Review of Preludes and Fugues by Emmanuel Moses, Transl. Marilyn Hacker

Print More

“Who built the church where the whole world huddles?”
The cathedral’s heavy wooden doors were wide open, inviting the world inside for the Washington Bach Consort’s free noontime organ and cantata performance. I crossed the threshold and was surrounded by van Gogh stained glass. Swirls of twilight purples and blues surrounded outlines of dark, quiet church towns and sunlight streaming through yellow glass illuminated figures of Christ. The outline of a labyrinth twisted beneath my feet as I walked down the aisle and sat in the front pew.
People in pews, stained glass windows, pipe organ.At noon, the cathedral’s great pipe organ roared to life with music. Bach’s Fugue in F major shook the very foundations of the church, and I thought of the organ as an actual heart beating life into the church through contrapuntal veins. A fugue builds up like a storm cloud as a musical theme is examined in different voices that eventually all intertwine with each other towards the end, almost losing control of itself.
The crowd applauded at the end of the fugue and J. Reilly Lewis, the director of the Bach Consort and a master organist, stepped out to conduct the cantata. He was a warm, charismatic man with silver hair and a great sense of humor. Lewis was my own music teacher’s mentor and I was told that I absolutely had to see him conduct. Lewis was a brilliant interpreter of Bach and his orchestra used authentic Baroque instruments.
One month later, my music teacher was flying back to Washington, D.C. for Lewis’ funeral. I saw the last noontime concert Lewis ever conducted at before he died of a heart attack. He had vanished beyond what Emmanuel Moses calls, “the impassable threshold,” in his Preludes and Fugues poetry collection translated by Marilyn Hacker.
The “impassable threshold” is the theme that Moses examines in different voices and metaphors throughout the collection: what is before birth and after death? The title of the collection clearly refers to J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier because it mirrors the structure of Bach’s composition: pairs of preludes and fugues for each major and minor key. Each cycle of poems in Moses’ collection consists of four pairs of free verse preludes and fugues.
The interconnection of the poetry in the collection though, reminded me of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, which is a collection of fugues and canons that each use a variation of a single theme, so all the pieces in the collection are connected and the musical meaning of the theme is deepened because of this.
In a fugue, the theme functions as a sort of musical question that the composer contemplates by transposition, variation, and modulation until the question returns in the tonic or home key, now full of meaning after having gone through that musical journey. In Preludes and Fugues, Moses takes the “impassable threshold” theme and examines it by transposing it through different metaphors until we arrive at its larger, more three-dimensional meaning: the cyclical nature of life.
I believe one of the reasons Moses chose to associate this collection of poems with music is because of a musician’s ability to control time. They can make a piece of music grave or allegro or anywhere in between. It is the closest humans ever get to being magical except for maybe when we’re dreaming or when we’re telling stories, which are other ways Moses examines the theme—through dreaming and mythology. In Moses’ poetry, we are “between the current and the cathedral’s enormous dream.” In other words, we are in the realm between time and mystical union with the eternal divine.
For the first cycle of poems, we are sitting with Moses on a bridge that spans over the Rhine as he contemplates time and eternity. A thousand-year-old cathedral sits on top of a hill overlooking the German city of Speyer, birds swooping around its towers. The cathedral is an enormous dream, a womb that gave birth to us even though “we did not ask to be born” and cross the impassable threshold.
In the next cycle, we are climbing Yggdrasil or “the tree of the world,” a sort of cosmic axis from Norse mythology that connects the worlds of the dead, the living, and the gods. Moses insists that “we are the tree of the world,” but he references the fall from Eden throughout the cycle, implying that we have lost that connection between worlds because of the exile from God.
In the next cycle, we modulate through Arthurian myth until we arrive at the nightmare-like realm of the fourth cycle, where death is an organist playing a hymn at a funeral procession that “goes wild in monstrous forms.” In this cycle, I can’t help but think about Paul Celan’s famous Death Fugue poem about the Nazi death camps. Celan’s poem is like a terrible, evil merry-go-round and Moses’ cycle is also soaked with darkness: “circular landscape where his fate turns round/ dark with all its secrets.” The organist’s music creates a dreamscape of an abyss with a “fierce fairground” in its depths. The organ’s soundscape, the abyss, and the circus tent are all metaphors for how God is all-encompassing. As R.M. Rilke once wrote:

I am the dream you are dreaming.
When you want to awaken, I am that wanting:
I grow strong in the beauty you behold.
And with the silence of stars I enfold
your cities made by time.

Immersed in the darkness of the abyss, the final cycle of preludes and fugues asks questions with Hamlet. In the dark prince’s famous “to be or not to be” monologue, he raises the same question that Moses is examining in Preludes and Fugues: “To die, to sleep—to sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.” Hamlet also asks what is beyond Moses’ “impassable threshold.”
Moses doesn’t seem to really answer the question at the end, but the question is heavy with meaning by now, and light pierces the darkness: “what astounding music bursts out in the sky/ the true victory is the sun’s.” Humans will probably never know what lies beyond the impassable threshold, but the fact that life is governed by cycles such as the rising and setting of the sun and the seasons can be a source of hope. Cycles and repetition is also what makes music meaningful and not just a random sequence of notes. If we were cast out from the Garden of Eden by God, there is hope that we can someday cycle back to Eden.
I do not know what became of J. Reilly Lewis when he died because the living cannot follow the dead through the threshold Moses speaks of. The tree of the world that connects the living, the dead, and the gods has gone up in smoke, but perhaps there are seeds from the tree buried beneath the ashes. Anyone who has lived through the season of spring knows what happens to those seeds.
Perhaps life as we know it is a seed.
Paige Foreman is an editorial intern at Tikkun and is currently studying for her Masters in Social Transformation at the Pacific School of Religion. As a seminary student, she’s exploring the intersection between interfaith work, social justice activism, and the arts. In her spare time, Paige writes novels for children and teens, composes music, and trains for swimming across the English Channel.