by Margaret Fisher




Pound’s musical setting of Guido Cavalcanti’s philosophical canzone Donna mi prega (late thirteenth century) richly rewards the scholar interested in Pound’s application of personae, medievalism and rhythmic proportions to his poetry as well as the scholar interested in methods of translation and criticism. The canzone would become the centerpiece of Pound’s second opera Cavalcanti, composed between 1931 and 1933. Written for radio, the opera emphasizes the hearing (vs. the reading) of Cavalcanti’s poetic and philosophic oeuvre. The opera engages with medieval philosophy, at times humorously, as when Pound references Averroës in connection with the Donna mi prega aria. Of all the arias in the opera, Donna mi prega best demonstrates Pound’s conclusion that music composition may function as literary criticism.


July 1928: Pound’s first translation of “Donna mi prega,” published in The Dial 85. 

January 1932: This same translation is published as Guido Cavalcanti Rime by Edizioni Marsano, Genoa.

Summer 1932: Pound sets “Donna mi prega” to music as an aria for Act II of his opera Cavalcanti and at summer’s end he sends his score to Agnes Bedford in London for comment.

April 1934: Pound’s new translation of “Donna mi prega” appears in Harkness Hoot IV.4: 26–29; and later that year as Canto XXXVI in Eleven New Poems (Farrar and Rinehart, NY, October 1934).

September 1934: Pound writes that music composition may function as literary criticism in the essay “Dateline” (Ezra Pound, Make It New, Faber and Faber, London, September 1934).

 Musical Timeline

Composed: summer of 1932 by Pound, not performed in his lifetime. The music was considered “lost” or “unfinished.”

Recovered and Reconstituted: by Robert Hughes 1982–1983. Olga Rudge provided Hughes access to music from among her personal papers; Mary de Rachewiltz facilitated Hughes’ access to the uncatalogued music among the Ezra Pound Papers at the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Concert Premiere: 28 March 1983 at the Herbst Theatre, San Francisco by the Arch Ensemble, conducted by Robert Hughes, sung by Thomas Buckner. Olga Rudge in attendance at the premiere.

Stage Premiere: 13, 14 July 2000 at the Nuovo Teatro di Bolzano by the Conductus Ensemble. Aria arranged and directed by Marcello Fera, sung by Marco Camastra. Produced by Mary de Rachewiltz.

 Music in translation

Did Pound’s immersion in music composition influence the new translation? If so, how?

One way to begin to answer this question is to compare the first two lines of the Italian with Pound’s English 1928 and 1934 translations:

Donna mi priegha /perch’i volglio dire 
D’un accident / che sovente / é fero

Because a lady asks me, I would tell 
Of an affect that comes often and is fell (1928)

A lady asks me
                  I speak in season
She seeks reason for an affect, wild often (1934)

As in the Cavalcanti canzone, end rhymes, double and internal rhymes, assonance and alliteration play a role in both of Pound’s translations. Other clues can be found in the phrasal durations, and in the posé and levé characteristics of the syllables (Maurice Emmanuel’s terms for long and short values in Greek poetry, Pound’s favored method in the early 1930s for considering syllabic weight [David Gordon, “Ezra Pound to Mary Barnard,” Paideuma 23.1:165–170]). 

Toward an answer, I offer a graphic rendering of Cavalcanti’s sonic scaffolding (example 1) and rhythmic transcriptions of Pound’s reading of Cavalcanti’s poem (example 2) and the musical values Pound assigned his aria, “Donna mi prega” (example 3). 

Example 1


Example 2

(Note: One does not need to read music. Add the top numbers of the fractions given.) 


Example 3

(Note: One does not need to read music.
See the top numbers of the fractions and/or their translation into musical ratios or intervals.) 


Pound’s setting of the poem’s first six lines has a duration scheme with these harmonic equivalents:

5th     5th    /   unison    5th   /   5th  5th     //    5th    5th    /   unison    5th   /   maj. 3rd   5th  (last 2 lines not shown)

Donna mi prega, strophe 1 (43 seconds): 

Envoi (54 seconds):

Private recording. Baritone: Joshua Bloom; Piano: Rae Imamura.  © 2001, 2014.  Second Evening Art Publishing. All rights reserved. 

For more information on Pound’s use of phrase duration and line duration in his poetry, see  The Echo of Villon in Ezra Pound’s Music and Poetry: Duration Rhyme (from the Le Testament 1923 Facsimile Edition) More examples of duration rhyme are here. 

 What Pound said of the aria:

(Letter, Pound to Agnes Bedford, 20 August 1932, Ezra Pound MSS, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana).

 “The Donna mi prega is the twister/ tour de force and danger zone”

Bibliography :

Ardizzone, Maria Luisa. Guido Cavalcanti: The Other Middle Ages. Princeton: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Cavalcanti, Guido.  Guido Cavalcanti, The Complete Poems. Trans. Marc Cirigliano. New York: Ithaca Press, 1992.

Cavalcanti, Guido. Rime. Ed., Intro., Trans. Ezra Pound. Genova: Edizioni Marsano S.A., 1932.

Cavalcanti, Guido. The Selected Poetry of Guido Cavalcanti: A Critical English Edition. Ed. Simon West. Leicester UK: Troubadour Publishing, 2009.

Fisher, Margaret. Cavalcanti, Ezra Pound’s Philosophical Opera <http://independent.academia.edu/MargaretFisher/Papers>

Keller, David Michael. Ezra Pound and Guido CavalcantiThe Poetics of Translation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974.

Pound, Ezra. “Cavalcanti” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, New York: New Directions Publishing, 1968. 149-200.

Pound, Ezra. Cavalcanti: A Perspective on the Music of Ezra Pound, double volume with engraved music score, libretto, background, analysis, commentary.  Eds. Robert Hughes and Margaret Fisher. Emeryville CA: Second Evening Art, 2003.

Pound, Ezra. Pound's Cavalcanti, Ed. David Anderson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.