound Antheil 10.

4. In English verse, the accent of the words is synonymous with the ictus. The quoted terms are from Bennett (240) and Goodwin (348). Both are available online at Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

All music examples © Second Evening Art Publishing. Used by permission.




Bennett Charles E. A Latin Grammar. Boston and Chicago: Allyn and Bacon, 1913.

Catullus, Gaius Valerius. Catullus, Tibullus, Pervigilium Veneris, Trans. F. W. Cornish. Rev. ed. G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1962, 1995.

Ellis, Robinson. A Commentary on Catullus. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1889.

Fisher, Margaret. The Recovery of Ezra Pound's 3rd Opera, Collis O Heliconii, Settings of Poems by Catullus and Sappho. Emeryville: Second Evening Art, 2005.

Goodwin William W. A Greek Grammar. New Rochelle, NY: A. D. Caratzas, 1988.

Pound, Ezra. “Song,” second draft, n.d., YCAL 43, Box 136, Folder 5938 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University).

Pound, Ezra. Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony. 1924. New York: Da Capo P, 1968.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos, New York: New Directions, 1993.

Wetmore, Monroe. Index Verborum Catullianus. New Haven: Yale UP, 1912.