Edgar Allan Poe celebrates his 200th birthday on Monday, January 19; this anniversary will be widely observed, particularly in cities where he lived, all having museums to him — Richmond, Virginia, Philadelphia, the Bronx, and in Baltimore. Actors who portray Poe — most commonly as a tortured and haunted individual, in keeping with the flavor of his work — will be quite busy in the coming months, and there is no disputing his significance as one of the most influential figures in American letters. Yet relatively few of these observances will likely take note of what an impact Poe has had on music, and indeed, one might ask “why would they,” as Poe never wrote a note of it. Nevertheless, he remains among the most frequently set among American poets, and even his non-poetic works — particularly his tales — have stimulated musical works in all genres from nearly all parts of the world.
Born to actor parents and orphaned from the age of one, Edgar Allan Poe was raised in a foster home. By the time he flunked out of West Point at age 21, Poe had already published two books of poetry and was mere weeks away from issuing his third. In 1835, he was named an editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, an important magazine based in Richmond. For the rest of his short life, Poe would work as an editor and through publishing free-lance pieces in magazines like Godey’s Lady Book, Graham’s Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. After the success of his poem The Raven (1845), Poe was likewise famous, adding the lecture circuit to his retinue. Although often portrayed as an inchoate drunkard and loner, he was at the center of the American literary scene of his day and wrote a large number of thumbnail sketches of his peers towards a never-finished volume entitled Literary America — had it appeared as he intended, it would have been the first book of its kind. Imagine how Poe felt when Elizabeth Barrett (later Browning) wrote from London in 1846, “Your ‘Raven’ has produced a sensation, a ‘fit horror’, here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music (…) I think you will like to be told our great poet, Mr. Robert Browning, the author of Paracelsus, and the Bells and Pomegranates, was struck much by the rhythm of that poem.” Poe was also strongly admired by Charles Dickens, and this was the exception rather than the rule; in Poe’s time, Americans were viewed by those in the old world as uncivilized savages without capability to produce culture — it was Edgar Allan Poe, more than anyone, who changed that. Along the way, Poe invented the genre of the detective story, introduced more than 100 words to the English language through his expert knowledge of Ancient Greek, and raised the lowly gothic horror tale to a level of literary respectability.
According to legend, Poe played the flute and may have advanced the musical instruction of his wife Virginia, who died in 1847 at the age of 24; although sometimes identified as the “Eleanora” or “lost Lenore” of his writings, this is complicated by the fact that many of these pieces existed before she died. His only complete comment on music was both in praise of Mozart and a dig at notorious “Lion Pianist” Leopold de Meyer, known for big hair, fancy pyrotechnics and utter lack of taste and sensitivity; “Mozart declared, on his death-bed, that he ‘began to see what may be done in music;’ and it is to be hoped that De Meyer and the rest of the spasmodists will, eventually, begin to understand what may not be done in this particular branch of the Fine Arts.” Music plays a role in some of the tales as well — Roderick Usher is described as playing “improvised dirges,” including one on “the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning comes closest to understanding Poe’s musical side. His poetry is musical, owing to its deliberate cadence and the way his lines and syllables mark out a definitive rhythm when read aloud. Composers didn’t wait long following Poe’s death to connect musical dots to Poe’s rhymes. Railroad engineer, soldier, and metallurgist E. F. Falconnet was one of the first with his setting of Annabel Lee (1853), and would be far from last –– at least 31 additional settings of this poem have been made. Baltimore’s John Hill Hewitt (1801-1890) set not only Annabel Lee, but The Raven and The Bells also, and these were heard during an 1882 lecture given by Poe’s doctor, John J. Moran, designed as a “defense of the illustrious poet against imputations cast upon his memory by unfriendly biographers.” While The Raven has enjoyed a respectable number of musical realizations of various kinds, the all-time champ is The Bells, with at least 35 settings, the most famous of which is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s choral/orchestral work. Among others of this kind are Florent Schmitt’s Les palais hanté (The Haunted Palace, 1904). Eldorado,, A Kingdom by the Sea, A Dream within a Dream, and To Helen have all likewise done respectably well in terms of song settings. Poe’s verse has been set in French, German and Russian in addition to Poe’s original English. French versions of Poe’s verse, as translated by Charles Baudelaire — having their own enormous impact on French literature — are often pressed into such service.
Also striking, however, is how well Poe’s prose works have fared with composers. French impressionists were strongly interested in Poe. In 1908, André Caplet, best known for orchestrating some pieces of Claude Debussy, composed Conte fantastique d’aprés Le Masque de la Mort Rouge (Fantastic Tale after “The Masque of the Red Death”) for harp and string quartet, one of the most arresting and strikingly modern chamber works produced in the first decade of the 20th century. Poe’s appeal was likewise not lost on Debussy himself, who in his last years labored on an opera, La chûte de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). It is a brooding, dolorous work, and Debussy is said to have greatly identified with the mortal dread of the hopeless character of Roderick Usher. It would remain, for Debussy, unfinished and composer Juan Allende-Blin raised a performing edition of what was left behind in the early 1970s. Philip Glass brought his own operatic Usher to completion in 1989, and Augusta Read Thomas added another Poe-based opera, Ligeia, to the canon just five years later. Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara composed a work for chorus and orchestra, On the Last Frontier (1997), based on Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and the list goes on and on.
Edgar Allan Poe’s death, on October 7, 1849, in Baltimore, is itself an irreconcilable mystery. Clean and sober and engaged to be married a second time, Poe left Richmond for New York City to pick up $100 for a speaking engagement on September 27, but he never made it. A few days later, Poe was found unconscious in a tavern in Baltimore and died shortly after being taken to a hospital. An international conference on Edgar Allan Poe convenes in Philadelphia beginning October 8, and Augusta Read Thomas is preparing a new, Poe-based work especially for it. This shows that the tradition which began almost as soon as Poe uttered his reported last words — “Lord help my poor soul” — continues on inexorably, as his pendulum swings, or the tell-tale heart thumps ominously beneath the floor boards, or as Poe’s Raven keeps “gently rapping, tapping at [his] chamber door.”
Felix Weingartner, London Symphony Orchestra - Carl Maria von Weber: Invitation to the Dance
Vladimir Ashkenazy, Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra & Chorus - Rachmaninoff: The Bells
Georges Prêtre, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo - Florent Schmitt: Les palais hanté
Ensemble Musique Oblique - André Caplet: Conte fantastique d’aprés Le Masque de la Mort Rouge
Georges Prêtre, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo - Claude Debussy: La chûte de la maison Usher
Carolyn Heafner, soprano; Dixie Ross Neill, piano - Jack Beeson: Eldorado
Leif Segerstam, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra - Rautavaara: On the Last Frontier