To and fro in shadow

by Simon Collings

Samuel Beckett was not a man to cede interpretation of one of his works to another. But when the American composer Morton Feldman met Beckett in Berlin in 1967 the writer agreed to provide an original text for a piece Feldman was to compose for Rome Opera. Beckett was persuaded that Feldman’s philosophy and approach was sufficiently compatible with his own practice as a writer that the project could work. He sent a draft within days of the meeting without having heard a note of Feldman’s music.

Neither is one of Feldman’s most inspired compositions. Though often referred to as a one act opera, the work is probably best viewed as a monodrama in the tradition of Erwartung. The spare language, repetitions and tensions in the text, typical of Beckett’s later writing, have strong parallels in Feldman’s compositional method. Various brief motifs cycle through the work, the material slowly transforming and evolving, building to a harrowing climax. The declamatory style of the setting leaves the words clear despite the high tessitura of the voice.

Beckett’s short text is bleak:

to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow

from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself
by way of neither

as between two lit refuges whose doors once
neared gently close, once away turned from
gently part again

beckoned back and forth and turned away

heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam
or the other

unheard footfalls only sound

till at last halt for good, absent for good
from self and other

then no sound

then gently light unfading on that unheeded

unspeakable home

It’s a powerful work which deserves to be better known.

The latest issue of Agenda magazine focuses on poetry and opera. A range of contributors comment on the dominance of the composer in the creation of music drama – something which would have concerned Beckett. During the composition of Neither there was apparently little communication between Feldman and Beckett. But then Beckett’s text is not a ‘libretto’ in the normal sense. The text was not altered.

Even the setting of lyric poems can present challenges in the relationship between author and composer. David Harsent has provided Harrison Birtwistle with four poem cycles only one of which the composer has felt able to set. Last year when I commissioned the composer Laura Jurd to set one of my poems I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the event, beyond suggesting possible sources of musical ideas, I had no involvement in the creation of the piece. Laura decided to work with the text as it was and I left her free to follow the logic of her own musical thought processes.