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Pottery, Music and a Garden

In its opening, “Burnt Norton” (1935) leads us from abstract relativisation of sequential time “into the rose-garden”. The experience is imbued with factual uncertainty: “what might have been,” “the passage which we did not take,” “the door we never opened,” “shall we follow?,” “then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty”. Garden seclusion and the oxymoronic “unheard music hidden in the shrubbery” are part of the scene, a moment out of time.

The poet associates these moments with the simultaneity of opposites such as sound and silence, or movement and stillness. Speech and music need silences, figures on surfaces give the impression of movement, and a sustained musical note one of stillness:

[…] Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the coexistence, […]
(“Burn Norton” V)

In The Confidential Clerk (1953), similar images become central. For Sir Claude, pottery balances the demands of his life as a financier; Colby – his new confidential clerk – is equally transported when he plays the piano. These escapes through art allow them to experience time in a subjective way, to – in Sir Claude’s words – “go through the private door / Into the real world”. It is coherent with the transcendent vision of Four Quartets that this dimension should be more real than the predictable aspects of everyday life.

Lucasta refers to Colby’s music as his secret garden. Yet, he wishes “God would walk in my garden,” so as “not to be alone there”. Similarly, the pleasure that Sir Claude derives from pottery “takes the place of religion”. As a result, their “real world” of artistic fulfilment feels as unreal as the surface of life. If Sir Claude has pottery and Colby music, Eggerson – former confidential clerk – has gardening. His actual garden at Joshua Park is Colby’s ideal: it is not lonely and unreal, but “a part of one single world”.

Early in the play, Eggerson invites Colby to see his garden in the spring. He also predicts that “some day,” his replacement will “want a garden of his own”. Colby finally decides to move in with the Eggersons at Joshua Park and make a living as an organist, unifying both his worlds as real. Furthermore, Colby’s new life also materialises the ethereal rose-garden of “Burnt Norton”.

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Pizzetti’s “Assassinio nella Cattedrale”

Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Beckett in Assassinio nella Cattedrale

The Italian opera Assassinio nella Cattedrale, by Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), premiered at the Teatro alla Scala (Milan) in 1958. It was also produced, a few months later, at the Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona). According to a note on the programme of this production, Pizzetti’s son had read Eliot’s play in English and recommended it to his father. In 1948, Pizzetti and his wife attended a performance of Eliot’s play, and she remarked that Murder in the Cathedral seemed perfect for him to adapt to opera.

In the early twentieth century, the young Pizzetti worked in close collaboration with the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Some of his operas were inspired by Greek drama and myth; spirituality and symbolism were characteristic elements of his lyrical dramas. As his son and wife felt, Pizzetti seemed destined to compose Assassinio nella Cattedrale. He also wrote the libretto, drawing on the Italian translation of Eliot’s play by Alberto Castelli. The structure of the original text is mirrored by the opera: two acts and an intermezzo in which Beckett’s Christmas sermon, somewhere between operatic and liturgical singing, is accompanied by an orchestral arrangement both lyrical and full of foreboding.

Before this intermezzo, the conclusion of Act I illustrates what Pizzetti’s opera offers: Beckett’s soul-searching and his final surrender to God’s will can be heard as a dramatic aria, sung in a powerful bass voice; the choir of Canterbury women warn the Archbishop, singing at the top of their voices, or in whispers and glissandos (two of them, prima and secunda corifea, soprano and mezzosoprano, singularize the choral lament); the polyphony of the tempters (two basses, a baritone and a tenor who also play the knights in Act II) contribute to the growing tension; finally, a full orchestra brings the first half of the opera to a climactic close, echoing the protagonist’s leitmotif.

A review of the Liceu production of Assassinio nella Cattedrale cautioned those accustomed to nineteenth-century bel canto: they would find Pizzetti’s opera challenging. He was, after all, a Modernist, a contemporary of Stravinsky or Bartók; curiously, he became Olga Rudge’s mentor and friend in Rome. Despite its high reputation, the opera adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral has seldom been programmed (Pizzetti’s fascist sympathies have not helped). A recent production, filmed at the Basilica di San Nicola di Bari and with Ruggero Raimondi as the Arcivescovo Tommaso di Canterbury, can be viewed here.