Bach – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 52/?

Following Igor Severyanin’s Beethoven sonnet of last week, I am going to continue running a small series of poems about composers. This one, by Osip Mandelstam, works as a substitute for his “Ode to Beethoven” that I first wanted to do. It is interesting to see in it the fascination that Lutheran church culture has for a poet used to Russian Orthodox (and Jewish) church culture.

Bach

Children of dust, this congregation,
Here boards instead of icon saints
Where but psalm numbers mark creations
Of J. S. Bach, in chalk and paint.

The tumult of such different voices
In churches and in tavern halls —
While like Isaiah you’re rejoicing,
Oh, Bach, the shrewdest of us all!

When your grandchildren came to hear it,
Debater, playing your chorale,
Was it in truth support for spirit
You sought in proof and rationale?

What is a sound? Sixteenth note fractions,
The organ’s many-layered shout —
Laconic old man, all those actions
Are no more than your mumbling out!

The Lutheran priest as he preaches
On his black pulpit, over verse,
Mixes the sound of his speeches,
Angry respondent, all with yours.

Osip Mandelstam, 1913; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 22, 2019.

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