Tales of Edgar Allen Poe

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, performed on Oct 15, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Edgar Allan Poe died 150 years and eight days ago. It is one of the great ironies in literary history that he has had far more influence in Europe than he has had America, his native land. This is not to say that Poe has not become a household word. American school children for generations have been exposed to “The Raven” and the Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Poe has also done very well in Hollywood, in large measure as a result of the advocacy of director Roger Corman and actor Vincent Price. Though Poe wrote in a variety of genres, it is the author of horror and suspense, the creator of “Lenore,” that still has a grip on the popular imagination. But precisely his flirtation with the bizarre have prevented Poe from being widely accepted as a serious force in American letters. In the shaping of an American literary tradition, the Puritan legacy, the naïve optimism of a frontier mentality, the rhetorical majesty of Emerson and the epic power of Melville, have seemed far more pervasive and influential. Poe, whose writings have little to do with forging a national American identity, has traditionally been dismissed as derivatively European (though we might wonder how many pages of Poe a young American today is likely to have read, compared to pages of Emerson.)

It took Europe to recognize and convince America of Poe’s originality and significance. His neurotic characters and vague settings indeed did not seem “American,” but that doesn’t mean that Poe was Europhilic either. Rather, what interested Poe, and what in his writings spoke to many writers and artists especially in France and Russia, was the human mind in general, the psychological realm shortly to be explored by Freud, the Symbolists, and the Surrealists. Taking a step beyond E.T.A. Hoffmann, Poe used heavily symbolic narratives to explore our nightmares, and electrified such writers as Charles Baudelaire. It has not been until recently, however, that we have come to realize that in using condensed, overlaid narratives to dramatize the troubled mind, Poe proved himself American after all by transforming a genre that eventually became a seminal form in American literature–the short story.

In music, a similarly circuitous reaction occurred. European composers have long been inspired by Poe just as their literary contemporaries were, but American composers (with the exception of Edward Burlingame Hill) took little notice of Poe as a source for musical dramatization. From the mid-nineteenth century on, Poe’s peculiar mix of the supernatural and symbolic fascinated French and Russian composers who experimented with literary narrative and poetic texts as the basis for musical structure. Their sense of affinity between Poe’s writings and music perhaps rests in the amorphous, abstract, yet psychologically powerful qualities of Poe’s dramatic illustrations, which seem to resemble the qualities of music itself.

Appropriately, Poe provided the basis for one of the great mysteries of French music. Debussy worked for many years on a second opera, The Fall of the House of Usher, of which only an incomplete fragment remains, despite repeated efforts by noted musicians and scholars to construct a performable version. As the works of Schmitt and Debussy’s close friend Caplet indicate, Debussy’s fascination with Poe was not unique. When Russian intellectuals and artists, among them Turgenev, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev turned to Paris during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for inspiration and refuge from political oppression and cultural isolation, they asserted a singular resistance to Germanic culture (partly in response to the historical tensions between Germanic and Slavic politics and traditions). Through France, then, Poe’s ghost migrated to Russia. The connection in music history between French and Russian schools of composition is well-known. Hence the young Rachmaninoff encountered Poe (via Balmont) just a few years after Schmitt composed his Le palais hanté and Debussy was contemplating The Fall of the House of Usher.

The modern composer therefore has a substantial and even formidable tradition to draw upon when it comes to illustrating Poe in music. The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara implicitly confronts the French/Russian attraction to Poe by offering his own composition, based on “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.” Despite the striking development of a national school of composition in twentieth-century Finland, that country was for centuries caught between the twin dominations of Russia to the east and Sweden to the west. The music and culture of the countries of that geographical region–Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and northwestern Russia–display many common features, despite considerable difference in language and religion. Rautavaara’s text is based on the final two entries of Pym’s diary, which are also the final two paragraphs of Poe’s story (save the annotation). As Robert Layton points out, Rautavaara was attracted to the proposition of illustrating in music the inscrutable mystery represented by Pym’s fate.

This exploration of Poe through the prism of European music reminds us that, though we often think of American culture as derived from that of our European forbearers, the New World was also quite influential on the cultural self-image of the Old World. A sense of European dominance has especially defined the field of classical music, where American culture seemed wholly the prisoner of European practices, attitudes, and training. But Poe’s presence in literature and music demonstrates that some of the most innovative artistic developments arise from a cross-fertilization of cultural ideas. America has emancipated itself from a self-imposed cultural subordination to the English, French, and German models only in this century, but America’s contribution and threat has loomed large among Europeans since the seventeenth century. Thus, as the example of Poe makes plain, nineteenth-century European culture is unthinkable without the existence and influence of the Americans.