Robert Hughes and Margaret Fisher



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The Ezra Pound Music Project

                                                                          by Margaret Fisher


     Robert Hughes' interest in Ezra Pound’s poetry goes back to college courses at the University of Buffalo (now SUNY Buffalo) with Pound scholars Forrest Read, Miles Slatin and Thomas Connelly. In 1958, Bob and Forrest brought a recorder quartet down to St. Elizabeths to perform chamber music for Pound. Knowing he had owned and played the bassoon, and being a bassoonist himself, Bob offered Pound his own instrument. When Pound declined, Bob played the bassoon for him.

     In 1960, Bob was in Rapallo hoping to meet with the poet to discuss a performance of Le Testament. But Pound was not speaking. Bob then met with Dorothy, who asked the BBC to send him a copy of the Le Testament 1923 score from their microfilm(a copy of the LOC microfilm made at the request of Sheri Martinelli).It took ten years to find a California sponsor to stage the opera. Western Opera Theatre, the educational and training arm of the San Francisco Opera, would finally sponsor a stage premiere on November 13, 1971. Bob would then conduct the work at the newly opened Zellerbach Auditorium on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Funding for a studio recording was secured from the Ford Foundation. Saul Zantz’s Fantasy Records donated the necessary studios, engineers and one hundred (!) hours of editing time. With the release of the LP vinyl record in 1972 Bob believed the project had concluded.

     He continued his career as composer, conductor and orchestra musician. Our paths crossed in 1976 on the stage of the Cabrillo Music Festival in Aptos. He was conducting. I was dancing. A new opera by Beth Anderson. By 1978 we were collaborating on performance works. In 1980, we were invited by the Venice Biennale to perform a work that took inspiration from the writings of the entomologist Jean Henri Fabré. Between rehearsals, Bob phoned Olga, who invited us to tea at Calle Querini. She introduced us to her friend Jane Rylands, perched herself atop an old steamer trunk and joked about her many visitors who hoped to find the poet’s papers stashed in a trunk, as in Henry James’s Aspern Papers. There is a bit of truth in that.

    Olga attended our Biennale debut. That summer we were back in Venice with Bob’s precocious Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, performing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mahler’s Tenth and Bob’s Estampie in the Church of the Frari. The priests overloaded the electrical system while trying to light a ninety-piece orchestra and the electrical panel caught fire! The show, however, did go on, with Olga in attendance. Our friendship grew over the years. During a 1982 visit, she responded to a question about her role in the 1926 Le Testament salon performance by putting the music to Pound’s second opera Cavalcanti in Bob’s hands. Some of the Cavalcanti scores were known to scholars but this proved to be an important discovery – about half the opera. When Bob went to the Beinecke, Mary de Rachewiltz was in residence as curator of her father’s papers. At her suggestion, exploration of the uncatalogued boxes yielded the rest of the opera. The Pound music project was on again after a decade of silence.

     Bob’s new music group The Arch Ensemble produced a concert version of the opera in March of 1983. Olga flew to San Francisco to supervise rehearsals and attend the premiere at Herbst Theatre. I was now the copyist of Pound’s music and publicity director.

     In 1984 Bob and his son visited Olga in Venice. She brought forward a group of cassette tapes recorded in Calle Querini on a small home cassette recorder in the late years of Pound’s life. Many of the cassettes were unspooled and tangled. Bob suggested that they work together to transfer the tapes to reel-to-reel when she was in the U.S. for the 100th anniversary celebrations of Pound. They worked together in Bob’s studio in San Leandro, California. Olga identified the content, which included soundscapes of Pound’s days in Venice, conversations between Olga and Pound, and Pound reading from his work and that of others. Richard Sieburth and Walter de Rachewiltz have placed the “Aspern Tapes” on the PennSound web site.

     There were many questions still unanswered and the work carried on through the end of 2002. In 1989, Bob was at the Bellagio Study Center to compile the scores properly. Everything earlier had been done in a rush to the stage. I moved from music copyist to copy editor when Bob began to write his study of Pound’s music, and then to researcher to fill in the mystery of why Cavalcanti was never broadcast by the BBC. I published my findings independently as Ezra Pound’s Radio Operas, the BBC Experiments, 1931-1933 (The MIT Press, 2002) and continued to assist Bob with the Cavalcanti work, which grew into a double volume and led us to create the imprimatur Second Evening Art. The name refers to art to which we return, once or many times, in contradistinction to art meant to be experienced once, such as improvisation. Our first book was Cavalcanti: A Perspective on the Music of Ezra Pound (2003). It included Bob’s detailed account of Pound’s music training and methods, my contribution concerning the opera as a radio work, and a performance edition of the music score with libretto, beautifully engraved by Thomas Day. Complete Violin Works of Ezra Pound, edited by Bob and with my Introduction, was released in 2004. The following year, Recovery of Ezra Pound’s Third Opera, Collis O Heliconii, the second half of my dissertation, was published as the third book of what had evolved into a series titled The Music of Ezra Pound.

     A final, daunting task lay ahead – sorting out the dozens of music manuscripts of Le Testament, many of which were untitled sketches. The sketches are catalogued across various collections in the Beinecke Library, and across the boxes within each collection. Thanks to a Donald C. Gallup fellowship, we spent two months in residence at the Beinecke. We asked for a special dispensation of rules to allow more than one box to be released at a time, per scholar, per table, to permit comparison. This greatly facilitated the chronological ordering from sketch to final copy for the arias. The Beinecke generously made high resolution scans of the 1923 score of Le Testament for our use in a future volume in the series.

     At home in Emeryville, we faced the task of getting Fantasy Records to release the Testament master tapes to us so that we could digitize the music. Fantasy would not cooperate. However Bob found the original Ford Foundation contract that fortunately stipulated the master tapes would revert to the Literary Estate of Ezra Pound once the work was out of print. Tapes recovered, we received a license from New Directions to issue the opera on audio CD.

     Meanwhile, the fourth book was published with performance scores for the 1926 Salle Pleyel performance in Paris and the unperformed 1933 Testament score in simpler meters in Pound’s hand. The little known 1933 score had been turned out on the heels of the Cavalcanti opera. The music project was always turning up something new. I likened it to an infestation of fleas. We were silly enough to scratch. The project also faced strong headwinds. We had to destroy the entire first print run and fire the printer. We took on the manufacturing of the books ourselves and it gave us an opportunity to upgrade the binding in the process.

     The 1923 Le Testament facsimile edition was released in print with the new audio CD in 2011. Two e-books followed in 2013, the first being my essay on Villon and Pound’s Duration Rhyme that first appeared in the facsimile edition. The second on Great Bass was the other half of my dissertation.

     It has taken a sustained international effort well over half a century to move Pound’s music to a conspicuous place in Pound studies. Dorothy Pound and Olga Rudge actively promoted and in Olga’s case, performed, the music in Pound’s lifetime. Archie Harding of the BBC was another major producer of Pound’s music. Dorothy, Olga and Mary de Rachewiltz have played major roles in facilitating access to the music. D. G. Bridson, R. Murray Schafer, and the BBC in 1962 produced Le Testament a second time.  James Laughlin worked behind the scenes on behalf of the Testament stage premiere and the Bellagio residency. Peggy Fox took over regarding the Cavalcanti opera and Declan Spring followed her. Donald Gallup showed us music manuscripts and related correspondence from his collections and advised us on research avenues to pursue. Antonio Pantano and Gabriele Stocchi have moved mountains to help us with our research and our performance goals. Too often the musicians themselves fall out of notice. For a long time Stephen Adams’s and Archie Henderson’s dissertations were the ‘go to’ sources on Pound’s music. Murray Schafer has done a wonderful service to Pound studies both through the 1962 broadcast and his remarkable book Ezra Pound and Music (New Directions, 1977). It was the first published book on the subject. Ed Korn of Western Opera Theatre was a pivotal force, as were Reinbert de Leeuw (Holland) and Charles Mundye (UK), whose staged productions have added to our understanding of the opera beyond their performance venues, through their recordings. Marcello Fera conducted Cavalcanti in Merano (Italy) in 2002. Charles Amirkhanian, director of the new music festival and record label Other Minds, is a longtime promoter of Pound’s music. He broadcast interviews with Bob and Hugh Kenner in 1971, and produced the 2003 concert which was the basis for the Ego scriptor cantilenae audio CD. Among Pound scholars, Roxana Preda jumped at the chance to sponsor a music column, for which we are grateful. Last, because he is most recent and because his influence in Pound studies will be widespread and long-lasting, A. David Moody has brought Pound’s music into the biography of Pound’s works in a new and meaningful way. Music fills the sails of the first half of his second volume. His book, even more than the recordings, is the lynchpin that secures a place for music within Pound’s oeuvre. That in itself should change the way Pound’s music is woven into the tale of the tribe.