Alfred Tennyson's narrative poem "Enoch Arden" is quite a bit like music. It was recited elegantly Monday afternoon, at the third of four Intermezzo concerts, by actor Stephan Brennan, of the Gate Theatre, in partnership with Spoleto Festival resident pianist Lydia Brown, who performed music by Richard Strauss that heightened the melodrama of the story.
Strauss' "Enoch Arden," op. 38, is not a musical setting of the text, which is spoken throughout, nor is it an accompaniment. Rather, it is something in between, an overlapping dialogue between poetry and music.
The poem tells a sad story, with references to biblical and Greek drama, a fable really, a tall canonic tale about an unfortunate man who must sail away from his beloved wife and children on a merchant ship in order to earn his income. He promises to return but ends up a castaway on a remote island for 10 years.
He is rescued and returns home to England only to discover his wife Annie happily married to another man, Philip, a childhood friend who has rescued the woman from poverty and bestowed upon her love and care.
She is happy; Enoch is devastated, but resolved "not to tell her, never to let her know" of his presence lest he destroy her hard-found contentment. He dies of a broken heart, but not before sharing his story with the good, old tavern-keeper Miriam Lane, making her promise not to say a word until after he is gone.
"Then may she learn I loved her to the last."
Faithful Enoch has walked with God his whole life and now is about to be taken by him. His is a manly sacrifice, the opposite of Odysseus', whose wife remained faithful all the long years of his absence.
The performance in Grace Episcopal Church was somewhat hindered by the resonant acoustics and insufficient amplification of Brennan, but it was nevertheless a lovely thing to behold. Brown played Strauss' roiling Romantic score with feeling, but did so always in the service of the narrative, and Brennan's Irish accent (and storytelling gene) made for a fine delivery indeed.
The poem's wondrous 19th century English - so expressive! so descriptive! - sounded like music in my ears.
He therefore turning softly like a thief, / Lest the harsh shingle should grate underfoot, / And feeling all along the garden-wall, / Lest he should swoon and tumble and be found, / Crept to the gate, and open'd it, and closed, / As lightly as a sick man's chamber-door, / Behind him, and came out upon the waste.
Perhaps that's because it is composed like music is composed: upon a superstructure of form and mood and rhythm, of which there are really only a handful of versions. What changes are the words and their combinations, strung as they are along the scaffolding, some placed in sunlight to flower, others in shade to collect moisture and moss.
Music, too, is like this. The forms and keys are limited; it is the notes a composer selects, and the order in which he combines them that makes a piece unique.
It occurred to me, therefore, that I was listening to a timeless tale of love and loss, a certain kind of myth we have heard, in its variations, over and over again.
And it was very beautiful.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.