The Chamber Music Club

03 Feb 2020 4:47 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

References to music run through Eliot’s letters to Hale, especially during his year at Harvard, when he had the opportunity to attend numerous concerts. Chamber music especially seems to have been a taste that Hale shared with him, or perhaps encouraged him to develop. In a famous published letter to Stephen Spender,  Eliot wrote: “I have [Beethoven’s] A minor quartet on the gramophone, and find it quite inexhaustible to study.  There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaity [sic] about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse once before I die” (Letters 5.529). This passage, which indicates Eliot’s long-germinating idea to write Beethoven’s late quartets into a poem,  appears almost verbatim two weeks earlier in his 16 March 1931 letter to Hale. Here he writes that he cannot endure any other music besides Beethoven and Brahms, especially not the painful Tristan und Isolde with its personal associations. His feeling for Wagner may be sentimental, he admits on May 1, but the music still moves him, whereas Stravinsky’s power has faded. Beethoven and Brahms are his favorites (he says again), but he has just heard a string quartet by Tchaikovsky which he likes better than the symphonies. He listens to music only on the radio or if he can afford to buy a record.

In Cambridge, Eliot begins attending live concerts at the elegant Chamber Music Club and is made an honorary member. Here on 13 November he hears the Burgin Quartet (Richard Burgin was concertmaster of the Boston Symphony) play Mozart K. 387, a Martinu duet, and Beethoven’s op. 59 no. 1 (“Razumovsky”), which he particularly admires and would like to emulate in his writing. He encloses the program for Hale to see, including program notes recounting the original reception of Beethoven’s quartet in England as “crazy music.” He attends the club again in early February to hear music by Hindemith and Brahms, which he finds delightful. A few days later he hears Bach and Chopin played by Ignacy Paderewski, whose playing he praises but who strikes him as a tired man trying to make money. During the same week he also hears Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 and recommends it highly to Hale, asking her if she has been to any performances herself? These glowing descriptions of concerts in his letters to Hale contrast with his relatively meager references to music in published letters.

Finally, at a chamber concert on 19 March 1933, Eliot hears a piece by Bach and Stravinsky’s L'Histoire du Soldat. The drummer was excellent—just what he would like for Sweeney Agonistes. He admits to liking Stravinsky after all, for he feels that he, Stravinsky, and Picasso have much in common. And he adds a piece of information that will be of interest to all who listen for musical influences in Eliot’s poetry: “The Hollow Men” owes a debt to Petrouchka


  • 03 Feb 2020 7:15 PM | Sara Fitzgerald
    Eliot's concert-going may have been focused on Cambridge in his 1932-33 year. As you may remember, Emily Hale's paternal uncle was a music critic who wrote the program notes for the Boston Symphony concerts during that era. Conveniently, here's a list of what the symphony played that season, which included some of the composers you mentioned, if not necessarily those pieces.
    Link  •  Reply
  • 03 Feb 2020 10:34 PM | CR Mittal
    “you are the music / While the music lasts”
    Link  •  Reply
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