Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Oder's exit into the Baltic in C sharp major, pianissimo

In Howard's End (1910) E.M. Forster exemplifies some pretentious conversation which a hundred years earlier might have included reflections on the Picturesque. Instead, a landscape is seen through the prism of music:
"People at Stettin drop things into boats out of overhanging warehouses. At least, our cousins do, but aren't particularly rich. The town isn't interesting, except for a clock that rolls its eyes, and the view of the Oder, which truly is something special. Oh, Mrs. Wilcox, you would love the Oder! The river, or rather rivers--there seem to be dozens of them--are intense blue, and the plain they run through an intensest green."

"Indeed! That sounds like a most beautiful view, Miss Schlegel."

"So I say, but Helen, who will muddle things, says no, it's like music. The course of the Oder is to be like music. It's obliged to remind her of a symphonic poem. The part by the landing-stage is in B minor, if I remember rightly, but lower down things get extremely mixed. There is a slodgy theme in several keys at once, meaning mud-banks, and another for the navigable canal, and the exit into the Baltic is in C sharp major, pianissimo."

"What do the overhanging warehouses make of that?" asked the man, laughing.

"They make a great deal of it," replied Margaret, unexpectedly rushing off on a new track. "I think it's affectation to compare the Oder to music, and so do you, but the overhanging warehouses of Stettin take beauty seriously, which we don't, and the average Englishman doesn't, and despises all who do. Now don't say 'Germans have no taste,' or I shall scream. They haven't. But--but--such a tremendous but! --they take poetry seriously. They do take poetry seriously.


Anonymous said...

Hello there,

I'm really enjoying exploring this site, and I just wondered if you'd mind passing on your email address.
I'm a film student at Bristol uni, and I'm looking into doing some work on the uses of landscape in nation-building cinema. I'd really like to hear any thoughts you might have, particularly about how landscape is sometimes utilised to generate a sense of historical importance.
Anyway, I hope you don't mind me hijacking the comments tool, but I couldn't find any other way!

All the best

Adam (

aureliaray said...

Zadie Smith, in her acknowledgements at the start of ʻOn Beauty' states that ʻit should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by a love of E M Forster to whom all my fiction is indebted ... This time I wanted to repay the debt with 'hommage'. Could the opening lines of chapter 7 be an echo of Forster's ʻlandscape seen through the prism of music'?

“Mozart's Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit. The pit is on the other side of a precipice which you cannot see over until you are right at its edge. Your death is awaiting you in that pit. You don't know what it looks like or sounds like or smells like. You don't know whether it will be good or bad. You just walk towards it. Your will is a clarinet and your footsteps are attended by all the violins. The closer you get to the pit, the more you begin to have the sense that what awaits you there will be terrifying. Yet you experience this terror as a kind of blessing, a gift. Your long walk would have had no meaning were it not for this pit at the end of it. You peer over the precipice: a burst of ethereal noise crashes over you. In the pit is a great choir ...”

Plinius said...

Thanks Adam - I've emailed a few thoughts.

Thanks Aurelia. I've not read 'On Beauty' - your quotation sounds like a version of Forster's description of Beethoven. Zadie Smith wrote an excellent article about Forster for the New York Review of Books earlier this year.

snarlerson said...

To some one of my generation, it is likely that Stettin first became part of my consciousness when hearing, or reading of , Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech of 1946, when he envisaged the new harsh division of Europe starting at Stettin in the North. It is is easy to imagine it as a port which in Forster’s time , like Stralsund, was a gem of Hanseatic backstein architecture with a warm comforting presence and a river frontage to rival that of Danzig or even Liverpool.

A short visit two years ago to Szczecin, now in Poland, left me saddened and underwhelmed. There is the grand Hermann Haken quarter, a fine group of civic buildings overlooking the river and port developed by the mayor of the city before WWI but much of the rest of the city was devastated by the WW2. Wide roads rip through its centre and Soviet era flat blocks abound. There are some welcome signs. The Palace of the Dukes of Pomerania is being restored with typically Polish expertise but the vast St James’ church which has been handed over to the Catholic church has been disfigured by some awful tat which is sometimes a feature of Catholic churches and is such a contrast to the dignified Lutheran interiors further to the West. But Stettin has always been a port and perhaps its economy was, and will always be, more important than its scenic quality.