In 1964, George Gopen, then a Brandeis undergraduate, was spending a lonely summer in Boston. To occupy his time, he went to every play staged by the Theater Company of Boston. “Room for 75 people on Little League benches and all the cockroaches you could eat,” Gopen recalled recently.
One of the company’s productions was T.S. Eliot’s play “The Cocktail Party.” In the program notes, Gopen noticed four lines from “Little Gidding,” the last of four long sections that make up Eliot’s poem “Four Quartets”:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
“They knocked me over,” said Gopen of the words. He immediately bought a copy of “Four Quartets” and took it to the Public Garden to read aloud. He repeated the ritual every month for years. “I didn’t understand a word of it, but my God, I loved it. The music of the poetry was there for me immediately.”
The poetry, and its music, will be on display on Wednesday in a hybrid performance in the Electric Earth Concerts series. Gopen’s reading of “Four Quartets” will be preceded by a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130 (including the “Grosse Fuge”) by the Chiara Quartet.
So what constitutes the music of this poem? One clue, of course, is the title, with its reference to the string quartet form. Another is an often-quoted letter from Eliot to poet Stephen Spender in which he mentions the “heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety” of Beethoven’s A-minor Quartet, Op. 132. “I should like to get something of that into verse before I die,” he wrote. A few years later, he began work on “Four Quartets.”
“What Eliot was doing was to try to get words to talk to each other in much the same way that Beethoven uses notes and motifs and dynamics and chord progressions, in the late quartets especially,” Gopen said, pointing to the way Eliot will vary elements like the length of a line, or the number and placement of its metrical stresses.“Every time he does that, it’s like a change of tempo, a change of dynamic.”
There is also Eliot’s teasing out of ideas, repeating and varying them across stretches of a poem, much as Beethoven and other composers elucidate an apparently simple theme. A virtuoso demonstration of this, said Gopen, is the opening of “Burnt Norton,” the first part of “Four Quartets.” In three lines, Eliot states an idea about the interrelatedness of past, present, and future, then goes on to slightly modify it five times, like a compact set of variations on a theme.
It may sound a bit academic, and Eliot’s language is often forbidding. But Gopen said that the music of the poetry emerges with a kind of primal force when it is read aloud, as he will do at the concert.
“If you didn’t understand English and you listened to me read the poem, you would be able to hear what I think the music of it is,” he said.
For her part, Rebecca Fischer, the Chiara’s first violinist, sees both “Four Quartets” and Beethoven’s Op. 130 as aiming at a dimension that transcends the human world. “When I think about the ‘Four Quartets,’ I start thinking of things that are not explainable,” said Fischer, who is married to a poet and called the poem “dear to my heart.” “I start thinking about Virginia Woolf, late James Joyce — all of these artists, writers, who are trying to put into words something that is intangible,” much as Beethoven had done in his late works. Like Gopen, she thinks that the juxtaposition of the music and the poetry will change the audience’s experience of each.
“They have this wonderful, sensual experience, this pairing, which is that the words are not merely words. The music is not merely music. They inform each other in some very special way. It’s a kind of in-between experience.”David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org