This essay originally appeared as the Program Notes for the 1983 concert Gertrude Stein: Words and Music

The Music of Gertrude Stein

John Herbert Gill


There are established writers such as Ezra Pound yesterday and Anthony Burgess today, who can claim to be taken seriously as composers of music. But Gertrude Stein?

Yes, she composed as well: what she called “sonatinas” for piano, played on the white keys only. We do not know for sure why she so limited her range. It may have had something to do with her lifelong preoccupation with the number five. Her father’s insistence on having exactly five children had meant that two of the original Stein children had died in order that Gertrude and her brother Leo could be born. It would be consistent with her superstitious fear of that number that she would choose to leave those five black keys alone.

Unfortunately, we will never hear any of those sonatinas, for they were improvised and never written down. We can only guess how they fell on the ear of Alice B. Toklas, who been given a serious musical education in preparation for a career as a concert pianist. Virgil Thomson has paid a kind of tribute to Miss Stein’s evanescent art in his Third Piano Sonata written for the white keys and dedicated to Gertrude Stein “to improvise at the pianoforte.” In spite of the sonata’s simplicity, it is unlikely that she ever played it, as she was unable to read a single note of music. Thomson, in turn, never heard her play, nor did anyone else, he informs me, except Miss Toklas.

Gertrude Stein’s music is to be found in her words. Ever since Virgil Thomson first set the little poem Susie Asado to music, composers have been finding in her way of writing something very agreeable to their own creativity. Even composers who turn more and more to older texts in the face of mounting copyright problems have found it worth the battle to put music to Miss Stein’s words, in spite of the formidable guardianship of her literary estate. “My hope and putting Gertrude Stein to music,” Virgil Thomson once wrote, “had been to break, crack open, and solve for all time anything still waiting to be solved, which was almost everything, about English musical declamation.”

His solution was to concern himself with the sound of words and let the sense take care of itself. For this purpose, Thomson reports, Miss Stein’s writing was “manna.” This is not to say that the words are mere sounds or nonsense syllables. Rather, is a recognition of that strange chemistry by means of which words which seem to be just words, once to set to music, suddenly have a sense of their own. It is for this reason that these pieces, by whomever they are composed, require a more intelligible articulation in performance and texts which meet more conventional standards of meaning. Musical composition reveals the innate musicality of Gertrude Stein’s words in much the same way that a proper recitation of them brings to life words which, lying mute upon the page, seem to be an embarrassing jumble of nonsense.

One of the most successful of realizations of a Stein text is Frederick Ashton’s ballet A Wedding Bouquet, to music of Lord Berners, in which an adaptation of They.Must.Be.Wedded.To.Their.Wife. is recited by a wedding guest, in counterpoint to the music and dancing, to excellent effect.

It is not surprising that Leo Stein could not abide his sister’s writing, which he dismissed as “Gertrude’s stuff.” Leo was an intellectual, a talker, interested in painting and psychiatry, and for most of his adult life he was almost totally deaf. Words went directly to is analytical brain by means by way of his eyes, without being heard at all. “Like all children and madmen,” he once wrote of his sister, “she adequately communicates only to herself. It is all so silly as not to be worth by bothering about. Yet occasionally she falls into a rhythm that is nice. The best thing that I read was Capitals, which goes into a good fugue movement. . . “

Capital, capitals, which opens this evening’s program, was the last in a series of 1926 compositions which had begun with Susie Asado. Of the latter work, Miss Stein had written to Virgil Thomson, “I like its looks immensely and want to frame it and Miss Toklas who knows more than looks says the things in it please her lot. . . “ With this new found “recipe” for composition, Thomson later wrote, “I knew I had opened a door.”

For Gertrude Stein, the door had opened fourteen years earlier. Touring Spain with Alice Toklas in the spring and summer of 1912, she made her first experiments with the way of writing with would her name was soon to become synonymous, using words separated from syntax and meaning. Hearing a singer at a Madrid cafe, and remarking on her flashing eyes and flashing diamonds, Gertrude Stein wrote Preciosilla, beginning her long series of verbal portraits.

This first portrait ended with the cryptic tag: “Toasted Susie is my ice cream,” which oddly links this to another composition from the same period, Susie Asado, which translated literally would meet mean, “Roasted Susie.” If what Virgil Thomson has labeled Gertrude Stein’s “hermetic” style had its beginning in Spain, the more substantial works which emerged from this first period of collaboration originated in a 1922 visit to San Remy in Provence: several pieces which were later developed into the libretto for Four Saints In Three Acts, and Capital, Capitals.

The latter is, in Thomson’s words, “an evocation of Provence, its landscape, weather, and people—imagined as a conversation among its four capital cities—Aix, Arles, Avignon and Les Beaux.” From its first performance it provoked both laughter and excitement, a pattern which is continued whenever Gertrude Stein’s texts, whether set by Thomson or by other composers, are performed in such a way that the words can be understood.

The critical response would always be another matter, as Thomson was to write: “The literary, consensus is always that the music is lovely, but the poetry absurd; whereas the music world takes the view. . . that Stein’s words are great literature, but that my music is infantile.”

It is difficult to dismiss as absurd the librettos of some of the most happily realized twentieth century operas. In addition to Four Saints In Three Acts and The Mother Of Us All, Gertrude Stein wrote a number of pieces of varying length which he she referred to as operas. In particular there was a third major work which had a real prospect of composition. Gerald Berners commissioned a Faust opera, and the result is among Miss Stein’s most well-organized and carefully crafted works. Unfortunately, Berners found himself unable to compose Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights once the text was completed, and the project was referred to Thomson.

“I spent two years studying the script,” writes Thomson, “then gave it up. The subject was not one I could find any identification with.” Thomson’s explanation for its lack of interest is characteristically droll: “In addition to my own lack of sympathy with the Faust legend in any form, I doubt whether world repertory is in any urgent need of another opera on the subject, there been already in existence at least fifteen or twenty.”

In 1952, the task was accomplished by Meyer Kupferman, represented in tonight’s program by an earlier work, the popular one-act opera In A Garden. A little volume published in 1944, two years before Gertrude Stein’s death, contains three short plays about children, two of which have become operas. The writer’s vision of childhood in this First Reader is far from sweet or sentimental, but rather is filled with fantasies of violence and crime. In his own scenario for In A Garden, Meyer Kupferman has chosen to make the battle between Lucy Willow’s two suitors a mock one with kitchen implements. In Miss Stein’s original, the two boys kill each other quite literally with axes.

Lucy Willow’s dream of being a Queen identifies her with Gertrude Stein’s sense of herself as having been born for some unique destiny. “Saints” and “geniuses” were other favorite terms for those rare beings who don’t actually do anything, but spend their time sitting around doing nothing, waiting for their destiny to be revealed, “waiting for it to happen.” Just as Gertrude Stein had had to free herself from her father and then from her brother in order to become the “lion” she was meant to be, so Lucy Willow has to crown herself, like a Holy Roman Emperor, after tricking the boys into destroying one another.

Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters is the second of the plays in Gertrude Stein’s First Reader. Again the fantasy is of murder and retribution. The action seems to derive from the old guessing game about the vessel of water, a sleeping child, and the corpse on the floor. Spencer Tracy tries it on Katherine Hepburn in the movie Desk Set. The answer, of course is that the corpse is a goldfish. As usual, Gertrude Stein goes her own way with it, and the five children—another reference to the family of five, two of them dead ones, from which she came—play out their roles as murderers, victims, and policeman (who turns into an apache!) until they tire of the game and go off to bed.

There is absolutely nothing to connect the plot and characters of Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters with the film scenario Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs, except the title. In the first, the girls are sisters by virtue of being orphans: they have the same parents, to wit, none. Again, as in the case of Lucy Willow, we find that women in Gertrude Stein’s vision have to establish an identity for themselves, not by way of the men in their lives: fathers, brothers, husbands. A woman has to be an orphan by choice—whether in a grimly literal sense, as in the case of Lucy Borden (one of Miss Stein’s “crime heroes”) or simply metaphorically. True sisterhood is of necessity a paradox; women together are “sisters who are not sisters.”

If the three girls in Rorem’s opera are reflections of the Stein childhood, they somehow prefigure the mysterious figures in the car in Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs, clearly Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. For once, the generic label—film—given to the composition exactly fits. It is easy to imagine the strange encounters of the laundress, the women in the car, the photograph, the package, and the dog, in a scary, dream-like black and white film like Un Chien Andalou. Or L’Age d’Or. The vignette is repeated, in slightly different form, in the novel Ida, Gertrude Stein’s one major exercise in creating the kind of surrealist—or should one say vorticist—narrative which Mr. Wyndham Lewis was producing at such inexhaustible length.

The little verse I Am Rose is only one of many similar refrains in Gertrude Stein’s 1939 children’s book called The World Is Round, yet has had a life of its own. Ned Rorem found it in Oscar Williams’ New Pocket Anthology Of American Verse in 1955, and composed it that year, in his own words, “as a gift for Mary Freund on her eightieth birthday. She was a Polish soprano specializing in new music, and her son, the bass Doda Conrad, solicited similar gifts from every composer in the world.” Aram Saroyan printed the verse as a ten cent pamphlet (with a ten-copy limited run at two dollars) in 1971, and David Diamond published his own setting of the piece in 1973. He had read the poem in its original context. “Lovely it was,” he writes, “and tender, and that is what I tried to capture in my setting.”

Gertrude Stein’s interest in violence and crime only once led her to try writing a detective story. This Much I Know, composed for this concert by Paul Alan Levi on a commission from Antonio and Marjorie Ramirez, is from Chapter 12 of Blood On The Dining Room Floor. The book was written in the summer of 1933, as Gertrude Stein was trying to work her way out of the creative paralysis which had followed the first commercial success of for life, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Her detective story is as much a reflection of the writer’s internal struggle is it is a narrative of the crimes and coincidences which filled their life that summer. This brief passage expresses the writer’s sense of the security provided by Alice Toklas’ presence with her during the long nights when the words would not come and, as she said, “the syrup would not pour.”

“We cannot retrace our steps. . . “

Gertrude Stein had a remarkable sense of her own vast and various literary output as a single, integrated whole. Her very first acknowledged literary composition—a classroom exercise from her Radcliffe days—had been a remarkable revelation of a tormented inner life. “As for me who have lived in my short life all the intensest pains and pleasures that human nature is capable of experiencing. . .”

Over half a century later, she closed the book on that life with a deliberate echo of those first words. There can be no doubt that she knew that her opera, The Mother Of Us All, would be the closing number in the rich pageant of her life and work. In writing it she literally pulled out all the stops. Everyone gets into the act, chronology is as usual ignored. There is even a brief appearance by “G.S.” herself, but the writer’s identity, in this her final challenge to that dissolution which she feared more than death, is kept alive in no single character but in “all the characters,” in every life she ever touched and every life which ever touched hers.

Gertrude Stein never used question marks. Never. Indeed, her last words would be questions ending in full stops. It was fitting that the closing words of the last great work which she and Virgil Thomson would write together—and which she never heard performed—should also affirm in questions without question marks the wholeness of her life as a person, and of her accomplishments as a writer.

“Do you know because I tell you so.
Or do you know. Do you know. My long life.”