A New Verse Translation
Seamus Heaney
George Guidall

(Recorded Books)
Beowulf and his brother Geats (with names like Hrotholf, Heremod, Hæthro, Hygelac, Heardred, Halfdan, Halga, Hyselac, and Heoroweard) go abroad to do battle with Grendel, an uncouth troll. Grendel attacks the local mead-hall, "Heorot," late at night when the thanes are passed out on the floor. He drinks their blood and, ug, eats them. But then Beowulf arrives, rips off Grendel's arm, and the troll retreats to a neighboring swamp to die.

Grendel's mother comes the very next night, finds everyone drunk, murders and drags off Hrothgar's counselor Æschere to her underwater lair for later consumption. Beowulf follows her there and beheads her.

Thereinafter, Beowulf returns home and lives a long, peaceful life as king of Geatland, but, after fifty years, a nearby dragon awakes to terrorize the neighborhood. Beowulf gets a sword (named "Nægling" --- all the swords have names) and goes off with his soldiers to the dragon's lair to kill it. He and Wiglaf do battle with the monster and finally dispatch it but Beowulf has been nipped and is fatally poisoned.

He asks his friend to bring the dragon treasure so he can have one last look. Wiglaf brings out gold helmets, rings, chain-mail, plates, forks and spoons and Beowulf promptly dies. He is buried on the hill overlooking the ocean. There is much lamenting by Hrotholf, Heremod, Hæthro, Hygelac, Heardred, Halfdan, Halga, Hyselac, Heoroweard et al.

§     §     §

The reading here by George Guidall is wonderful and Seamus Heaney's translation is equally wonderful. Norton just published a new "Illustrated Edition," edited by John D. Niles. It contains over a hundred glorious (and gory) photographs of Anglo-Saxon artifacts --- including the ones shown above --- as well as swords, bracelets, drinking-horns, and a few menacing medieval helmets.

In Heaney's version of Beowulf, we also find one of the finest passages ever composed in Anglo-Saxon (or modern English, for that matter). It is called the "Father's Lament." It is a man contemplating the death of his son which, Heaney says, "rises like emanations from some fissure in the bedrock of the human capacity to endure."

    The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
    Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
    that his child has gone; he has no interest
    in living on...
    Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
    and sings a lament, everything seems too large,
    the steadings and the fields.

--- Carlos Amantea

A Listener's Guide to
The Master of the Piano

Victor Lederer
(Amadeus Press)
In 1945, those of us who were still impressionable could watch Cornell Wilde playing Frederic Chopin in A Song to Remember, with Merle Oberon as George Sand. There is that famous, fatal scene: Chopin (in the midst of a concert) leans back for inspiration, leans forward, the camera leans forward too, and there, on one of the white keys, falls a splotch of blood. Tuberculosis! What a chill!

As Lederer explains, TB isn't all that fine and delicate. It is slow and heavy and brutal, makes the victim feel as if he is drowning, slowly. Towards the end of his life, Chopin was forced lie down while giving lessons to his students in Paris and London. Besides spending much of his short life dying, Chopin had to put up with George Sand and her nicknames: "my boy," "Frik-Frik" and "Chip-Chip."

Lederer claims that Chopin was "the greatest composer for the piano." Josef, Wolfgang, Ludwig, Robert, Claude: are you still there? The biographer then goes on to offer the opinion that Chopin was "one of the two or three greatest pianists ever to play the instrument." This leaves out a couple of others, the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Hummel ... along contemporary artists such as Angela Hewitt or even jazz musicians like Art Tatum (to name a very few).

At times, the writing in this "Listener's Guide" can border on the scandalous. Chopin is referred to as "the Pithy Pole." The first part of the Opus 10 is described as being "heaven-scaling." The Opus 26 number 2 opens with three "softly muttered phrases, the first deep and rumbling, the second the boiled-down essence of the polonaise rhythm in a thickly clotted harmony."

    This leads into a shrieking climax ... the second theme ... builds quickly into a series of angry downward runs that balance the scream of the opening page, before collapsing into another chain of muttered phrases that leads into a reprise of the opening.

We would like to introduce Lederer to Edmund Morris who has written a magnificent book on Beethoven (reviewed in this issue). This, for example, is Morris on the Fifth Piano Concerto, dedicated to Archduke Rudolph: It "was likely to stretch the young man in more ways than one, being the longest and most difficult showpiece yet attempted in the concerto literature."

    Cast in E-flat major ... this new concerto exactly fulfilled the hope of the Annuity Agreement, that he would "create works of magnitude which are exalted and which ennoble art."

Morris concludes by calling it "luxuriously large, melodically sumptuous."

§     §     §

Be that as it may, you might want to purchase the Listener's Guide if for no other reason than to get the free disk, Idil Bioret playing, and playing beautifully, sixteen of Chopin's works. In my opinion, the three best of the best are the

  • Prelude in E minor (Opus 28, Number 4);
  • Prelude in A minor (Opus 28, number 2); and
  • Ballade Number 4, in F minor (Opus 53).

--- Richard Saturday

Gentlemen of
The Road

Michael Chabon
Andre Braugher

(Random House Audio)
Evidently the New York Times is enchanted enough by Chabon's writings to have serialized Gentlemen of the Road. The publisher describes it as "a wonderful new novel brimming with breathless action, raucous humor, cliff-hanging suspense, and a cast of colorful characters worthy of Scheherazade's most tantalizing tales."

Go figure. It is a picaresque tale of two ruffians in and about the Caucasus in or about 950 A. D. It is alternatively convoluted, whimsical, and obfuscatory --- perhaps a 10th Century version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but not as much fun, certainly not as accessible.

In fact, we were so buffaloed by Gentlemen of the Road that we gave up in the middle of disk three (of four). Which puzzled us greatly, because we were absolutely enchanted by the aural version of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, couldn't get enough of it, played parts of it over again, went out and bought the book for a friend (a reviewer buying a book!)

Gentlemen of the Road, whatever its occasional joys --- a con-game, a rough fellowship between big, black Amram and long-suffering Jewish Zelikman physician --- just doesn't cut the mustard.

--- Tim Ferris
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