from five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity

by pieces of moments

I was a 17 years old when I picked up The Portrait of a Lady for the first time. Then I couldn’t put it down. I devoured it, staying up until all hours of the night immersed within the unfolding plot that was the life of Isabel Archer. Her high spirited independence resonated with my own and as I empathized with her and was terrified and appalled along with her when her fate was revealed. To me the tale seemed true, mesmerizing, and told with the utmost mastery of the English language. To this day it is my single favorite book and from that moment on, Henry James became my single favorite author.

I wish I could tell you that I have read the entirety of the Henry James oeuvre, but I haven’t…yet (though I’ve read a fair amount to date). I have, however, since those high school days also come to appreciate his brother William James’ phenomenal philosophical output worded so beautifully that it downright rivals his brother’s most eloquent novels. This love for their cumulative literary yield sparked a curiosity regarding the family as a whole. While I have spent time reading bits here and there I had yet to dive into a full biography on the family. So, thank you, Josh, for alerting me to the newly published biography on the James family, House of Wits by Wellesley College professor of English, Paul Fisher. Having only purchased it last evening I haven’t yet gotten too far into it, but what I have read has been well put, intriguing, and extremely difficult to put down (perhaps not too convenient for this moment since I have annotation copy due on Friday…oh well…I can sleep on the weekend).

Speaking of which, I need to get back to work…Bach cantatas anyone?

Oh, but first, I have to mention that I think the beautifully adapted movie version of The Portrait of a Lady (directed by Jane Campion) has the most trenchant use of Franz Schubert’s so called “Death and the Maiden” string quartet (D. 810) in film.  If one considers the lyrics (below) of Schubert’s original lied (song) version of the same (D. 531) within the context of what is happening to Isabel through her marriage to the controling egomaniac, Gilbert Osmand – a marriage into which he coaxed her with gentle promises hiding his true motive (spoiler: the commodity of her money and to collect her like another piece of art) only to, in the end, purposefully “kill” her independent spirit – the musical subtext of the film through employing this piece is pretty potent. […and that was a James length sentence in honor of the occasion..]

Lyrics (from a poem by Matthias Claudius):

Das Mädchen:
 "Vorüber! ach, vorüber!
 Geh, wilder Knochenmann!
 Ich bin noch jung, geh, Lieber!
 Und rühre mich nicht an."

Der Tod:
 "Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild',
 Bin Freund und komme nicht zu strafen.
 Sei gutes Muts! Ich bin nicht wild,
 Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen."

The Maiden:
 "It's all over! alas, it's all over now!
 Go, savage man of bone!
 I am still young - go, devoted one!
 And do not molest me."

Death:
 "Give me your hand, you fair and tender form!
 I am a friend; I do not come to punish.
 Be of good cheer! I am not savage.
 You shall sleep gently in my arms."

Film (with Nicole Kidman and my Cambridge neighbor John Malkovich):

String Quartet (excerpt with the Alban Berg Quartet performing):

Lied (Régine Crespin performing, accompanist unknown):

BONUS!

Steven Malkmus‘ cover of “Death and the Maiden” by The Verlaines:

But wait! There’s MORE!

The original from The Verlaines:

I love The Verlaines. How cool is it that they are singing about Paul Verlaine? Gabriel and Claude sure dug him, setting his poems to music and all that jazz. And did you know that frontman (Dr.) Graeme Downes digs Mahler and Shostakovich and is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Rock Music at the University of Otago (New Zealand)? Nice.

Now back to Bach…

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