Pasternak's Poetics and the Metonymy of Music

Karen Evans-Romaine, Ohio University

It is typical for the poetics of Pasternak that, in mentioning one artist, he evokes the spirit of another. Some of Pasternak's depictions of Chopin are a case in point. In his 1945 essay on Chopin, Pasternak mentions several contemporaries who chronicled aspects of the composer's life and work: Heinrich Heine, Schumann, George Sand, Delacroix, Liszt, and Berlioz. Pasternak immediately brushes aside as distortions much in these memoirs, arguing that for all their value, they contain more fluff than substance, mere "conversations" about Undines, Aeolian harps, and the like, which do not give us an impression of the composer with much success or accuracy. Indeed, Romantic-era accounts of Chopin's playing, and of many musical performances of the time, can be so fraught with vagueness, inaccuracies, and clichés that they do try the patience of the twentieth-century reader. Yet as so often with Pasternak, the very tone of his statement encourages the reader to look further into the matter, in order to discern possible clues to Pasternak's own work. Pasternak's poetics of metonymy, analyzed by scholars including Jakobson and Fleishman, tends to involve, in Fleishman's terms, the "covering of tracks" and veiled semiotic "shifts."

Pasternak's list of memoirists about Chopin includes two figures who do, in fact, play a role in such a metonymic shift. Heinrich Heine, in his numerous writings on music and the musical scene in Paris, frequently juxtaposes the two greatest pianists of his age, Chopin and Liszt. If we examine Heine's writings on the two musicians, we find that Heine provides subtexts (Ronen, Taranovsky, Smirnov) to Pasternak's characterizations in prose and evocations in verse of Chopin; however, these Heine passages refer not always to Chopin, but in some cases to Liszt. While Chopin appears most frequently among all composers in Pasternak's writing, Liszt's name does not appear once, and his work appears only once by implication (Schreiner, Fischer).

The replacement of Liszt for Chopin makes sense if one takes into account the logic of Pasternak's selection of favorite composers. As Barnes and Kac have pointed out, Pasternak's chosen circle of favorite composers reflects that of his idol, Skrjabin. Skrjabin, after all, was acknowledged to be the last of the line of great Romantic composers in Russia, following the European tradition of Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, and Chajkovskij. This metonymic shift, in turn, sheds light on the interpretation of some of Pasternak's poems on music. Heine depicts Chopin and Liszt as two poles of the same phenomenon of musical genius: the heavenly and the demonic, the delicate and the powerful, the ethereal and the animal, spiritual well-being and insanity. These poles are blended in Pasternak's portraits both of Chopin in particular and of pianism in general. Seen in this light, the image of Chopin becomes a composite of a number of composers and performers, including Chopin himself, Liszt, and Skrjabin. Moreover, Heine's colorful metaphors for Liszt's playing shed light on some of the more obscure passages in Pasternak's verse on performance.

In sum, we will see that the presence of Liszt in Pasternak's musical world is stronger than is at first evident, due mainly to Heine's portrait of the legendary figure, and that this presence enriches Pasternak's image of the pianist. Among the Pasternak texts to be examined, in varying degrees of depth, will be his essay on Chopin, his poems "Ballada" (1931), "Vse utro s devjati do dvux" "Pianistu ponjatno shnyr'janie vetoshnic," "Rojal' drozhashchij penu s gub oblizhet," "Exo," "Eshche ne umolknul uprek," and his final poem on music, "Muzyka."