Stroke Darkly the Strings : On Paul Celan and Music
Abstract: The aim of this study is to disclose the oeuvre of the German-Romanian Holocaust survivor Paul Celan as a site of problematic yet productive encounters between poetry and music. It addresses, on the one hand, music as a thematic and structural element in Celan’s poetry and, on the other hand, contemporary musical works interacting with this poetry. These fields are brought together in close readings of poems and scores, to expose a dynamic of musico-literary metaphoricity: in poetry and music alike, the ‘other’ art can be understood as a metaphorical model (or anti-model) aimed at intermedial meta-reflection in the wake of aesthetic rupture and historical trauma.The seven chapters of the study demonstrate that music, although vastly neglected by previous research, is a central preoccupation of Celan’s from the earliest poems to the posthumous collections. His work repeatedly throws music into an ambivalent light, thus evading simplistic affirmation or refutation of poetic musicality. Inherited notions of music as paradigmatically pure, transcendent and numinous are either critically deconstructed in the poems, or serve as a poetological image of that from which Celan seeks to distance his work. When the poems tend towards identification with music, it is typically a music configured as terrestrial, corporeal and aimed at inter-human dialogue. For the contemporary compositions, the problem of reference and communication as presented by Celan’s poetry is an ideal means of challenging reductive formalism: by metaphorically projecting this poetry onto their structures, the musical works gain extra-musical relevance without compromising formal complexity. While the musical structures acquire semantic force via the poems, the constant questioning of referential meaning in Celan’s poetry leaks over into the music. Through such dynamic interaction, both poetry and music are able to critically reflect upon their own aesthetic preconditions in the late twentieth century.
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