It is often hard to find the language to describe the sounds and impact of a piece of music. In “The Music before the Music” we encounter horns that “plow and plant Beethoven’s/great fields,” “the brash cymbal,” “the wigged-out chug of a bass viol.” In this loud and layered poem, Jeanne Murray Walker uses precisely the right words to help us see and feel and hear the orchestra. She also, masterfully, invites us to ponder the rich origins of sound itself, the “unselfconscious style/before style,” a “grace that’s not yet botched.”
“The Music before the Music,” by Jeanne Murray Walker
When the concertmaster gestures to the oboe,
silence flutters through the massive hall.
Then comes the tuning up. Before that, though—
go back. Before the obedient violin falls
to his A, before the flutes, trombones,
and tuba head like horses in the same direction
to plow and plant one of Beethoven’s
great fields. Go back.
Hear the nickering run
of a scale, the brash cymbal. A bright lash
of squeaks, the wigged-out chug of a bass viol,
scripscraps of bang and clank, a swirling flash
of flotsam. Go back to unselfconscious style
before style. A grace that’s not yet botched—
before they know they’re being heard or watched.
Jeanne Murray Walker’s most recent books are Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poetry(Word Farm) and The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer’s (Hachette). She is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and teaches in the Seattle Pacific University MFA Program. Her website is www.JeanneMurrayWalker.com.