Andreas Triantafyllou








Poetry and Music as Art Song or Double Coding:

The Case of Ned Rorem and C. P. Cavafy




“…music itself [is] the supreme mystery

of the science of man, a mystery

that all the various disciplines come up

against and which holds the key to their progress”


Claude Lévy-Strauss



This paper has a two-fold goal: first, to offer an analysis of the intricate relationship between music and poetry as double coding in André Gide’s sense as described in his Journal for August 1893, in which the embedded expression mirrors or duplicates the embedding expression; second, to test the validity of such an approach by applying it to the case of the encounter of Ned Rorem and C.P. Cavafy. The proposed methodology is to draw on Gide’s expanded notion of double coding in the formal technique called mise en abyme (mise-en-abîme), or interior duplication, in his novel Les Faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters, 1925), by means of semiotic and psychoanalytic methods. This novel has been praised as a structural wonder due to its fugal composition, exemplified in the framing of a journal (written by a fictional author) within the main novel. [1] Superimposed upon the complex actions of the main novel, this journal adds density and parallelism thus creating an effect of doubling (counterpoint). The result of this doubling, as critic Martha O’Nan remarks, is a presentation of two sides of reality. That is, on one hand, the real author, Gide, introduces one reality, and on the other, this reality is viewed by the fictional author. In other words, O’Nan continues, “[t]he unusual method of presenting two sides of the same reality—somewhat similar to that of subject and countersubject in a fugue—gives the effect of reading two different novels on two different levels of times” (214). [2] According to semiologist Yuri Lotman, [3] “even in the simplest occurrence of a text within a text, a painting within a painting, a play within a play, a film within a film, and a novel within a novel the included section is encoded in the same way as the remaining text and thus is doubly coded” (381).

I propose to broaden the use of Lotman’s term “doubly coded” to denote poetry within poetry, music within music, as well as poetry within music. Double coding—in its expanded meaning—can generate new forms of representation. Thus, from two single art forms, poetry and music, we get the art form or genre of art song, which cannot be represented except through the power of double coding. Such a subordination of one expression into the other—exemplified most clearly in art songs (lieder)—is so extreme as to be compared to the interweaving of two or several different voices within the musical genre of fugue. This interconnection can even be viewed as an imaginative duet song, sung by only one voice. Allowing for density, parallelism and synergy, this kind of fugue leaves room for “an object to derive its density of existence from the complexity of its connections with different characters,” which is by far “more effective than an endless number of simple melodies” (O’Nan 216). In the case of lieder in particular, such a hierarchical relation between the subordinating and the subordinated voice creates a field with enormous gravitational powers. This interweaving of voices results in a series of direct physical changes, which affect both the embedding and the embedded sections. The physical form of the indirect discourse of the embedded part is altered so that quotation marks cease to exist. As a result, the boundaries between the embedding and the embedded section become blurred, the line cannot be determined precisely and finally the borderline becomes seamless. This creates ambiguity on the level of words; one cannot distinguish between the representation of the two voices—either the speech of the external voice or the act of mediation of the embedded voice. The control of the external voice over the signifiers renders it a speech; the embedding voice speaks constantly; thus, it signals that it is quoting another voice. Whether in synergy or opposition, what matters is the play of blurring boundaries ad infinitum. Hence, new representational horizons emerge. Relations between musical sounds and verbal lines can vary along a continuum of possibilities; in embedding sections, sometimes the external voice and sometimes the embedded voice dominates. Although the external voice can be conceived as independent, it cannot be heard independently from the embedded one. This hierarchical relation in the very ontology of the representation—controlled by the embedding voice—permits the composer to “speak” or “embody” a new voice, other than one’s own. Similarly, artists can claim an artwork without being held entirely responsible for it; the form gives them permission to create something without being thought of as having authored it. Such freedom from responsibility might be considered part of the power of the double coding, to represent new forms of expression.

This complex relationship is well illustrated in the case of interweaving music and poetry, particularly in the art song. This art form is potentially capable of claiming aesthetic autonomy in the world, under one condition: it requires the reception and awareness of a perceiver who can interpret the music as a new art form. Effort to analyze musical meaning that privileges linguistic analysis reproduces and reconfirms the hegemony of language, while rendering music a secondary status. This inability of music to render a pure and crystallized meaning can be moderated only through the use of the technique of mise en abîme. It was exactly in this artistic technique that Gide found the ideal form “to theorize the pure novel” which was impossible to write, within a possible form, as Lucien Dällenbach notes in his discussion of the role of the mise en abîme structure in Gide’s novel (Le récit spéculaire 48).

This technique of embedding a voice (lyrics) through a means which is not its own (poetic language), as this analysis suggests, provides the composer with the opportunity to incorporate some sort of speech, a voice, a cry he would wish to utter, which for technical reasons he cannot do exclusively through the channel of music. He/She undertakes the endeavor of lifting music from its “zero-degree status,” and in return he/she is rewarded with the gift of articulating a clear voice. One such case is exemplified through the meeting of the American composer Ned Rorem and the Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy.

Rorem composed a musical rendition of C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” which offers the opportunity to examine such a relationship, namely that of poetry and music, in which two distinct forms of art merge to create a new genre. This also challenges the assumption that music is unable to “speak,” to create meaning or narrative in general. Music is no longer alone on stage, powerful yet incapable of disseminating any sort of meaning. It embodies the poetry, and poetry provides a “window” through which music can possibly utter a meaning, shape or underline an already existing meaning, or even suggest several meanings through musical renditions of the poetry. In this relationship, music proves itself to be a very successful tool in helping poetry construct and disseminate meaning. Such a fusion proves very appealing for skilled craftsmen in music composition as Ned Rorem, a composer who considers a song as a self-contained experience of two or three minutes, thus a sort of distillation. A song is a miniature compared to a genre such as opera, and art-song composers have to conceive their musical ideas on preexisting poetry which should be unaltered. However, in “Waiting for the Barbarians,” we face a major alteration in terms of language. Rorem adds something more than his own voice, as he undertakes the endeavor of translating the poem from Greek into English. Disregarding the already extant adequate translations of the Cavafy poem into English, he attempts his own translation to safeguard his own carefully-planned mise-en-abîme. Marked by the ideal of faith and purity as a Quaker descendant, [4] (as he explains in a note to the author of this work), Rorem “poeticizes” his music as Gide “musicalizes” his fiction through the technique of mise en abîme. By doing so, he also launches into a deep abyss of mourning for the bereavement of his lost partner, since Rorem conceived this composition as a tribute to him. Thus, the closer to the Cavafy original he could be, the purer the effect his play of reflections would be. The higher the level of connection he would feel for Cavafy’s lines, the stronger the effect of his double coding. Such a powerful connection might have led him to incorporate the poem and articulate an even more powerful voice. He thus not only claims the role of the composer but also that of someone who takes the initiative to intervene dynamically within the text of the poem.




Preliminary Remarks on the Nature of the Relationship of Music and Language


The failure of music because of its total inability to convey and transmit meaning seems to be a central axiom of Structuralism. One of its main representatives, Roland Barthes, equates music with “the Text as signifying” (312) and turns to it as “the

unrepresentable figure par excellence of the text” [5] (Engh 73). Interested only in “the

effervescence of the beats” (312), Barthes is concerned with “a realm of signifying practice which lies outside the world of signs, meaning and signification.” This world appeals directly to the body. Furthermore, music is “a field of signifying and not a system of signs, the referent…is the body. The body passes into music without any relay but the signifier” (308). Understanding this “realm of signifying practice” requires, said Barthes, “a second semiology, that of the body in a state of music” (312). Therefore, language for Barthes retains its privileged position in the world of “signs, meaning and signification.” If language is privileged in this way, then it seems inevitable that music will be rendered inferior. In Barthes’ opinion, music appeals to the body in a manner which renders it non-linguistic. In other words, eluding the rational, music speaks, declaims, and redoubles its voice, but says nothing: “As soon as it is musical, speech—or its instrumental substitute—is no longer linguistic, but corporeal; it only says this and nothing else: my body is put into a state of speech: quasi parlando” (304). According to Barthes, music, even in its relevance to the preconscious and conscious, is reduced to the condition of the pre-symbolic, the pre-linguistic, the pre-discursive and the unconscious. The post-Lacanian approaches of Althusser or Kristeva continue this line of thinking, in that music is theorized as a form of signification with its own specific characteristics and its own specific form of sociality. According to Kristeva, “[t]o the extent that music retains its materiality, it is material based on the signifier devoid of a signified—it is signifiance run rampant, signifiance in its purest form, a form that can never exist in reality” (87). Thus, music “is concomitantly incapable of achieving a level of signification to match that of language” (87). Kristeva’s parallels drawn between the vocal and kinetic rhythms of the chora remain suggestive and helpful for an understanding of music. According to Shepherd, music lags behind in terms of signification when compared to language, due to the character of the relationship that exists between body and language. While

[t]he body is correctly theorized as constituting the material grounds and pathways for the development, investment and experiencing of emotional energy and affective states…the thinking of Lacan and Kristeva in one way or another assumes that [it] displays no logics or potentials for signification which can stand independently (although relatedly) alongside those of language. (88)

Clearly, Kristeva’s descriptions of the characteristics of the chora in language are suggestive in understanding music. At the same time, with Lacan, she helped to pave the way for a number of poststructuralist writers to comment on music and its relationship to sound during the earliest stages of life. However, her denial to fully reclaim the body and/or weaken the stranglehold of language resulted in the lack of conceptual space required for understanding music. Post-Lacanian psychoanalysts introduced and developed such ideas regarding the mother’s voice as a “sonorous envelope” surrounding the newborn infant—a blanket of sound alternatively regarded as “the first model of auditory pleasure” or “umbilical net” (Brett 12). Music, in this context, is reduced ultimately to the condition of the pre-symbolic, the pre-discursive and the unconscious. The possibilities implicit in the work of Freud for the analysis of music were not further developed in a practical sense even within post-Lacanian thinking. The materiality of music seems incapable of guaranteeing any relative autonomy as a signifying practice distinct from historicity or subjectivity, as in every case it persisted as a pre-linguistic and pre-symbolic subject. Therefore, music can contribute little to the formation and maintenance of identity, and it remains incapable of achieving a level of signification comparable to that of language. As Francis Hofstein states, [6]

At the same time that she nurtures, the mother speaks, a speech charged with rhythm, pitch, timbre, tempo, and intensity, an imprint; word/sounds anchored to her body like the mouth to her breast…Speech from which, if you take away the signified, you get music—which holds there the acoustical image, before “language restores in the universal [the child’s] function of subject” (qtd. in Shepherd 87-8).

Reminiscent of Kristeva’s reference to the connectedness of the body and the kinetic in the chora is L.B. Meyer’s position on the apprehension of music more inclusive of the whole human being and thus the human body. [7] In such an approach, a competent listener perceives or better “feels” the music and “…responds to music with his total being” without any extramusical concepts or images. This empathetic identification brings us to the point of identifying the existence of a “kinesthetic sensing of the ethos or character of a music event in what the term ethetic refers to” (qtd. in Shepherd 89). According to Meyer, “the analysis must end here…[because] the rigorous analysis of ethetic relationships is beyond my knowledge and skill” (89).

Music, conceived either through a kinesthetic experience, or as a pre-linguistic status inside the chora, according to Kristeva, incapable of advancing beyond it, seems to bring us to the limit of the system of signs itself. It also constitutes, according to Barthes, a primal state of pleasure that one tries to recapture but never can explain, hence a direct effect purified of any explicative reason. He then maintains that neither of these analyses suffice without the ability to grasp the processes through which music articulates significance.




An Example of ‘Double Coding” and its Significance:

Ned Rorem’s Another Sleep and C.P/ Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”


The Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center, under David Shifrin as artistic director, commissioned a song cycle from composer Ned Rorem (b. 1923). This cycle, entitled “Another Sleep: Nineteen Songs for Medium Voice and Piano,” was first performed on May 5, 2002, at Alice Tully Hall in New York, by Kurt Ollmann, baritone, and Scott Dunn, piano. The music score was published by the House of Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., 2005 (Hal Leonard), using a reproduction of Jane Wilson’s Reluctant Moon, 2001 as a cover image. These nineteen songs were based on both prose and poetry by fourteen authors, among whom was C.P. Cavafy. The others were Milton, Thom Gunn, Karl Shapiro, Stephen Crane, Shakespeare, John Ashbery, Julien Green, Borges, Sappho, Katha Pollitt, Paul Goodman, and Virginia Woolf. The title of the collection came from Julien Green’s memoir L’Autre Someil, translated as “Another Sleep.” According to Rorem, three of the songs were written over a half century ago: “Mongolian Idiot” in January 1947, and two years later, the lines from L’Autre Sommeil. The others dated mostly from a few months before the cycle’s first performance. Rorem’s own account states how he discovered a certain logic through the juxtaposition of unrelated writers.

[t]he overall theme stresses nostalgia and loss, but also frustration and anger, and finally renewal through defiance of death. I’d like to think that the juxtaposition of unrelated writers contains a certain logic, a certain balance. For instance, the fierce cries of Cavafy and Pollitt are, as I hear them, two sides of one coin; likewise Shakespeare’s famous sonnet and Green’s wistful souvenirs; Ashbery and Sappho, Borges and Goodman. But composers can explain too much; their music should speak for itself. [8]

Interestingly, in the latter question Rorem suggests that music has its own voice. Unlike the structuralists and the post-structuralists who consider music incapable of achieving a level of signification to match that of language, Rorem assumes this capacity of music by equating music with speech (language). This is indicative of Rorem’s overall attitude toward double coding. In other words, in such an approach one can discern Rorem’s easiness in blending two distinct codes, those of music and language. Rorem divides the nineteen songs into three parts primarily for breathing room, presumably for both singers and audience. The texts of Part I have several parallel thematic links, all dealing with the pain and anger of loss and death. Milton rages against Paradise Lost, and looking into the abyss, sees that his present hell seems a heaven to that “lower deep.” Karl Shapiro tells of a retarded child trapped in a barren mind, but whose mother loves him still as “my splendid gift/ Come from all life and for all life.” Thom Gunn’s three poems speak of love, of the fear of dying, and of comforting the dying, while Stephen Crane’s poem seems to welcome death. Finally, Cavafy’s Barbarians never come to the stage and that becomes an unsettling prospect for the mythic time and space of the poem.

Part II sounds like a hymn to memory. While Sappho and John Ashbery reflect upon long-gone loves as though they were still present, Julien Green’s sadness fades at the realization that one can be happy only in the present, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX establishes the supremacy of living in the present moment: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/ I summon up remembrance of things past…But if the while I think of thee (dear friend)/ All losses are restored, and sorrows end.”

Part III maintains the same mood, but ends up hopeful. Katha Pollitt’s “Of the Scythians” acts upon the triptych of violence/loss/survival, while Sappho sings the loneliness of loss. Borges in “The Suicide” expresses with sadness and despair his conviction that one’s death erases all external things. In Walter Savage Landor’s four lines, Death stands above him and whispers into his ear that there are not any words of fear; and Paul Goodman’s struggles toward death and cries for help seem to turn the downward curve upward again. Finally, Virginia Woolf brings forward a renewed determination: “And in me too the wave rises…I am aware once more of a new desire…I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!”

Rorem states that the order of the songs is not fixed, at least until the first few performances establish an order, and that individual songs may be extracted and sung independently. It might be interesting to add that as this is a work of mourning and commemoration—dedicated to the composer’s companion for thirty-two years—a variety of different themes such as loss, nostalgia, anger, frustration, and finally renewal through the defiance of death intermingle together and are clearly delineated in this very personal work. The whole cycle places demands on the performers who need to demonstrate artistic maturity and sufficient life experience to convey the meaning and emotions of the songs. The work also seems demanding for two other reasons: while no timing is given in the score, the length in pages suggests that this would occupy an entire recital program; moreover, the magnitude of such emotions such as sadness, loss, and nostalgia requires a substantial “time-space” to “breathe,” to become established, and to be transmitted to the audience.

Rorem himself does not avoid demanding challenges as he also sets himself to the task of translation. This endeavor will, inevitably in some cases, bring his chosen expressions a distance from those of other translators’. Such a distance is further stressed due to the fact that Cavafy’s language is mixed, and draws on all forms of the Greek language, from the Classical and the Hellenistic to the Byzantine and Modern, from the purified language (katharevousa) to the vernacular (demotike) and the local Alexandrian idiom. While Rorem claims copyrights for his Cavafy translation, he does not do so for the two Sappho fragments. Depending on where the emphasis should be given, each translator takes a different path. Rorem also treats the iambic meter (short—long), which is the typical one for Cavafy, with much care and respect. In fact, most translators, including Rorem, make every possible effort to keep the iambic rhythm of the loose iambic verse as in the original Cavafy. However, Rorem’s decision to proceed to a more free translation from the first line might be based on his effort to maintain the same number of syllables. In the original we read: “Τί περιμένουμε στην αγορά συναθροισμένοι;” One of the first English translators into the English language is Professor John Mavrogordato, who translates the first line: “What are we waiting for all crowded in the forum?” A relatively free translation is that of Theoharis C. Theoharis from 2001, which starts: “What are we doing gathered in the bazaar, and waiting?”. In this same context of the various translators, it is necessary to re-read Rorem’s opening line: “What are we waiting for, assembled in the public square?”. While Mavrogordato’s translation is beyond any doubt the closest possible to the original—with the Latin word “forum” providing the exact translation for the Greek agora—its total number of syllables is reduced to 13, from the original 15. Theoharis’ translation maintains the 15 syllables, but his preference for such a word as “bazaar” seems rather awkward, as this particular word refers to a very specific type of agora, mainly associated with particular geographical locations and particular local practices, and not generally to the Greek and Roman agora. Rorem’s “public square” refers to a particular and important feature of the agora during antiquity, namely the gathering place for male citizens. The above is an indication of the difficult issues translators need to address.

In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Rorem exhibits the wide range of his compositional technique. He does not break with his familiar musical patterns, some of them characteristic of his personal music idiom: for instance, the ostinato procedure in the voice or melodic motives containing dissonant intervals. The overall idea is simple: at the beginning a fast, irregular accompaniment pattern sets the scene for the town. The music gradually builds in tension and volume until the moment of the letdown, when people realize that the barbarians are not coming and perhaps they do not even exist anymore. Rorem chose to return to the palpable opening accompaniment motifs, only to allow them to fade from the keyboard in a very skillful manner.

A glance at the score reveals Rorem’s intention to make extensive use of polysemy through several moments of complexity in terms of rhythm, harmony, timbre, color of sound, etc. He sets the metronome on 132 for every dotted quarter note, and does not alter this throughout the whole piece, creating ambiguity, from the very first moment with his rhythmic indications: 12/8, and inside a parenthesis, an indication of 6/4. While there is not any one fixed way of starting an analysis, most methods of musical analyses—traditional, Schenkerian, psychological, set-theoretical analyses, semiotic analyses, etc—suggest as a prerequisite a familiarization with the music. This includes a familiarity with the score, but certainly is not reduced only to that. Often the analysis proper will emerge out of this initial stage of familiarization. The analyst needs to make a simple table of the main sections of the music, with repetitions, recognition of any possible key-centers, and any other such distinguishing features. This preparation might lead to further investigation, and most importantly might generate questions about the possibility of an independent existence of a particular section or its remaining part of a larger section; also considering if it is a new section or a variation of a previously existing one. Depending on the case, it is possible to even question the process of definition. The following section discusses some easily recognizable characteristics of Rorem’s score.




An Analysis of the Score


One of the main features of Rorem’s score is the existence of oppositions that tend to work harmoniously together and ultimately fuse. While there is no tone indication harmonically, it seems we are not too far away from a harmonic center, although not clearly articulated, at least at the beginning. Measure 13 offers the first moment of complexity, demonstrated both harmonically and rhythmically. It becomes evident that something new has been added to harmony that stresses the limits and leads beyond tonality. I refer to a superimposition of a Maqam chord over an environment of tonal harmonious chords. In that same measure, we encounter two polychords: the first F + Eb in Maqam, and the second is C + Db in Maqam. Maqam specifies a unique intervallic structure and melodic development suitable for either fixed or spontaneous composition. This appears in Arab music and echoes in Byzantine music. These concepts roughly correspond to modes in Western music. Rorem takes advantage of the strong oriental character of the Maqam to create a striking contrast. Tonal rules apply to the “civilized” while Maqam to the oriental “Barbarians.” He plays upon the binary Nature (Barbarians)—Culure (Civilized).  To further highlight the first moment of complexity, Rorem introduces the 6/4 rhythm in measure 13.

The second feature is that the contrast of civilization to barbarism is also highlighted through two distinct short melodic schemes which tend to act as labels, to accompany their respective topoi, and therefore, we could think of them as leitmotivs. The civilization motif makes its first appearance in measure 8 and ends its statement in measure 10 (C Eb C, C Eb F C). The response comes in measure 12 with the motif of barbarism and ends its statement in measure 14 (C Db Bb Ab F C). While the civilization motif is based on the 12/8 rhythm, the motif of barbarism is based on the 6/4. Both start their short phrases on the middle C, but develop in different ways. The civilization motif in its short appearance generates the impression that C minor might be the tonic center; it extends to the descending perfect fourth interval of F to C without reaching the G. Its biggest interval is perfect descending from fourth F to C. The motif of barbarism quickly introduces the listener to a leap of an ascending ninth, “collapsing” the atmosphere created by the first motif. In a way this latter motif appears as a counter-argument, or a counter-subject (not in the fugal sense of the counter-subject, as this one does not accompany the primary theme, but rather serves to contrast). This contrast becomes even further underlined by the destruction of the isorhythm (the fixed pattern of pitches paired with a repeating rhythmic pattern which takes place from the very first measure until measure 12) as the second motif enters the scene. The poem’s question and answer pattern is imitated by the aforementioned interplay of the two leitmotivs. Dynamics also play a crucial role in further underlining the two contrasting leitmotivs. For the introduction of civilization, Rorem chooses a soft dynamic on measure 8 (p: piano), while its contrasting theme is in a moderately loud dynamic (mf: mezzo-forte). The most frantic moment of the song in terms of dynamics starts on measure 57, almost at the middle of the piece, and it is persistent as it runs through measure 72. This dynamic indication is steadily very loud (ff: fortissimo) for fifteen measures at 14% of the total duration of the song. The fortissimo indication starts at the line “Why don’t our worthy orators come forth as usual to make their speeches, to have their say?” and extends until the line “Why this sudden unrest, this confusion?” Then it drops to a gentle moderately-soft dynamic (mp: mezzo-piano) when we hear the line “How solemn people’s faces have become.”

Another seminal feature of Rorem’s score is the isorhythmic pattern, at both the song’s beginning and end serving to frame the song. During the beginning measures, this pattern takes place in the far left register of the piano (low pitch), while during the ending measures, it occupies the far right register (high pitch). In a way, this strict recurrent rhythm, together with the location (register) in which this rhythmically energetic activity occurs, plays as a sort of a frame to the song. To contrast, the melodic motions taking place in the middle register, are absolutely friendly and suitable for the range of the singer’s Medium Voice. This piece covers a wide musical space: at the very beginning an ostinato pattern is played in the bass area of the piano, then melodic activity in the middle register, and during the ending measures (which could easily be considered as an extended coda) again the ostinato rhythm (this time transformed so it sounds as though it completely lacks energy) is played in the treble area of the piano. Overall, this piece’s motion, in terms of covered space, is from the extreme left toward the extreme right. It resembles cinematography, which starts recording from the left side, then focuses on some human activity in the center, and finally exits the scene from the right.

Having identified the key features of Rorem’s score, I now proceed to an analysis of the art song that draws on the Musical Semiotics Theory, as advanced by the Finnish semiotician Eero Tarasti in an attempt to further elucidate Rorem’s application of double coding in his encounter with Cavafy. Tarasti skillfully combines information provided by the history of Western music and various sign theories. He analyzes musical works through the theoretical frameworks of narratology and French structural semiotics, especially that of A. J. Greimas. Such method takes into consideration a wide range of approaches, from Ferdinand de Saussure’s to Charles S. Peirce’s and Yuri Lotman’s. During the demonstration of his methodology, Tarasti does not hesitate to suitably transform his method so that he can apply the appropriate variation for a particular composer or style. He calls his method “Generative Course.” Its starting point is heavily based on Greimas’ generative course, and appears rather far from the Chomskyan tree models, which are used by such musicologists as Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1985), and Baroni and Jacoboni (1978). Tarasti keeps Greimas’ account on significations as he gradually progresses from the deep level of semio-narrative structures toward the surface of discursive structures of a text. He considers his method as one clearly aiming toward formalization, with some touches of a “softer,” more philosophical-hermeneutical discourse, in those cases when music reveals its essence. He thus identifies himself as a semiotician who lies outside the group of the “hard” semioticians of music. The terms Eero Tarasti directly adopted from Greimas are:

1. Isotopies: different levels of meaning of a text, which serve as criteria for the first segmentation of a text under analysis. According to the glossary, “Musical Isotopies can be formed by deep structure, thematicity, genre features, texture alone, and general text strategies (e.g., plot arrangement)” (Tarasti 304).

2.Spatiality, Temporality, and Actoriality: categories that “form respectively articulation of tonal space, temporal organization, and thematic or actorial elements, in which engagement/disengagement (centripetal/centrifugal motion) and extero-/interoceptivity (outer vs. inner) play a central role.” (48) In the inner sense Spatial articulation means the distinguishing of different tonal centers or the existence of tonality or atonality. In the outer sense it means which registers music occupies in the sound space. Temporal articulation in the inner sense means a comparison of the element of the music syntagm, while in the outer sense it means a rhythmic and metric analysis. Actorial articulation presupposes the distinction of the theme-actors, and then the distribution of actoriality in the form of thematics.

3.Modalities: according to Tarasti, the level of modalities emerges from the preceding spatial, temporal, and actorial articulations, therefore they are not arbitrary subjective interpretations imposed on the text. The basic modalities are “being,” which represents a state of stability, consonance, rest, and “doing,” which stands for musical action, event, dynamism, and dissonance. Tarasti recognizes the existence of other modalities, such as “Know,” or the musical information, the cognitive moment of music; “Can,” or the power and efficiency of music, its technical resources, particularly in performance; “Must,” or the relation of the musical work to stylistic and normative categories, which could be also called the “deontic” logic of music. “Believe” represents the epistemic values of music, such as truth/untruth, lie/secret, etc.

4.Phemes/Semes; Figures: Tarasti calls phemes the minimal units of the musical substance on the level of signifier, and semes respectively the minimal units on the levels of signified. Figures are musical situations, that seem recurrent in certain musical corpus, e.g., Struggle and Victory appear to abandon in Beethoven’s Sonatas or Chopin’s Ballads.

These main elements of Tarasti’s musical analysis fit perfectly Rorem’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” which is an interesting example of his latest output, an art song of 104 measures. This score follows faithfully Cavafy’s narrative aspects. As a first step I propose the following as the main isotopies of the piece together with  their modalities. These isotopies illustrate the way the two codes of music and poetry cooperate before their final blending in the art song (lieder) in this encounter of Rorem with Cavafy.


I. Mm. 1-7. Introduction: a repetitious rhythmic pattern (an isorhythm based on the 12/8), interpreted on the far left register of the piano, a register that makes it difficult to distinguish pitch, thus giving a timpani-like quality. This pattern does not in any way turn into a recitative. With the entrance of the triplet figures in measure 4, although not a complete shift, we might interpret it as a tendency to change from purely spatial to actorial articulation. The triplet figures are not simply filling the musical empty space by a quasi decorative role, but they seem to remain an allusion of a busy and crowded forum space of this late Roman city, throughout the whole piece. Generally the introduction is almost disengaged, and regarding its respective modality we may argue that it remains at the level of “not-doing.” These introductory measures serve as a sender for subsequent actors and function as a hidden source for the inner “must” of the work. While they do not contain any clearly profiled theme-actors, they represent some outer iconic or indexical sign relations, thus containing some narrational seeds. So it is not purely and innerly musical, since they skillfully give the pulse of the forum, or the “public square” according to Rorem.


II. Mm. 8-11. Introduction of the main actor, through a simple, short, and easy to memorize melodic line. This introduction serves as leitmotif of the civilization; thus it borrows from the Wagnerian topos, so that the actor includes an iconic sign relationship to the external reality of the composition. The section dwells in the middle register, while the isorhythm accompanies it in its quasi timpani character in the bass register until measure 19. This creates a considerable expansion of the musical space. The section centers on tonic C minor. It consists of simple spatial relations, with a predominant interval of the minor third, which echoes a “norm” inside the tonal system, and helps it become the signpost of civilization. The question rendered by the citizen of this Roman city “What are we waiting for assembled in the public square?” provides a feeling of forward directness and represents a positive will (we can symbolically use “will+”). On the other hand, since it is a question that awaits an answer, it represents a negative know (“know-“). The modality of “can” focuses the technical aspects of a potential interpretation of the piece. Nothing till this point seems to demand excessive virtuosity, from both the instrumentalist’s part and the singer’s part. Therefore we can assume that we are in modality “can 0.” The next modality refers to how close to the traditional style and genre traditions this piece is. It is the modality of “must.” As we consider this piece an art song, Rorem has not diverted from the “norm” of an art song. He does not add any excessive pianistic figurations; his theme is simple and easily interpreted by the singer, therefore we are in a “must 0” modality. Regarding our last modality of “Believe,” we need to follow Uberto Eco’s claim that it is characteristic of any sign not only to speak truths, but also to lie or betray. In the search of such epistemic modalizations as affirm/doubt, deny/admit, to open the ears/to mislead, to deceive or betray/to uncover a deceit or betrayal on the level of musical enunciate and enunciation, we find the following: until the introduction of the second major signpost-theme in measure 12, namely the lines of the second speaker/citizen of the city we only have establishments and affirmations. The musical space is later further enriched and expanded with the introduction of the first theme in a different register. The tonal center is also affirmed during the introduction of the aforementioned theme. We might also claim the existence of the “open the ears” modality since we have a question made by the speaker awaiting an answer.

Mm. 12-15. Introduction to the second leitmotif of the piece. The second speaker answers. “The barbarians are to arrive today.” Rorem switches from rhythm 12/8 to 6/4. He also introduces the topos of the oriental maqam chord fused in F; therefore, he technically shakes the balanced topos of the civilization with its established C-minor tonality. This disengagement is further emphasized by the leap of the ascending minor ninth interval (a dissonant interval to the traditional western harmony). The inevitable disengagement that occurs in the upper part also tries to expand in the lower part. The isorhythm of the lower part proves strong enough, and it remains almost unaffected. Actoriality is therefore present at this section and works at the surface narrative level (second speaker), as well as at the level of deep narration, which shows how actors have been generated from a code generated by the composer-enunciator, a code meant to heard clearly by the perceptive listener. The motif’s intervention contains the will to change everything, to break with the already existing stability, so it might speak about a “will+” modality. On a narrative and musical level, this information, provided by the second speaker’s answer with the potential dysphoria that it might produce, makes us believe that we are in a modality of “know+”. Although the aforementioned ascending ninth interval cannot be considered as technically difficult for a contemporary performer, one can assume that we are at the “can+” modality, since a refreshingly new sound is provided. The stylistic topos of the art song remains unaffected, thus we assume a “must 0” modality. Finally regarding the last modality, we could argue about an affirmative character in terms of the listener, and on the level of musical enunciate and enunciation one might assume an “open the ears” character.

The two short topoi themes become interwoven tightly in an interplay between such opposing themes as civilization/barbarism, or nature/culture, or if we are willing to go further, decadence/regeneration. At the same time, they appear as Wagnerian topoi, following the tradition of the leitmotif, as they are short and easily recognizable melodic structures, playing the role of a kind of musical signpost. They remain intertwined throughout the whole piece as two major building blocks. Often appearing slightly transformed through variations, sometimes only a part of them appear. Rorem uses the technique of gradually transposing the second theme in higher but always neighboring positions as a way of creating tension. Following the above method the piece reaches its climactic point in measure 63. This dynamic also helps create a climax in measure 63. Starting from measure 52, we are steadily on a forte dynamic, and from measure 57 steadily on fortissimo until measure 72. Rorem is also using a new semantic topos on measure 56. We could name it the “forbidden.” The interval of the augmented 4 th recurrently appears six times within five measures (three times as C-F#, and three as G-C#) and is the notorious tritone, called a “devil’s” interval. Rorem employs it as the first speaker asks “Why don’t our worthy orators come forth as usual to make their speeches, to have their say?” And in measures 76-78 Rorem uses a transposed lower a major second at the first part of the first leitmotif and in the moment when the first speaker asks “Why are the streets and squares clearing so quickly, everyone going home so lost in thought?” We may easily observe a tendency to present the theme fragmented this time, as if he might want to align the theme with the people who cease to exist as organic parts of the polis gathered at the public square, and instead return to their private spaces as individuals lost in thought. Rorem’s choice to align with the atmosphere of the poem becomes explicit during the last measure as the lost enthusiasm, excitement, and activity finds its musical expression through the interval of the diminished 5 th , the fading dynamics to the point of the softest possible (ppp: even softer than pianissimo, used mainly during the romantic era, which was typical for exaggerations in the use of expressive means).

As an ongoing process, I suggest an analysis of the phonetic-musical features of the song, i.e., the musical points where the marked phonetic values or long vowels are placed. A map of the places in which a vowel with a duration of at least a quarter note,

occurs on a strong, stressed part of the measure might show the location of the most important values. Rorem used his own translation because he thought he had a better overall control; better both in terms of presenting a kind of language that sounded familiar and friendly to most ears, and in terms of having the same number of a particular kind of vowel found in the original poem. Thus, he blatantly took the initiative to change a word on the very first line of the poem: “Τί περιμένουμε στην αγορά συναθροισμένοι;” Instead of being faithful to the original and translating the word αγορά with the Latin word “forum,” he translates it as “public space.” This generates the question of accessibility of his translation to the listener who possibly did not feel comfortable with the Latin word forum. Interestingly enough, most critics rank Rorem’s audience as a highly sophisticated one, and for such an audience a Latin word should sound familiar. His particular word choice might be explained in terms of maintaining the same number as well as sound quality of vowels. Surprisingly, Rorem’s translation has exactly the same number of e/a/o, even the diphthong ου, as the original. It becomes evident now how Cavafy’s poetry dictates Rorem’s musical choices. He himself becomes the initial perceiver of Cavafy’s poetry and this act of perception is a catalyst for the final outcome. The following section will further elucidate Rorem’s role as a perceiver and its significance for the synergy of double coding in the art song form.




A. Ned Rorem: A Case Study in Musical Rendition of Poetry


Rorem, born in 1923 in Indiana, is both a prolific composer who finds a home in a variety of musical genres and an author of books consisting mainly of personal diaries and writing on the subject of music. His body of work includes some 18 books and over 400 art songs. He is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner and is considered among the best living composers of art songs. In his Facing the Night: A Diary (1999-2005) and Musical Writings, Rorem is explicit in acknowledging his five identities, namely: atheist, pacifist, alcoholic (recovered), homosexual, and composer. He then elaborates on his thoughts by claiming that the first two are acquired convictions, the second two are birthright characteristics, and the third “[t]he composer is the only “problem”” (Rorem 8). It is striking that Rorem did not follow the chosen path of most non-Greek composers by using an existing translation of Cavafy, as there are many canonical English translations, but instead undertook his own. In his answer to the author of this study, Rorem confessed that Cavafy spoke directly to his heart. [9] In other words, he identified himself with Cavafy to such an extent that he did not want any third person—such as a professional translator— to mediate an encounter with the poet. A pure romantic, he chose instead to establish a channel of communication with his deceased partner through Cavafy. Rorem is more explicit when he tries to tackle the fusion of poetry and music. In his Critical Affairs: A Composer’s Journal, published in 1970, and more specifically, in the second chapter, entitled “Poetry of Music: With a Postscript Honoring Whitman,” he states that “music serves no purpose beyond itself” and that “it has no innate content beyond itself.” As such, Rorem continues, one could possibly compare music with poetry. And he adds:

When singers question me on the significance of the words to a song, I answer: They signify whatever music tells you they signify. What more do I know about poetry? Poems they are not Why. They are Because. Comprised of both question and answer they mirror music more singularly than any other human enterprise. Perhaps because of their common quality, poetry and music often marry [. . . ] Having his verse set to music is not necessarily the ultimate compliment a poet may receive from a composer. Yet many poets today covet the idea, at least before the fact. They ponder Beethoven and Schiller, Schumann and Heine, Ravel and Mallarmé, those sublime collaborative unions wherein the poet’s words were illuminated while presumably remaining the same—the same, only more so! (25)

Indeed Rorem has a lot to say about the relationship of music and poetry as he

proves himself a skillful composer in a variety of music genres and especially in the art song. [10] Time called him “the world’s best composer of art songs,” and that label accompanies him throughout his illustrious career. He regards the collaborations between music and poetry as rare yet successful examples in which the verse is not able to stand all alone, and the composer is denied extra creative expressional outlet that results in a transformation toward a new art form, namely a song. Therefore, song becomes the reincarnation of a poem that has been destroyed. The composer is the artist who will wed poetry to sound, thus creating a third entity of different and sometimes greater magnitude. “The composer, no matter how respectful, must treat poetry as a skeleton on which to bestow flesh, breaking a few bones in the process” (26). Such a view might give sufficient explanation to his motivation, —that might make a part of this audience feel uncomfortable— to interact with the original, and not offer a “close” translation. Rorem emphasizes the sense of freedom and independency a composer needs to have from the poet —no matter how heavy the gravitational forces from the part of the embedded section of the genre might be— in order not to recreate what the poet was “hearing” but what the composer now hears. Obviously, “we have come a long way since Homer, and poems today are mostly made and absorbed in silence” (28). He thus shapes the limits of the poet’s intervention during the creation of the art song, as the poet’s work ends with their poems. In order to better grasp to what extent the poet Cavafy intervenes in Rorem’s art song, a closer look at Cavafy’s case follows.




 C. P. Cavafy: a Major Modernist Poet


The Context


During the final years of the 19 th century and the dawn of the 20 th century, Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city of the Mediterranean. Political turmoil and tensions between the different ethnic groups for the control and domination of the crucial segment of trade—mainly the cotton trade—inevitably resulted in the exploitation of the local Arabic populations through cruel methods. Any resistance on the part of the victims had to be squashed immediately. Alexandria was bombarded by the English navy, and massive executions of the local population were not at all a rare phenomenon.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) was born in Alexandria, Egypt and lived almost his entire life there. From 1872 to 1885 the Cavafy family wandered, and after brief pauses in Marseilles, Paris and London, they settled in Liverpool for five years. After their almost complete financial collapse they moved to Constantinople and finally back to Alexandria in 1885. While he did not abandon his British nationality—a sort of English protection that his father had obtained around 1850—he was beginning to feel and think as a Hellene. [11]

Cavafy’s paths of inspiration and the methods he used significantly differed from those taken by his contemporary poets of the Greek mainland. During this period the mainland Greeks were conscious about their continuing to be a “puppet state” after their newly-won independence from the Ottoman occupation. In every crucial decision, the “great powers,” England, France and Russia, were involved. [12]   Soon a gap appeared between the common speech and the official language adopted by the governing institutions, namely the state and the church. The latter was an artificial literary language with an abundance of archaic words and expressions and may better be understood as the efforts of the state’s conservative line to prove the theory that the contemporary Greeks were the direct descendents of such figures as Homer, Pericles, Plato, and Alexander. This purist version of the Greek language was known as kathareuousa and most poets tried to avoid its use. Patriotism, sympathy with the literature of Western Europe, and a sort of triumphant lyricism were dominant in the Greek poetry of the late 19 th century. The above characteristics were all present in the poetry of Palamas and of others who were accomplishing that powerful revival. Palamas’ poetry was associated with “the big idea,” an ideology preaching the regeneration of the Greek nation, so that it could eventually reach the size and glory of the days of the Byzantine Empire. Palamas was often viewed as Cavafy’s opposite on the trajectory of “Greekness.” Some went further and saw Palamas and Cavafy as the most defining binary in Modern Greek Literature.

Cavafy, although conscious of the splendor and breadth of the Greek tradition, does not find his themes in Homer, nor in the age of Pericles. Instead, his inspiration comes from the Hellenistic era marked by the blending of cultures and races in cities such as Alexandria or Antioch in which Greek and Jew, pagan and Christian, sophist, Priest and barbarian form a complicated pattern, far removed from the Periclean classical model. His world is the inversion of the heroic-a world without any of the obvious epic, lyric or tragic grandeurs. Cavafy finds significance in the first steps or incidentals and not in some great accomplishment or successful quest. His heroism is the heroism of the individual, rather than the heroism of cause or state or the professional strong man.

Cavafy had a constant flirtation with the margin. On the one hand, he was part of the prosperous Greek community of Alexandria, and on the other, he lacked any substantial financial means, since the entire family fortune was lost in a series of  “unfortunate ventures.” Cavafy ended up in a dull minor post in the Irrigation Office that provided him with a modest income, more spare time, and a form of “protection” under English supervisors. Cavafy stands in the margin also for his erotic tastes: the controlled-bodily passion morality of the 19 th century in Alexandria looked down on homosexuality and forbade a homosexual life style. Within these narrow confines, Cavafy considered himself Greek in a broader sense and used for himself the term Alexandrinos (Alexandrian).

Some statements, attributed to him, seem rather unhelpful if not misleading. He declared that his poems could be divided into three categories: philosophical, historical and erotic, yet such a division is problematic, since many of his poems are both historical and erotic, not to mention that those he called “philosophical” were mainly about ethical questions. He also seldom reveals a historian’s view of cause and effect.

The poet also translated selections from Tennyson, Keats, Shelley, Dante, and Shakespeare into Greek. Despite his “classical” education, he is a modern poet—yet again without belonging to the “core” of modernism—but maintaining a sophisticated stance on modernity. According to Peter Bien, Cavafy did what Proust, Mann, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Conrad and Gide did, namely “elaborating artistic visions of homo Europeus.” Yet Cavafy, who aligned with his Alexandrian identity, did it naively and almost completely by instinct, turning it into an aesthetic stance as well as mode.

Cavafy’s biography gives us little help in understanding his poetry. He clearly stands apart from the Greek poetic traditions of his day. However, the French Decadent tradition of the 1870s and 1880s provides some parallels to Cavafy’s poetics. Even though we do not have evidence that the poet read the novel Against Nature by J. K. Huysmans and the poetry of Jules Laforgue, which were supposed to define a modern sensibility, with the emphasis given to the individual emotional response and to intense experiences, we do know that Cavafy read Les fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire, a poet generally seen as the father of modern European poetry.

Although some of his poems appeared in journals, Cavafy did not publish volumes with commercial publishing houses. It would be rather typical for him to write seventy or so poems a year, destroy most of them, and then circulate the rest in printed broadsheets to his inner circle or friends and relatives. Cavafy’s poems achieved international acclaim when writers such as E. M. Forster, Laurence Durrell, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden brought his work to the attention of a worldwide audience.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” appears to be Cavafy’s most scrutinized poem after “The God Abandons Antony.” According to Dimitri Maronitis, “Waiting for the Barbarians” enjoys a privileged position when it comes to public recitations. He then gives the example of such an occasion during Edward Said’s funeral; his daughter recited this poem in almost a ritualistic way. She said that her father was an admirer of Cavafy’s poetry and that he considered this poem as a revealing comment on the contradictory relationships between people of different cultures (155). Some possible sources of inspiration for his theme might include the 1820 twelve-volume edition of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, possibly engaged in a parallel reading—according to George Savidis—of Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos’ multi-volume History of the Greek Nation.




The Poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”


Cavafy’s Waiting for the Barbarians has attracted numerous scholars who offered their own interpretations, ranging from those which show Cavafy as a politically-engaged poet (Stratis Tsirkas’) to others that insist that Cavafy remained cold and indifferent to politics his entire life (Timos Malanos’). For instance, in 1963 Tsirkas argued that the situation portrayed in the poem is meant to refer to the condition of modern Egypt, one that turns the English into the agents of barbarism. Cavafy might have been careful not to disappoint his employers or might even have been afraid to lose his underpaid position. The predicament to which the poem refers has no relation to any events in Modern Greek history.

Regarding the theme, Malanos in 1957 reports the following:

One day when he talked to me about the barbarians I came to understand that he used the word to mean nothing more than barbarians, whereas in “The Satrapy” he used the word “Susa” to mean a life of leisure, just as by the word “Alexandria” in “The God Abandons Antony” he meant more than life. In his interpretive analysis he expounded to me first Nietzsche’s philosophical theory on the eternal return, to end later on the main problem that had preoccupied him once: Whether our civilization, going on for centuries, is stable or is it possible at some point in the future to be disrupted and a period of barbarism to follow in its wake. (299)

The poet intentionally obliterated all traces to identify locale and chronology. This did not discourage scholars from speculating regarding both the above issues: Michaletos in 1952 argues in favor of Rome, while Peridis and Malanos favor an “ideal city.” Tsirkas in 1958 claims that the analysis of Cavafy’s “learned sources” leads to the conclusion that the city is Byzantium, and secondarily, Rome. In 1896, Cavafy had a strong interest in Byzantium and sought to find in it a locale for his personae. He then became even more specific in concluding that “Waiting for the Barbarians” must be an early Byzantine poem. Cavafy’s biographer, Robert Liddell, finds Tsirkas’ contention excessive and draws attention to the personal element in the poem: Cavafy shares in this poem the same mood as the Symbolist poets. This mood of realistic pessimism is also present in “Candles,” “The City,” and “Walls.”

Speculation regarding the poem’s fictional chronology seems to be even more limited. This one-day event or scene of the fictional city must not have taken place later than 541 A.D. based on the historic fact that the consulate was no longer functional after that date.

This poem could also be interpreted in part as a satire on Gibbon’s faith in the Enlightenment ideal and a rejection of his anti-Greek and anti-Christian views on the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire. For Gibbon, Europe had become secure from potential eruptions of Barbarism. Cavafy questions Gibbon’s theory of perfection, where Gibbon argues the idea of progress:


The experience of four thousand years should enlarge our hopes, and diminish our apprehensions; we cannot determine to what height the human species may aspire in their advances toward perfection; but it may safely be presumed that no people, unless the face of nature is charged, will relapse into their original barbarism. (VI, xxxviii, 418 [IV, 167-8])

The thematic study of this poem can be interpreted on two levels: 1. the transformation of the historical sources, and 2. the parameters of self-reference. One might suspect that Cavafy shaped his “Barbarians” to match the almost perfect Europeans of the Enlightenment. Against the backdrop of hypothetical decline, the civilized people can always be recharged and revitalized as a political and cultural group by barbarians. This could happen, however, only under conditions in which the barbarians are still barbarous. Then, they could usher a civilized relapse into an original state of barbarism, something impossible according to Gibbon. Cavafy offers his skepticism on the desirability of perfection and the potential risk of death due to “over-civilization,” which renders glory to the city on the one hand, but deprives it on the other of the ability to view itself as an agent of progress, fatally approaching toward the very edge of exhaustion. The only hope to guarantee this rejuvenation must be through outside intervention and transfusion of new waves of energy from some kind of barbaric source. Such a source would thus function as a kind of “pharmakon” in its Derridean sense as both poisonous and therapeutic. [13] As a method of therapy, an injection of barbaric purity would be required from the pre-civilization barbarians who stand outside any political or ethical practices. Unable to face the severity of this crisis, both people and leaders desperately turn to fatalism, drained of energy, yet still hoping to seek some kind of miraculous solution from the “outside.” The imaginative-symbolic city will remain nameless and colorless, a fictional city till the end, although the poet says nothing about how the city ended. However, he makes it clear that among its representatives are not poets, but administrators, office-holders, bureaucrats, and an emperor. It is a striking fact that cultural/spiritual forces are absent. Inevitably, at this point Cavafy becomes didactic, as the only alternative at stake seems to emerge from within. The latter could possibly take the shape of radical reforms imposed by charismatic leaders addressed onto a people who are willing to undertake adventurous paths. Additionally these reforms from within might echo a Platonic solution as the only way to save the almost already fallen city, rich in material goods but poor in virtue.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” remains Cavafy’s comment on the cultural exhaustion of the “over-civilized” politically-decadent city, and reflects at the same time his own inevitable exhaustion with the doctrines of Symbolism. This latter came with the poet’s break with political and aesthetic romanticism and his final disengagement from its literary faith. Admitting the non-existence of the barbarians does not necessarily make prominent any reform from within. We thus face a pathetic irony which tries to reach even deeper: Cavafy himself composes in the Symbolist mode a symbolic poem with a fictional decadent city in a fictional time, with a minimal historical veil, to grasp the essence of his own complied impasse with current Symbolist doctrines. The Symbolist movement proved to be sufficiently weak in terms of giving answers in regard to how a poet could become a legitimate citizen in the city of ideas or how to balance the delicate issue of being both a provocative poet and an obedient citizen. Distancing himself from these doctrines and having realized that the “kind of solution” offered by the barbarians comes from the outside further tempted him to try other solutions from within. This makes every citizen a responsible decision maker, someone who is willing to take control of his destiny and become an active citizen of the city. He feels less suffocated inside his imaginary walls, as he spends more and more time now outside in the public space.

In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the space of poetic praxis is not a closed area, a private or a personal space. On the contrary, it is an open public space. It is in this public space that both the description of the events and the poetic action take place, as an official public event. In addition to that, the realization of the narration happens through the dialogue between two people. This could also be interpreted as the dramatic monologue of someone who offers his critical views, comments and reflections on the events of the public sphere. While we do not have any action or decision taken, the overall mood during the final lines is that of continuous inertia and pessimism. The narration takes place within the span of one day. We have the first marker of time indicated with the question: “Why did our emperor get up so early in the morning?” The second marker of time is toward the end, when we read: “Because night has fallen and the barbarians did not show up.” At the end of the day, the public space empties and people return to the safety of their private spaces.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is written in a free iambic meter and belongs to the group of pre-1911 unrhymed poems, which are governed by fairly regular metrics. This group consists of “Thermopylae,” “Waiting for the Barbarians,” “Trojans,” “The Footsteps,” “The Satrapy,” and “The Ides of March.” We learn from Edmund Keeley that George Savvides, Cavafy’s primary editor,

has suggested (in an unpublished lecture) that the year 1911 seems to mark the final stage of progress in the poet’s changing conception of himself: from a gifted aesthete in search of his voice to a committed poet who knows where he is heading and who plans to devote himself diligently to getting there. (20)

“Waiting for the Barbarians,” faithful to many dominant Modernist principles from Mallarmé onward, is unashamedly a difficult poem in which difficulty itself is seen as an aesthetic trait. I will try to tackle these “difficulties,” by using the definitions provided by George Steiner in his On Difficulty, and Other Essays. Steiner takes as his starting point the question: “What do we mean when we say: This or this part of this poem is difficult?” (18) and proceeds to construct a theory of Difficulty. He then argues for the existence of four types of difficulties: contingent, modal, tactical and ontological.

Contingent difficulties are those difficulties that occur from the lack of knowledge of etymological, biographical, historical information, and many others which can be resolved through the use of a dictionary or any reference book. Cavafy’s poem has plenty of contingent difficulties, e.g. the way the Consulate functioned during the Roman era, who negotiated with the invaders. These are practical difficulties and are the easiest kind to resolve.

Second, modal difficulties and those difficulties that refer to elements of identities of different civilizations and eras which ceased to exist within the time. The challenge in how to capture the “spirit of an era” through the lines of a poem is an existing one. In many cases, the researcher will not find sufficient help from the various sources and needs to reconstruct in his/her imagination a whole specific environment. Cavafy’s lines set up the stage by reconstructing through the imagination the consulate, the bureaucrats wearing jewelry, and the emperor sitting at the city’s highest point. This requires the reader to make an imaginative leap, which somehow will make possible the impossible, to live for a few moments inside this historical time, forever gone.

Third, tactical difficulties are those difficulties which often have, at their root, the author’s intention to slow down the pace of the reading process, creating a number of uncertainties that require special attention on the reader’s part. These difficulties require concentration on the issues of the function of language and literature. Cavafy’s decision is to realize his scenes not through a constant narration but through a system of questions and answers, —which could be either a dialogue between two citizens of the city or a dramatic monologue, and which makes it more active and more interesting—. The pace of the flow of the information has been slowed down, and plenty of anticipation is generated for the reader who needs to clarify a number of issues to overcome these difficulties. “Waiting for the Barbarians” is a short poem, something very typical for Cavafy. However, he generously applies these techniques of slowing the reading pace. The type of narration he chooses—through recurrent questions and answers—proves that he skillfully uses poetic economy, even on such a miniature scale.

Fourth, ontological Difficulties are those that occur when certain rules governing the dissemination of the message from the author to the reader cease to exist. These rules reflect the very nature of the language and the existence of literature as an institution, bringing forth a number of questions in terms of the creation and reception of art.

In sum, the first type refers to practical problems of reading a text, while both types one and two are in a way related to the time and distance from the era the text refers to, and the contemporary reader. Thus, it tackles the problem of the imaginative reconstruction of the era. Type three deals with the process of the reading of the poem. Type four condenses all the ontological preconditions of reading; it reflects an allegory on the nature of reading. This type underlines the fact that reading is always and only about the reading of a text, and the very existence of a text presupposes the existence of other texts, which brings us to the issue of intertextuality, a theme which is omnipresent in Cavafy’s work.

Nanos Valaoritis argues that Cavafy paved the way for those Greek poets who belong to the so-called “Generation of the ’30” (656). [14]   He traces strong influences to

such poets as Andreas Embirikos, and Nikos Egonopoulos, both surrealists, and others, including Odysseus Elytis, George Seferis, and Nikos Gatsos. In Elytis’s Axion Esti,

he clearly finds that certain phrases sound very Cavafean, while in Seferis he traces certain principles of Modernism, such as the elliptic use of the language, or the revival of the quarrels between the ancients and the moderns, to be very Cavafean. Valaoritis considers the line “What are we waiting for crowded in the forum” from Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” in 1904 as the line which moves Modern Greek Poetry toward the direction of Modernism (650). In his same article, he argues for strong intertextual influences in the Cavafean “Waiting for the Barbarians.” He compares it to a text of Edgar Allan Poe, written in 1833, without, however, indicating its title. The Poe text was first published in 1836, according to Valaoritis, in the journal Notios Logotechnikos Taxudromos (654).

Tellos Agras finds, in his 1922 article, “The Poet C. P. Cavafy,” [15] that Cavafean poetry is full of skepticism, a pessimism full of deep humanistic overtones, a kind of poetry that does not require a particular initiation on the part of the reader. Its poetic language is just one step above everyday usage. It is a kind of poetry in which the reader can simply immerse, without having to be “formally dressed,” as he does not need to follow decorum. Agras makes a case for Cavafy’s “Barbarians” as a universal model.

He then considers Cavafy’s poem as a reflection on [16] Baudelaire, particularly in speaking about death. [17]

In comparing the tones of the two poems, Agras reads Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” as a binary opposite of Charles Baudelaire’s lines. The Cavafy lines do not reveal that they contain the appropriate energy to proceed to a vain mutiny. Cavafy is not aggressive. He only whispers, while Baudelaire cries with all his force. Cavafy never calls for anyone— he knows it is useless, for he does not expect anyone to show up or even hear his desperate cries. He remains speechless, fully persuaded of the uselessness of any action he might take, and he accepts his fate. Baudelaire is a kind of dream traveler, always intoxicated, with every decision made in its extremity.

In the lines of “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the critic Tellos Agras also “hears” Paul Verlaine’s Langueur. [18] In Cavafy’s decadent Rome, those big white barbarians do not exist, making the whole situation more tragic. Their existence places us in a precarious but highly attractive position. Cavafy’s ending line: “Those people were a kind of solution” becomes even more bitter and ironic than Jules Laforgues’ phrase: “Ah, que la vie est quotidienne.” Without these people the citizens are completely unable to escape the boredom and inactivity of their everyday decadent lives, which contain more death than death itself.

Rorem’s attachment to this poem effaces all the aforementioned difficulties developed by George Steiner. The lines of Cavafy that contain more death than death itself appeared to him at a critical turn of his life, when he lost his life-long companion and devoted to him his collection of the nineteen songs, “Another Sleep.” Rorem thus limited Cavafy’s intervention to his own lines, shutting his ears to the interpretations of others, in an effort to create a sublime collaborative union wherein the poet’s words were illuminated.






The importance of double-coding in lieder (art songs) is depicted in the perception of the receivers, —not as poetry and music or the embedded section and the embedding one,— but as a unified new art form, capable of an independent existence; for, in lieder, the line between the embedded section and the embedding one is blurred. This line becomes practically indiscernible because the embedding voice “speaks” on both sides of the line.

It has been also explained that music remains completely independent from the material world. While it connects to the affective core—the “heart”— of the individual, it symbolically evokes the external world, which is the world into which individuals may project themselves through language. In a way, music resides in its own “sacred reclusive life,” helpless to escape this inability to provide meaning, which leads to a number of significant problems. Something needs to be “fixed” or “adjusted” in the representational world if we want to attract and hold the attention of perceivers in our world. Exposing and highlighting a character’s response as a model for perceivers in our world may be regarded as a reason why artists often use the technique of double coding. Double coding becomes almost inevitable in situations in which the artist of the embedding section has no technical proficiency in the expressive possibilities of the medium of the embedded section. In our example, Ned Rorem is a skilled composer of a variety of genres, but mostly of the art song. He thus demonstrates an ability to control and weave the musical sound and not the poetic verse. With the fusion of music and poetry, obviously the embedded medium (poetry) of the new genre (art song) becomes controlled by the embedding medium (music). Both poetry and music, become literally controlled by the artist of the embedding medium, Rorem. Under Rorem’s control, we cease to have an external text “breathing” into another medium; the transformation, which according to Yuri Lotman, occurs not only within the entering text, but indeed the entire semiotic situation inside the other text also changes.

The embedding and embedded voices communicate through one or sometimes several channels. We may imagine those channels as gates capable of managing the “osmotic” forces between the two sections. In the case of the art song, we might imagine that the poetic section (embedded voice) includes more energy (“osmotic forces”), since its meaning-disseminating energy level needs to be released, with the easiest and safest way possible through the communication gate(s) toward the embedding section and then toward the perceiver.

The art song, as most doubly coded forms, generates questions on the relations of the embedded and embedding sections. Decisions need to be made about where the embedding voice speaks alone, or which elements of both voices are being shared, etc. Nothing should be taken for granted since a number of external reasons in such decisions need to be considered, such as the perceiver’s previous exposure to double-coded artworks, the historical period, the cultural environment of the perceiver’s life, etc.

Ned Rorem not only created the embedding voice, but also took control of Cavafy’s poem, because according to him, “it spoke to his condition as a Quaker,” and because he felt the need to speak himself. Rorem used Cavafy’s irony as a comment to highlight his pacifist stance. Some twelve years had passed from the time he declared to Lawrence D. Mass that art may be able to make political statements, but it cannot have political effect. The song was written in June 2000. Rorem was approaching his eightieth birthday, and he might have decided to speak more directly to his perceivers. Rorem’s incorporation of Cavafy’s voice might be seen as an opportunity for him to speak openly, leading his listeners to question themselves about “who is barbarian” or “who needs the barbarians” and to whom the barbarians “are a kind of solution.” Although I might enter into some speculation, I dare argue that by incorporating Cavafy’s lines in June 2000, Rorem foreshadows the crisis that came to follow in the events of 9/11 in New York. In this sense, Cavafy enables Rorem to articulate a political comment in a very timely fashion.

Cavafy remains against what in the Modern Greek context has been perceived as a primarily oral tradition. He offers his thoughts on reading and writing in his poem “In the Month of Athyr.” Here, Cavafy is once again an “elegant anomaly,” an exception to the rule. He remains the only one who does not deny his art, since he declared, “I take care of and love my art.” Cavafy’s poetry is a voyage deep into the philological and philosophical written tradition; it is about writing on the art of writing and reading. It is the exact opposite of what the late romantic tradition was pushing poetry to become, namely a “weak” poetry. Cavafy breaks with that tradition by writing “difficult poetry,” which contains all the categories of difficulties George Steiner determined, making it almost impossible to become part of the oral tradition. Ned Rorem helps Cavafy enter into oral speech through the channel of a doubly-coded work of art, namely the art song. The art song is by itself difficult, yet it renders Cavafy’s poetry the occasion of being performed, so in a way to be spoken. Through Rorem, Cavafy has been sung in the same manner as all the works of his “Greek” predecessors.




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[1] See Guy Michaud and Paul Bourgière, “L’art de la fugue: Les Faux-monnayeursDialogues II, (January 1951): 49-61 in L’Œuvre et ses techniques (Paris: Nizet, 1974) and Karin Ciholas Nordenhaug, Gide’s Art of the Fugue: A Thematic Study of Les Faux-Monnayeurs (Chapel Hill: North Carolina in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 1974).

[2] Likewise, the architect Charles Jencks uses the term “doubly coded” to draw attention to the hybridity of postmodern architecture: a doubly coded building incorporates both modern and traditional elements and appeals to both high and popular tastes.

[3] Lotman describes the “far-reaching consequences” of the introduction of any “external text” into another: The external text is transformed in the structural field of the other text’s meaning and a new message is created . . . [T]he transformation occurs not only within the entering text; the entire semiotic situation inside the other text is also changed” (PMLA 109.3): 378-79.

[4] It is interesting to note here how deeply-rooted Rorem’s identity is as a Quaker. I found it interesting also that the Literary Encyclopedia uses an example from the life of the Quakers to explain what the technique of the mise en-abyme is. I quote here the relevant passage: “English and American readers may wish to consider the traditional Quaker Oats emblem of the Quaker holding up a packet of Quaker oats, on which there is a Quaker holding up a packet of Quaker oats, and so towards infinite regress.” This example better supports how this technique was engraved in Rorem’s mind.

[5] Engh, B. “Loving It: Music and Criticism in Roland Barthes” (qtd. in Solie): 66-79.

[6] F. Hofstein, “Drogue et musique,” Musique en jeu. 9 (1972): 111-15.

[7] L. B. Meyer, Explaining Music, (Los Angeles: U of California P, 1973): 242.

[8] From the Composer’s Note, located between the cover page and the vocal texts in the music score (there is no page indication). Rorem, deeply wounded by the recent death of his friend, is reflecting upon death. He starts with the following lines of Pascal: “Who knows if this other half of life in which / we think we are awake is not another sleep a / little different from the first, from which we / awaken when we think we are asleep?”

[9] The 85-year-old composer promptly replied through Ms. Mary G. Marshall, his niece. From the information he kindly shared with me, I conclude that “he never met Cavafy” in person, and “chose the poem because it “spoke to his condition,” as Quakers say.” A few days later I received from him a photocopy of the composer’s note of his music score Another Sleep: Nineteen Songs for Medium Voice and Piano.

[10] I would argue that Rorem is a master of the art of giving interviews as well. His answers seem smart and well-balanced, avoiding any extreme positions. Lawrence D. Mass confesses that interviewing Ned Rorem in 1988 was not an easy endeavor. While The Paris Diary and The Nantucket Diary remained for years the first and best-known accounts of open homosexuality in the world of music, his answers in regard to group bonding and  identity—both rich and frustrating—did not compensate homosexuality with any special credit when it comes to artistic creation. Rorem made it clear that “being homosexual was no more interesting or pertinent, no more worthy of comment or analysis than being heterosexual” (Brett, Wood, Thomas 85). In The Nantucket Diary Rorem writes that he might be attracted to a “gay libretto,” but at the same time he is more strongly drawn to a pacifist libretto. Rorem’s smooth and mild statemets continue when he tackles political issues as well. He believes that art cannot have a political effect, and artists are unable to make people march away from war. According to him, art is not related to morality; it was created in leisure and not in the heat of battle. Rorem’s pacifism is destined to find a number of different routes in order to provide sufficient answers to its ontological questions.

[11] During the late 19 th and early 20 th century the environment in Alexandria was a very cosmopolitan one. Next to Arabic, French, English and Italian, Greek was one of the most widely spoken languages in Alexandria. As the Greek community kept growing in complexity and size, it appeared as a small nation of about 80,000 within a large state, with a desire to endure a group and to survive in economic competition. Their central concern was how to stay close to the political turmoil and the cultural developments of the mainland, while working out ways to prove their own worth and independence of mind. The Greeks brought with them attitudes that helped them balance their special affection for the Hellenistic culture of the Ptolemaic era and the softer religious tones of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

[12] The first king of the newly-born state, Otto of Bavarian nobility, was imposed by the great powers of England, France and Russia.

[13] See Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, Trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981).

[14] The Greek Literary Journal “Hartis” (“Map”) is a bi-monthly Review of Literature and the Arts. This double issue (5/6), of April of 1983 was dedicated to C. P. Cavafy.

[15] Tellos Agras, “The Poet C. P. Cavafy,” Nea Hestia  872 (1963): 1397-402.

[16] I avoid the use of the term “intertextuality.” When Agras’ text appeared first in 1922, the term might not have been widely used or at least with that meaning given by Kristeva.

[17] More specifically, he “hears” echoes of  the following Baudelaire lines: O Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps, levons l’ancre!/Ce pays nous ennuie, ô Mort! Appareillons!/Si le ciel et la mer sont noirs comme l’encre,/Nos coeurs que tu connais sont remplis de rayons./Verse-nons ton poison pour qu’il nons réconforte!/Nous voulong,–tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau,–/Plonger au fond du gouffre,–Enfer ou Ciel qu’importe?—/Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau.

[18] Je suis l’empire à la fin de la decadence/Qui regarde passer les grands Barbares blancs/En composant des acrostiches indolents/D’un style d’or où la langueur du soleil danse./………………………………………………./Ah, tous est bu, tout est mange, plus rien à dire…










Andreas Triantafyllou holds a Ph.D. in Humanities and Social Sciences from the University of Edinburg, UK, a MA. in Comparative Literature from Washingtom University in St. Louis and a MA. in Piano Performance from New York University where he has also worked as Adjunct Faculty. He has studied Piano and Chamber Music for three years at the Ecole Normale Alfred Cortot de Musique in Paris and has a solid music backgroud after 12 years of training at the National Corcervatory Manolis Kalomoiris in Athens, Greece. A concert pianist, he also works as a piano instructor while as a scholar is interested in the study of the intersection of music and poetry. Among his other research interests are Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Comparative Literature, Global Literature, Translation Theory and Modern Greek Language and Literature.


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