From the poem "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha" by Robert Browning (1812-1889), published in his 1855 collection Men and Women. The poem is a monologue by a church organist talking to the long-dead composer Hugues (rhymes with "fugues"), whose work the organist is trying to play. The organist has a lot of complaints, and the poem was probably some high-brow funny for 1855.
Saxe-Gotha is the area real composer Johann Sebastian Bach was from, but Browning made clear that Hugues is not Bach, but one of his much inferior, "dry-as-dust" imitators.
Hist, but a word, fair and soft!
Forth and be judged, Master Hugues!
Answer the question I've put you so oft —
What do you mean by your mountainous fugues?
See, we're alone in the loft,
I, the poor organist here,
Hugues, the composer of note —
Dead, though, and done with, this many a year —
Let's have a colloquy, something to quote,
Make the world prick up its ear !
See, the church empties a-pace.
Fast they extinguish the lights —
Hallo, there, sacristan! five minutes' grace !
Here's a crank pedal wants setting to rights,
Baulks one of holding the base.
See, our huge house of the sounds
Hushing its hundreds at once,
Bids the last loiterer back to his bounds
— Oh, you may challenge them, not a response
Get the church saints on their rounds !
(Saints go their rounds, who shall doubt?
— March, with the moon to admire,
Up nave, down chancel, turn transept about,
Supervise all betwixt pavement and spire,
Put rats and mice to the rout —
Aloys and Jurien and Just —
Order things back to their place,
Have a sharp eye lest the candlesticks rust,
Rub the church plate, darn the sacrament lace,
Clear the desk velvet of dust.)
Here's your book, younger folks shelve !
Played I not off-hand and runningly,
Just now, your masterpiece, hard number twelve ?
Here's what should strike, — could one handle it
Help the axe, give it a helve ! [cunningly.
Page after page as I played,
Every bar's rest where one wipes
Sweat from one's brow, I looked up and surveyed
O'er my three claviers, yon forest of pipes
Whence you still peeped in the shade.
Sure you were wishful to speak,
You, with brow ruled like a score,
Yes, and eyes buried in pits on each cheek,
Like two great breves as they wrote them of yore
Each side that bar, your straight beak !
Sure you said — "Good, the mere notes !
Still, couldst thou take my intent,
Know what procured me our Company's votes —
Masters being lauded and sciolists shent,
Parted the sheep from the goats ! "
Well then, speak up, never flinch !
Quick, ere my candle's a snuff
— Burnt, do you see ? to its uttermost inch —
/ believe in you, but that's not enough.
Give my conviction a clinch !
First you deliver your phrase
— Nothing propound, that I see,
Fit in itself for much blame or much praise —
Answered no less, where no answer needs be :
Off start the Two on their ways !
Straight must a Third interpose,
Volunteer needlessly help —
In strikes a Fourth, a Fifth thrusts in his nose,
So the cry's open, the kennel's a-yelp,
Argument's hot to the close !
One dissertates, he is candid —
Two must discept, — has distinguished !
Three helps the couple, if ever yet man did :
Four protests, Five makes a dart at the thing wished—
Back to One, goes the case bandied !
XV One says his say with a difference —
More of expounding, explaining!
All now is wrangle, abuse, and vociferance —
Now there's a truce, all's subdued, self-restraining —
Five, though, stands out all the stiffer hence.
One is incisive, corrosive —
Two retorts, nettled, curt, crepitant —
Three makes rejoinder, expansive, explosive —
Four overbears them all, strident and strepitant —
Five . . . O Danaides, O Sieve !
Now, they ply axes and crowbars —
Now, they prick pins at a tissue
Fine as a skene of the casuist Escobar's
Worked on the bone of a lie. To what issue ?
Where is our gain at the Two-bars ?
Estfuga, volvitur rota !
On we drift. Where looms the dim port ?
One, Two, Three, Four, Five, contribute their quota —
Something is gained, if one caught but the import —
Show it us, Hugues of Saxe-Gotha !
What with affirming, denying,
Holding, risposting, subjoining,
All's like . . . it's like ... for an instance I'm trying . .
There ! See our roof, its gilt moulding and groining
Under those spider-webs lying !
So your fugue broadens and thickens,
Greatens and deepens and lengthens,
Till one exclaims — " But where's music, the dickens ?
Blot ye the gold, while your spider-web strengthens,
Blacked to the stoutest of tickens?"
I for man's effort am zealous.
Prove me such censure's unfounded!
Seems it surprising a lover grows jealous —
Hopes'twas for something his organ-pipes sounded,
Tiring three boys at the bellows?
Is it your moral of Life?
Such a web, simple and subtle,
Weave we on earth here in impotent strife,
Backward and forward each throwing his shuttle,
Death ending all with a knife?
Over our heads Truth and Nature —
Still our life's zigzags and dodges,
Ins and outs weaving a new legislature —
God's gold just shining its last where that lodges,
Palled beneath Man's usurpature !
So we o'ershroud stars and roses,
Cherub and trophy and garland.
Nothings grow something which quietly closes
Heaven's earnest eye, — not a glimpse of the far land
Gets through our comments and glozes.
Ah, but traditions, inventions,
(Say we and make up a visage)
So many men with such various intentions
Down the past ages must know more than this age!
Leave the web all its dimensions!
Who thinks Hugues wrote for the deaf?
Proved a mere mountain in labour?
Better submit — try again — what's the clef?
'Faith, it's no trifle for pipe and for tabor —
Four flats — the minor in F.
Friend, your fugue taxes the finger.
Learning it once, who would lose it?
Yet all the while a misgiving will linger —
Truth's golden o'er us although we refuse it —
Nature, thro' dust-clouds we fling her!
Hugues! I advise vied poena
(Counterpoint glares like a Gorgon)
Bid One, Two, Three, Four, Five, clear the arena !
Say the word, straight I unstop the Full-Organ,
Blare out the mode Palestrina.
While in the roof, if I'm right there —
. . . Lo, you, the wick in the socket!
Hallo, you sacristan, show us a light there!
Down it dips, gone like a rocket!
What, you want, do you, to come unawares,
Sweeping the church up for first morning-prayers,
And find a poor devil at end of his cares
At the foot of your rotten-planked rat-riddled stairs?
Do I carry the moon in my pocket?
- Perkins, Don. "Master Hugues Of Saxe-Gotha": Robert Browning's Other "Avison" Poem." Newsletter of the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada. Vol. 12, No. 2 (FALL 1986), pp. 25-38
- Anger, Dr.Humfrey "The Music Poems of Robert Browning"
- Elson, Arthur "Literary Errors about Music." 1917-04-01. The Musical Quarterly.
- Ingpen, Ada Music in poetry and prose. 1912