Margaret Fisher

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Al Poco Giorno for Solo Violin

Dante’s poem without the words:

An introduction with suggested student projects




Al poco giorno – The poem

Pound’s last and most advanced work for solo violin is based upon the rhythms, the tonal leadings of the words when spoken and the sestina structure of Dante’s Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d’ombra [To the short day and its great arc of shadow], part of a group of poems called Rime Petrose because they are addressed to a lady assigned the epithet Petra [rock]. 


Poems for the Stone Lady

 (Translation by Joseph Tusiani) 

Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d’ombra

Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d’ombra

son giunto, lasso, ed al bianchir de’ colli,

quando si perde lo color ne l’erba:

e ‘l mio disio però non cangia il verde,

sí è barbato ne la dura petra                          5

che parla e sente come fosse donna.


To the Short Day and Its Great Arc of Shadow

To the short day and its great arc of shadow,

I’ve come, alas, and to the paling hills,

now that all colors vanish from the grass;

yet this my longing does not change its green,

rooted as it is still in the hard stone                         5

that speaks and hears as though it were a woman


For full text: http://www.italianstudies.org/poetry/st2.htm 


In a sestina, the end words of the lines of the first sestet are repeated in a specified different order in each of the subsequent five stanzas: ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, ECBFAD, DEACFB, BDFECA. The line end rhyme words—ombra, colli, erba, verde, petra, donna [shadow, hills, grass, green, stone, woman]—contrast the poet’s passionate devotion, allegorized as the verdant green grass hills, with the lady’s implacable coldness of shadow on stone. Dante scholars differ in opinion about whether a specific woman was intended, or an allegorical love such as the Church or the City of Florence. Although the “lady’s” hard heart will not admit the fervid supplications of her poet-suitor, Pound’s music focuses on a rising florid surge of emotions alternated against the rock lady’s adamant refusal to respond.


Al poco giorno – The violin composition

Robert Hughes, editor of Pound’s music, has found one manuscript of Al poco giorno which is reproduced in the frontispiece to Complete Violin Works of Ezra Pound: “It is in a heavily detailed composer’s working state, but with all choices completed and evidencing a convincing finality” (Complete Violin Works 35). No evidence has surfaced that the work was performed in Pound’s lifetime, though light pencil marks indicate Olga Rudge may have played it.

Two of Pound’s earlier violin works, Sestina: Altaforte and Sestina in Homage, use the sestina for a musical scaffolding (with Sestina in Homage, no text has been identified). Al poco giorno demonstrates an entirely different approach from the earlier two works. It was most likely composed in 1932 between the completion of the Sonate Ghuidonis, related to the Cavalcanti opera, and the start of a third opera, Collis O Heliconii. The fluidity of the music profits from liberties taken for the Larghetto of the Sonate Ghuidonis and the Frottola, Pound’s penultimate violin work. Al poco giornois a stylistically cohesive and original work, arguably Pound’s most musically accomplished piece. It can be considered part translation, with the word rhythms traduced (though not strictly) into music, and part setting of words to music, the florid patterns in this late work breaking with the composer’s earlier practice of assigning one syllable to one pitch. Pound instead assigned the individual lines of the poem to a dedicated bar of music and indicated the line numbers to which the music corresponds in each sestet in the left margin of his score.


What Pound said:

Pound compared the sestina form to a “thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself” (Spirit of Romance 27).

“I do think musical notation is the damndest thing to get simple facts from ever invented. Perfectly simple AFTER the fact, but impenetrable before it.” (Pound letter to Agnes Bedford, 1921 (?) in Hughes and Fisher Cavalcanti xv).


Music and Vorticism

Pound honors Dante by setting his poem, just as Dante has honored Arnaut Daniel with Al poco giorno. Daniel is credited with inventing the sestina form with his poem Lo ferm voler [full text here:           http://www.trobar.org/troubadours/arnaut_daniel/arnaut_daniel_09.php].

Miranda Hickman’s chapter “Vorticism” in Ezra Pound in Context targets Pound’s interest in the sestina form to show how the sestina relates to his changing perspective on the role of the image in poetry; this, at a time of great disaffection with Imagism as a movement. Hickman argues that Pound sought to imbue the image with energy and “prowess” (Hickman 291). The underlying concept of Vorticism, the arts movement named by Pound and announced by Wyndham Lewis in the 1914 literary journal Blast, appeared at the beginning of Pound’s essay “Vortex” (Blast 153): “The vortex is the point of maximum energy.” Hickman goes on to say that Pound found precedence for such robust poetry in the life and work of the troubadours in general, and in Arnaut Daniel and Bertran de Born specifically, poets of the sestina form, and “figures who joined extraordinary aesthetic skill with dynamic warrior prowess” (Hickman 291).

After Hickman’s description of the relations between the sestina, certain poets and Vorticism, we might consider Pound’s musical foray into the sestina form, with his use of melodicles to fuel the noun-image at the end of each line (more on this below), as an effort to resist the noun-image as a static object or concept and to create a Vorticist music. That resistance started with Imagism in 1912, with Pound’s emphasis on musically inflected rhythms (versus rocking horse rhythms). Vorticism followed in 1914, ramping the idea of movement in music up to the generation of maximum energy: putting everything in motion around a central theme, pattern, idea, sound, shape or word. When Pound began to set François Villon’s words to music in 1920 he emphasized horizontal movement in both melody and rhythm. In 1921, he directed his attention to melopoeia where the word relations impart musical properties. He began his musical composition Sestina: Altaforte in 1924, a high-octane virtuosic piece left in rough copy and the most Vorticist of his musical works. It is built upon short musical phrases that bear a similarity to each other, asymmetric rhythms and triple- and quadruple-stops, which on the violin must be played as broken chords. These techniques lend the work a flickering quality. With the composition of Al poco giorno in 1932, the composer solves the problem of a musical sestina by means of the “melodicle,” which moves forward, backward and in retrograde, resembling “the thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself.”

The full score for Al poco giorno is published in Complete Violin Works of Ezra Pound (frontispiece and pp. 126–129). Portions of the above text are drawn from this work. All rights reserved.



Composer Lou Harrison gave us the word melodicle to refer to “short motifs which are turned backwards and upside down to create a musical mode the piece is based on” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lou_Harrison). Melodicles are horizontal constructs as opposed to harmonic ones; they are melody and not harmony. The intervals and direction of movement in a melodicle set the pattern, rather than specific pitches or note durations. Pound’s prescient use of melodic phrases to structure a musical work, ubiquitous in his works of the 1931–1933 period, fits well within Harrison’s definition. Chief among Pound’s melodicles in Al poco giorno is a rising group of three or four notes, their intervals generally incorporating a major or minor third and then a whole or half step. In the first sestet printed below, the first melodicle appears once in bar 1. The horizontal bracket indicates which notes belong to the melodicle. The same melodicle (not always the same pitches or rhythms) occurs twice in bars 2 and 4. 


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The opening or first sestet of Pound’s setting of Dante’s sestina Al poco giorno (55 seconds)



Recording: Nathan Rubin, violin, track 13, Ego scriptor cantilenae: The Music of Ezra Pound, OM 2005-2 CD è 2003.

All rights reserved. Used by permission. Purchase.

This melodicle also appears backwards, (called an “inversion”), in bars 2 and 3. Where the original rises a third at the beginning, in an inversion it falls a third at the beginning. The same melodicle appears in “retrograde” at the end of bar 1, in the middle of bar 2 and 3. Retrograde indicates that the melodicle is written upside down; that is, if the original melodicle ends with a half or whole step, the retrograde will begin with a half or whole step. (The term “inversion” is also used in harmonic construction, but a chord structure in a first or second inversion is not relevant in this discussion of melodicles.)

Listen to the audio excerpt while following the music graphic, with attention on bar 4 (it continues onto the next line of music). This florid figure at the end of bar 4 puts the final noun of the fourth line, il verde, into action.

There is no time signature. The time is on a basis of “eighth note = eighth note always.” This gives Pound greater freedom. Whereas the Villon opera was filled with time signatures for each bar that had to be justified by the note durations inside the bar, here Pound places one entire verse line inside a bar of music and is free to assign note durations without having to add them up. Suggested tempo is “quarter note = 54.” This will keep the eighth notes moving with equal value to each other—all other notes are multiples of or fractions of the eighth note at this tempo. By not sticking to his usual one-word-to-one-pitch assignment, Pound embarks on something new in this work.

The music is not intended to be sung, though word assignment for the first sestet is not difficult to guess. Regarding rhythmic development, all the subsequent stanzas or sestets are unique in their horizontal rhythmic presentation. There is no attempt by Pound to relate the measure or rhythmic quantity to the previous sestet. The melodicles give the work its cohesive structure. In this piece you hear the play back and forth of the melodicles that move from triple to duple rhythms and this coheres the six sections.

Student Projects:

How would you assign the words to Dante’s poem to the music?

Are the melodicles related to units of verse? Dante’s word rhythms?

Follow Pound’s preference regarding notating rhythm and prosody:Emmanuel, Maurice, "Grèce," Encyclopédie de la Musique et Dictionnaire du Conservatoire, Albert Lavignac and Lionel de la Laurencie. Paris: Librairie Delagrave, 1921: 377–537.


Music as literary criticism

Pound chose music as his favored method by which to know a work of poetry and to conserve the “live part” of that poetry of the past. His music reiterates a poem’s structure and its rhythms as well as the “the tonal leadings of the words” as they were spoken; that is, tones or pitches commonly associated with spoken words and with their groupings. These were his guiding principles for setting words to music. (Pound, “Song,” unpublished essay, YCAL 43, Box 136, Folder 5938, Beinecke Library). The violin works, as well as the first two operas, demonstrate Pound’s conclusion that music composition may function as a comparative poetics of form. Pound set to music many texts representing a diversity of poetic idioms—ballad, canzone, lay, frottola, sestina, roundel, strambotto, among others.

Student Projects:

Define each of these idioms. How would you create a musical structure to represent three of them?

Given the above discussion, how would you test whether Sestina in Homage is based on a source text, as yet unnamed?



1296–1297 (?) - Dante writes Al poco giorno

1924 - Composition of Sestina Altaforte [Pound’s only known setting of his own words].

1924–25 (?) - Composition of Sestina in Homage.

1932, mid-August - Composition of Al poco giorno.

1983, March 28 - World premiere, Nathan Rubin, violin, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, with Olga Rudge in attendance, produced by the Arch Ensemble for Experimental Music.

2001, March 9 - Nathan Rubin, violin, Other Minds Festival 7, Fort Mason Center.

2003 - Audio recording released: “Al poco giorno.” Ego Scriptor Cantilenae. The Music of Ezra Pound. Track 13. Nathan Rubin, violin. OtherMinds label OM 1005-2 CD .

2004 - Engraved music score with analysis/commentary by Robert Hughes: Complete Violin Works of Ezra Pound , Second Evening Art (Emeryville CA).


Source manuscript:

Ezra Pound Papers, YCAL 53 Box 44 Folder 988, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.



Alighieri, Dante. Dante’s Lyric Poems. Tr. Joseph Tusiani. Ottawa: Legas Publishing, 1999.Durling, Robert M. and Ronald L. Martinez. Time and the Crystal. Studies in Dante's Rime Petrose. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Hickman, Miranda. “Vorticism.” Ezra Pound in Context. Ed. Ira Nadel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.

Hughes, Robert, ed. Complete Violin Works of Ezra Pound with engraved music scores and commentary. Emeryville CA: Second Evening Art, 2004.

Hughes, Robert, and Margaret Fisher, eds. Cavalcanti: A Perspective on the Music of Ezra Pound. Emeryville CA: Second Evening Art, 2003.


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