Robert Browning explores the significance of the musical composition of Galuppi in his poem, ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’. From the title itself, it becomes clear that this poem is going to talk about a piece of Galuppi’s composition or his compositions as a whole. However, Toccata is a virtuoso piece of music. This word finds its root in the Italian “toccare”, meaning “to touch”. Such a composition shows the musician’s prowess and mastery over using a keyboard or plucked string instrument. Here, in this poem, Browning pays his tribute to the maestro’s immortal music in a thought-provoking manner.
In this poem, Browning’s poetic persona is a listener of a toccata of Galuppi or a musician himself. While he plays or listens to his immortal music, though swept away, gets transposed into old Venice. The music helps him to visualize the country, her people, the carnival, and above all, Baldassare playing at his clavichord. The speaker’s keen sense of music gets portrayed in this poem too. However, in the end, he laments the loss of such a prodigious musician’s immortal music as well as the loss of the glory of flourishing Venice.
This poem consists of fifteen tercets. Each stanza of the poem contains a conventional rhyming pattern, ending with a similar rhyme. As an example, in the first tercet, “find”, “blind,” and “mind” rhyme together. Moreover, the overall poem is composed in trochaic octameter. However, most of the lines end with the catalectic foot. So, in the overall poem, the falling rhythm resonates with the mood of the speaker. Apart from that, the long lines of this piece reflect a sense of longing for the past as well the poet’s thoughtful state.
Browning’s ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’ begins with an apostrophe. Here, the poet evokes the spirit of the Venetian composer, Baldassare Galuppi. The first line also contains a rhetorical exclamation. Thereafter, the poet uses a litote in the second line. In the second stanza, there is an allusion to Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, as well as to the Duke of Doge. Thereafter, the poet uses a metaphor in the line, “Ay, because the sea’s the street there.” Here, he compares the sea to a street. One can also find the use of interrogations or rhetorical questions in the fourth tercet. This poem also contains the epigram. One can find this device in the line, “Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.”
Analysis of A Toccata of Galuppi’s
Tercets I – III (1-3)
Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I take your meaning, ’tis with such a heavy mind!
Here you come with your old music, and here’s all the good it brings.
What, they lived once thus at Venice where the merchants were the kings,
Where Saint Mark’s is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings?
Ay, because the sea’s the street there; and ’tis arched by . . . what you call
. . . Shylock’s bridge with houses on it, where they kept the carnival:
I was never out of England—it’s as if I saw it all.
The speaker of the poem, ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’, directly invokes the spirit of Baldassaro Galuppi before elaborating his feelings regarding Galuppi’s toccata. He is in a “heavy mind” to admit that there are only a few who share a taste with him. The speaker understands the essence of the toccata. However, only a few take interest in such a kind of old music. In the second stanza, the speaker expresses how the music helps one to imagine the old Venice. There, merchants were the kings. Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, protected the city and the duke of Doge wedded the sea with rings. It was a ceremony popular during that time and symbolized Venice’s maritime power.
In the third tercet, the speaker metaphorically compares the Adriatic sea to the streets of Venice. For the people of Venice, sailing through the sea was like treading on streets. Such was the agility of the enterprising Venetian people. Apart from that, the speaker admits he has never been to Venice. But, he has watched Shakespeare’s play, “The Merchant of Venice”, and the Shylock’s bridge. Once, people kept the carnival there.
Tercets IV – VI (4-6)
Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May?
Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to mid-day,
When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do you say?
Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red,—
On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed,
O’er the breast’s superb abundance where a man might base his head?
Well, and it was graceful of them—they’d break talk off and afford
—She, to bite her mask’s black velvet—he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?
In this section, the speaker asks Galuppi whether the young people of Venice took pleasure in the warm sea in May. He thinks that the young people might take part in the balls and masks, beginning at midnight and continued till mid-day. Thereafter, they might have thought about fresh adventures in the morning.
While listening to the music, the speaker finds himself in one such ball. There he visualizes a lady whose cheeks are round and red. Here, the poet uses hyperbole to emphasize the beauty of the lady. Moreover, the speaker questions whether the lady had a relationship with a man who might base his head on her superb breast.
In the following tercet, the speaker remarks it was a graceful sight to visualize. They would stop talking and make their eyes express their feelings. The lady bites her “mask’s black velvet” to express her feelings for the wooer. While the lad would touch his finger on his sword. Here, the sword is a symbol of manhood. However, at the end of this section the speaker remarks while they were busy expressing their feelings to each other, Galuppi “sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord.”
Tercets VII – IX (7-9)
What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions—”Must we die?”
Those commiserating sevenths—”Life might last! we can but try!
“Were you happy?” —”Yes.”—”And are you still as happy?”—”Yes. And you?”
—”Then, more kisses!”—”Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?”
Hark, the dominant’s persistence till it must be answered to!
So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
“Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay!
“I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!”
In this section of ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’, Browning uses some technical terms such as “lesser thirds,” “sixths,” and “sevenths”. The use of such technical terms makes it clear that Browning was well-versed in musical theory and playing instruments. Moreover, he was also familiar with Galuppi’s innovative compositions. Here he remarks, the musical instrument might have some faults hindering Galuppi while he plays his toccata.
Thereafter, the speaker asks Galuppi whether he was happy. In his reply, he made an affirmation. This imaginary conversation makes the speaker happy. However, in the end, Galuppi reminds him that at some point of time the listeners lost interest in his music. In the following section, he assures Galuppi that his listeners praised him and his composition was real music. It was good to hear at the grave as well as when one is gay. He always stops talking when he hears the music of Galuppi.
Tercets X – XII (10-12)
Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.
But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve,
While I triumph o’er a secret wrung from nature’s close reserve,
In you come with your cold music till I creep thro’ every nerve.
Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned:
“Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
“The soul, doubtless, is immortal—where a soul can be discerned.
From this section, the poet emphasizes the theme of mortality. Here, he says that the listeners left Galuppi and his music for the sake of worldly pleasures. Gradually, some became busy in their daily lives and “some with deeds as well undone.” Finally, death stepped tacitly and took them to the land of death. According to the speaker, there they can never see the sun again. Here, the sun is a metonym for Galuppi.
When the speaker sits down and thinks to take a stand regarding mortality. While he thinks that his music triumphs over the “secret wrung from nature’s close reserve”, the cold music of Galuppi creeps through his nerves. It reminds him nothing can stay forever.
Thereafter, the poet employs a simile to compare Galuppi to a “ghostly cricket” creaking where a house was burned. Here, the house symbolizes the human body. Moreover, Venice’s past glory has been spent. Dust and ashes are what remain after the glorious period of the city. Here, the poet highlights the theme of mortality. In contrast, in the last line, he features the immortality of the soul. In this way, the poet presents his Christian belief in the afterlife.
Tercets XIII – XV (13-15)
“Yours for instance: you know physics, something of geology,
“Mathematics are your pastime; souls shall rise in their degree;
“Butterflies may dread extinction,—you’ll not die, it cannot be!
“As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
“Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
“What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?
“Dust and ashes!” So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too—what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.
In the last three tercets of the poem, ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’, the poet says Galuppi was a knowledgeable person. He knew physics, something of geology, and mathematics was his pastime. Such a prodigy cannot die. Here, the speaker tells Galuppi that his music and contributions to the art won’t die. Butterflies may dread extinction but he has not to be afraid of death.
The people of Venice were born to bloom and drop. This line, again, highlights the poet’s Christian bent. Moreover, he says, on earth the people of Venice bore their earthly fruitage, mirth, and folly. These are like the worldly crop that one reaps in his worldly life. However, the speaker wonders what happens with the soul when the mortal kissing has to stop. Galuppi replies, “Dust and ashes!” Hearing this harsh fact, the speaker rebukes his heart as he was thinking otherwise.
Lastly, the poet presents the theme of the futility of the human body. In the last two lines, he remarks the woman who once took pride in her golden hair, hanging and brushing her bosoms, could not preserve her mortal beauty. When death lays her icy hands, the human body turns into dust again. This thought makes the speaker feel chilly and old.
Robert Browning’s poem, ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’ was published in “Men and Women” in 1855. It is a collection of 51 poems and some of the works are regarded as Browning’s best poetry. This book of poetry contains famous poems such as ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, ‘Two in the Campagna’, ‘Memorabilia’, ‘The Last Ride Together’, ‘Love in a Life’, etc. In the poem ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’, the poet talks about the 18th-century Venetian composer, Baldassare Galuppi. Here, he pictures life in Venice through his response to Galuppi’s toccata.
The following poems also present similar kinds of themes present in Browning’s ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s’.
- Music I Heard by Conrad Aiken – This poem describes the irreparably changed world of the speaker who has lost his lover. Here, he uses the metaphor of music to express his love.
- I Am In Need of Music by Elizabeth Bishop – In this poem, Bishop describes the desire of a speaker who is held, calmed down, and consumed by the music she loves to listen to.
- Sonnet 8: Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly? by William Shakespeare – In this sonnet of Shakespeare, the speaker uses music as a metaphor for the things that give one pleasure. Shakespeare wrote this sonnet addressing the Fair Youth.
- Man Listening to Disc by Billy Collins – It’s one of the best-known poems of Collins. In this modern poem, the poet describes a speaker’s feelings while he listens to jazz music.
You can also read about the best poems about music.