The Beckett/ Feldman Radio Collaboration:

Words and Music as Hörspiel

Marjorie Perloff

Published in The Beckett Circle 26, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 207-11.

Beckett’s third radio play, Words and Music, written for BBC Radio and broadcast in November 1962, presents a curious anomaly in the Beckett canon, for a good portion of this radio play is given over to a musical score, to be written by a collaborator. For its first BBC production, the musical score was written by Beckett’s cousin John Beckett. This score, evidently considered less than satisfactory by all concerned, was withdrawn shortly after the premiere. In the early seventies, the Beckett scholar Katharine Worth produced a new version of Words and Music for the University of London Audio-Visual Centre with music by Humphrey Searle. But this production, described at some length by Worth in an essay called “Words and Music Perhaps,”[1] was recorded for archival purposes only, and it was not until 1985, when Everett Frost undertook the production of The Beckett Festival of Radio Plays that the Beckett collaboration with Morton Feldman took place.

Feldman and Beckett had first met in 1976 in Berlin, where the latter was directing a stage version of The Lost Ones. They discovered that they shared a mutual hatred of opera. Beckett further told Feldman that “I don’t like my words being set to music,” to which Feldman replied, “I’m in complete agreement. In fact it’s very seldom that I’ve used words. I’ve written a lot of pieces with voice, and they’re wordless.” Encouraged by these remarks, a few weeks later, Beckett sent Feldman a card bearing a handwritten text (not quite a poem) called “Neither,” which began with the words “to and fro in shadow / from inner to outer shadow/ from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself / by way of neither.” These short phrases became the germ of Feldman’s 1977 “anti-opera” Neither, the composer’s first work to consist entirely of the repetition and mutation of tonal forms. The composer thus became the logical choice to be Beckett’s collaborator on Words and Music; indeed it was Beckett who recommended him to Frost. The radio piece was followed by a long composition called For Samuel Beckett (1986), which was Feldman’s last work; he died a year later, before taking on Beckett’s other “musical” radio play Cascando, as the two had planned.a href=”#_edn2″ name=”_ednref2″ title=””>[2]

The relation of spoken word to music in Words and Music and Cascando has received curiously little critical discussion. Jonathan Kalb observes:

Words and Music . . . presents a special problem. . . . Its action consists of a relatively conventional dialogic exchange, but the dialogue is missing half its lines—lines that the play implies should match, sentence for sentence, in musical terms, the specificity and subtlety of Beckett’s language.

It is hardly surprising that neither his cousin nor subsequent composers have been up to the task. In one case (John Beckett’s score) the music proved unable to communicate ideas specific enough to qualify as rational lines, much less repartee, and in another (Morton Feldman’s score for Frost’s 1988 production) the composer came to feel constrained by the text’s requirements. . . . Unless Music convinces us that it has at least held its own in the strange mimetic competition with Words, the action of the play lacks dramatic tension. Beckett once reportedly said to Theodor Adorno that Words and Music “ends unequivocally with the victory of the music.” Yet far from proving the superiority of music as pure sound, liberated from rational ideas and references, the play confines it to a function very similar to that of a filmic signature score. [3]

Here Kalb is making some curious assumptions. First, the reference to the various composers not being “up to the task” implies that the work is really Beckett’s and that the composer, whoever he or she may be, is merely an accompanist. [4] Thus Kalb does not discriminate between John Beckett (a relative who had done a little composing), Humphrey Searle, a fairly obscure Romantic serialist who had once studied with Webern), and Morton Feldman, one of the great avant-garde composers of the century.

For Kalb, Words and Music is, in any case, a “play,” whose “dialogue is missing half its lines—lines that, the play implies, should match, sentence for sentence, in musical terms, the specificity and subtlety of Beckett’s language.” But Beckett said nothing at all about such a “match” or about the “mimetic competition with Words,” that music ostensibly “loses.” In taking Feldman’s composition to resemble filmic background music, Kalb, like Worth and other commentators, is assuming that the radio play is a vehicle for a particular theme—the familiar Beckett theme (see, for example Krapp’s Last Tape) of the missed opportunity to have loved and been loved. But the fact is that in Words and Music frustrated love becomes, in its turn, the occasion for an analysis of the relative power of words and music to produce an emotional charge. And here radio has its field of action. In Gregory Whitehead’s words:

If the dreamland /ghostland is the natural habitat for the wireless imagination, then the material of radio art is not just sound. Radio happens in sound, but sound is not really what matters about radio. What does matter is the bisected heart of the infinite dreamland /ghostland. . . . the radio signal as intimate but untouchable, sensually charged but technically remote, reaching deep inside but from way out there. . . .[5]

Radio sounds are intimate, but from where do they emanate and to whom do they belong? When the sound source is thus uncertain, spoken word and musical sound can achieve a heightened interaction.

Consider, for starters, the role of “character” in the phantasmagoria of Words and Music. The “play” has three characters: Words, also called Joe, Music, also called Bob, and a mysterious third person named Croak, who issues commands to both. In the Beckett literature, Croak is usually considered a variant on the Master with Two Servants motif, as a Medieval Lord directing two minstrels, or as a Prospero figure with Words as his Caliban and Music as his Ariel. Or again, he is considered to be the Director who has commissioned Words and Music to “speak” their parts.[6] All of these readings assume that there are in fact three separate “characters” with separate identities. True, Words and Music still uses such naturalistic radio sounds as the shuffling of Croak’s carpet slippers, the thump of his club on the ground, the rap of the baton prompting Music to play, and a series of groans on Croak’s part, throat clearings and sighs on Joe’s. But unlike the “real” characters in All that Fall, or even Henry and Ada in Embers, Croak, Joe, and Bob are not “individuals’ at all, but three dimensions of the same “voice,” sometimes speaking, sometimes responding via musical sound. Indeed, when the play is heard rather than read, the voices of Joe and Croak are often indistinguishable, as in the “Joe”/”My Lord” interchanges near the beginning. Croak, for that matter, is regularly referred to as an old man, a designation that amused Morton Feldman when he first read Words and Music because the Beckett who wrote the play was only in his mid-fifties. Yet both Croak and Words are given “old” voices, rather like the voice of Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape, not so as to present the dialogue of two old men (with musical interruption) but to heighten the difference between present and past and to stress, as radio perhaps best can, the gap between the discourse of memory and the actual past.

Claz Zilliacus has rightly observed that Croak “instigates two of his faculties at odds with each other, to provide him with solace and entertainment” and that the process described is that of “artistic creation.” [7] But even here the notion of “solace and entertainment” is not quite accurate for there is nobody to comfort or to entertain. It is best, then, to think of Croak as no more than the stimulus that prompts the complementary responses of Words and Music; indeed, we can’t differentiate the three. In concert, they constitute the quintessential Beckett voice—a voice we know from Embers or Malone Dies or, most immediately, from Krapp’s Last Tape. But in Words and Music, the setting is not an empty room as in Malone or Krapp but an abstract space. “The scene,” writes Zilliacus, referring to Words’ s reference, in the memory passage, to “the rye, swayed by a light wind [that] casts and withdraws its shadow,”[8] is “a field of rye, the action of the scene is postcoital recuperation as reflected in the face of the woman” (p. 109). Again, this is to mimeticize what is largely abstract: when we hear the words in question, we focus, I think, on the astonishing shift in Words’s discourse, willing, as he suddenly is, much to Croak’s anguish, to tell his story. It is the telling, not the details of landscape or face, that is foregrounded. Indeed, we never know what the lost girl looked like: except for her “black disordered hair,” her features are merely listed as brows, nostrils, lips, breasts, and eyes, without any specification.

Feldman’s score, made up of thirty-three fragments, calls for two flutes, a vibraphone, piano, violin, and violincello. These fragments must be understood, not as isolated units, but as relational properties that play with and against the words they modify. Croak dominates only as long as Words and Music work against one another; as soon as they follow his order “Together!”, Croak begins to lose control. In the final moments of the play we hear his club fall, his slippers shuffling away, and a “shocked” Words says “My Lord!” for the final time. But the shuffling suggests that Croak has not died; rather, his commands are no longer necessary for Words and Music now sing together, their song invoking the depths of memory and desire.

In the case of opera—and, technically speaking, Words and Music is an opera—the question as to which takes precedence, the words or the music, has been hotly debated for centuries. Herbert Lindenberger cites composers from Monteverdi to Wagner and Berg as claiming that music must always serve the verbal text, whereas Berlioz, declared that Wagner’s crime was to make music “the abject slave of the word” rather than letting the music be “free, imperious, all-conquering.”[9] Words and Music playfully alludes to these debates, rather in the spirit of John Cage’s Europeras, first performed in Frankfurt in the very same year, 1987.

Thus the radio play opens with a compact fragment of orchestrated dissonance that subtly “improves” on the actual sounds of an orchestra tuning up. “Words” interrupts this bit of music with the single angry and anguished word “Please! ” –Bolton’s leitmotif in Embers— repeated so as to force the orchestra to stop. And the words that follow are, “How much longer cooped up here in the dark? [With loathing. ] With you!” (127). The two personae could thus not be further apart, and to make that point Words now embarks on his first set text on a required theme, an absurd scholastic exercise, the set topic Love being lampooned, in the absence of Croak, by the substitution of the word sloth: “Sloth is of all passions the most powerful and indeed no passion is more powerful than the passion of sloth. . . .” where passion is repeated three times in the first sentence alone, Words’s voice being hoarse and “tuneless” as he pronounces passion in a dull monotone. The love theme thus hangs fire until Croak makes his entrance, shuffling into the blank space of Words and Music and calling on both as “My comforts.” The address to Bob (“Music”), whose response is defined by Beckett as “Humble, muted adsum, ” produces the repetition of a single atonal chord, led by woodwinds, and then a slight variation on the same, this time with strings. Music’s role is surprising because Croak now asks both parties to “Forgive” (three times), and yet Music responds with the same soft and lovely chords as if to say that there is nothing to forgive. It is now Words’s turn to speak his piece, given Croak’s prompting: “The face” and “In the tower”—both references to the lost beloved who will haunt the rest of the piece, very much as she does in Krapp’s Last Tape, where we hear “The face she had! The eyes! Like . . . (hesitates). . . chrysolite!”(60).

The “theme tonight,” Croak informs Joe, is “Love,” and so Words repeats his first speech, now substituting “love” for sloth but slipping at one point and declaiming that “sloth is the LOVE is the most urgent. . .” (128). So heated does Joe become that when Croak thumps his club and calls on Music (Bob), Words (Joe) keeps on talking. Croak has to reprimand him and call on Bob again. And now Music gets his chance: in a pattern of irregularly spaced intervals, woodwinds and strings combine to produce resonant chords worthy of love. These are interrupted, as at the play’s opening, by protestations of “Please!” and “No!” from Joe, but now these agitated negatives sound more orgiastic than dismissive, and he himself waxes poetic with the line, “Arise then and go now the manifest unanswerable,” a play on the opening line “I shall arise and go now,” of Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The presence of Yeats, the quintessential poet who writes of age and unfulfilled desire, has already been conjured up by the reference to “In the tower.”

Croak repeatedly groans as Words dredges up the memory of the “love of woman” that his “master” is experiencing. In an absurdist passage, Words asks bombastically, “Is love the word? [Pause. Do. ] Do we mean love, when we say love? [Pause. Pause. Do. ] Soul, when we say soul? “ (129). The referent of these basic words–face, love, soul, age—cannot be found. Croak realizes this and calls on Music, who responds with a strain played by the violin accompanied by the pedaled piano and then a more dissonant passage, its minimalist hypnotic repetitions mirroring Joe’s halting words on age: “Age is … age is when . . . old age I mean . . . if that is what my Lord means . . . is when. . . .” Interestingly, here, for the first time, Music echoes Words, prompting Croak to issue a new directive-“Together”– (three times), the third adding the word “dogs.” In response, Words tries, for the first time, to sing or at least intone the poem we will soon hear– a trimeter sonnet that begins with the line “Age is when to a man.” Music now gives the cue with the note La and Words responds with jagged Sprechstimme, in its turn “improved,” as puts it, with an ascending scale provided by Music, that Joe’s words now mimic. Music now follows Words’s lead, taking up Joe’s suggestion as he tries to intone the whole song. But halfway through this sequence, it is Music who makes the “suggestions” that Words now follows. And so Words is soon letting Music take the lead.

In its written form, the words and rhythms of Beckett’s song recall both the Yeats of Words for Music Perhaps and the young Stephen Dedalus, who mourns for his dead mother in Ulysses:

Age is when to a man
Huddled o’er the ingle
Shivering for the hag
To put the pan in the bed
And bring the toddy
She comes in the ashes
Who loved could not be won
Or won not loved
Or some other trouble
Comes in the ashes
Like in that old light
The face in the ashes
That old starlight
On the earth again. (131)

The ungainly syntax (“Age is when to a man. . .” and archaicizing language (“huddled o’er the ingle”) give Beckett’s poem a parodic edge: old men shiver, their “hag” brings them the bedpan and toddy, the beautiful girl emerges from the ashes, her face recalling “that old starlight / On the earth again.” As such, the poem forces the listener to take each word like “toddy” separately, refusing the “flow” of the incorporating stanza. And meanwhile Music provides no more than an ascending line of plucked piano notes, repeated with the accompaniment of the vibraphone and then flute, as minimal and separate as the poet’s words. Each monosyllable—“Who loved could not be won” or “Like in that old light”—has its own life. Like the incisions made by a sharp instrument, words and musical notes are etched into the mind.

This, at least, is the response of Croak to what are, after all, his own words and music. Having heard the familiar song, he can no longer give orders, no longer address Words and Music as his “Dogs” or “Comforts” or “Balms.” Indeed, Croak no longer seems to be aware of Joe and Bob’s presence, which has now been thoroughly internalized. He now enunciates only two words, repeated four times and punctuated by pauses: “The face [Pause.] The face [Pause.] The face [Pause.] The face” (131). For words and music have succeeded in bringing the woman in question back to life. And so music now plays for an entire minute, a series of repetitive chords, shifting pitches just slightly, after which Croak again says, now quietly, “The face.”

It is as if these two little words give Joe (Words) license to speak. We now hear one of those agitated but perfectly “reasonable” and scientific formal set pieces, a description of the long lost night of love-making—first the face, framed by “black disordered hair as though spread wide on water,” then “the brows knitted in a groove suggesting pain but simply concentration more likely all things considered on some consummate inner process, the eyes of course closed in keeping with this, the lashes. . . . Pause] . . . the nose . . . [Pause] . . . nothing, a little pinched perhaps, the lips. . . .” (132). The mention of the word “lips” is too much for Croak, whose groans have been getting more and more pronounced. He cries in anguish the single word “Lily! ”, evidently the girl’s name. Now the rest of the narrative spills out, with the memory of “the great white rise and fall of the breasts, spreading as they mount and then subsiding to their natural . . . aperture.” The listener is expecting something like “natural condition” or “natural size,” but the mention of the “aperture,” which is, of course, not between the breasts but between the legs, arouses the hitherto soft-spoken Music, who now reappears in an agitated flute solo that is overwhelmed by percussion, even as Words interjects “Peace?” “No” and “Please!” yet again.

Words is now confident, his speech having such a marked effect on both Croak and Music. Accordingly, he places his love scene against the backdrop of the entire earth, illuminated, on this particular autumn night by the variable star Mira, located in the constellation Cetus (the Whale), and known for being invisible half the time. Here Mira shines “coldly down—as we say, looking up” (132). Croak, recognizing that, in Words’s narrative, the sexual union is about to be consummated, speaks his last word in the play, the loud and anguished “No!”, the open “o” reverberating in the listener’s ear (133).

But Words, now in league with Music, pays no attention to the “master.”

WORDS:—the brows uncloud, the lips part and the eyes. . . [Pause]
rhe brows uncloud, the nostrils dilate, the lips part and the eyes. . .
[Pause.] . . . a little colour comes back into the cheeks and the eyes. .
[Reverently.] . . . open. [Pause.] Then down a little way. . . . (133)

It is generally held that the radio listener automatically tries to visualize a scene like this one, to picture the lovers in the field of rye, coming together. But I think the speech just quoted, far from evoking a scene, is like a sound poem: the repetition of the assonantal “the brows uncloud” and the intricate sound structuring of li in “the nostrils dilate, the lips part,” leading up to the repetition of “the eyes,” which, the third time round, “open.” Words now has all the music he needs to complete the story. And, with Croak gone, Words can indulge himself and let the Proustian involuntary memory take over. One cannot, the sound piece suggests, invoke The Face or Love intentionally, for such invocation leads to nothing but talking about. But to let go, to let, as it were, non-semantic sound take the lead, produces the epiphany of the second song, which begins:

Then down a little way
Through the trash
Towards where . . . towards where. . . . (133)

Compared to the previous ballad, this poem, written in even more minimal lines, bearing two to four stresses, takes us, in language much more chaste than “Age is when to a man,” to the bedrock of feeling. The poet, transfigured by love, can now accept the descent “down a little way / Through the trash.” The soul empties out: “All dark, no begging, no giving, no words, / No sense, no need.” Music, playing soft chromatic scales leads the way while the poet sings, “Through the scum / Down a little way / To whence one glimpse / Of that wellhead.” The sentence is left in suspension: the “wellhead” as goal remains a mystery. When these words are repeated, it is music that announces the melody and then becomes a discreet accompanist to Words. It is the final consummation: both parties now note that Croak is gone. “My Lord,” Joe repeats twice, anxiously looking after Croak, and, turning for the first time to “Bob,” begging him to respond.

It is a remarkable moment: Joe reaches out to his former antagonist Bob with a certain deference. Bob makes a brief “rude” musical flourish and suddenly becomes silent so that it is now Words who summons Music with a sense of urgency. The situation of the radio play’s opening has been completely reversed. When Music plays a short teasing chord, Words begs “Again! [Pause. Imploring. ] Again!” Music obliges but only for a moment, the soft piano notes trailing off and Words concluding with a short satisfied sigh. The rest is silence—a silence that makes the very idea of competition between Words and Music seem foolish. And this, I think, is the thrust of the Beckett-Feldman collaboration.

It may be argued, of course—and here Kalb has a point–that the dependence on collaboration makes Words and Music a less important work than, say, Embers, that Beckett is at his best when he lets his own words do all the work, creating the semantic resonances and ambiguities that define the complex monologue of a Henry in Embers. But if we think of Words and Music as an experiment, a move, contrary to Beckett’s own purist instincts with regard to media, to create a new kind of Hörspiel—a Hörspiel that anticipates such later works as the John Cage Roaratorio—then we need not choose between Words and Music and Embers—both of them such superb examples of what Beckett’s first master, James Joyce, called “soundsense.”


See Katharine Worth, “Words for Music Perhaps,” in Samuel Beckett and Music, ed. Mary Bryden (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 9-20. This collection is subsequently cited in the text as Bryden. I have not heard the Searle score, but Worth’s discussion suggests that it was much more mimetic than Feldman’s in its treatment of the Beckett text.

[2] For the background of the relationship, see Everett Frost, “The Note Man on the Word Man: Morton Feldman on Composing the Music for Samuel Beckett’s Words and Music in The Beckett Festival of Radio Plays,” in Bryden, pp. 47-55. The bulk of this article is an interview with Feldman, most of which is reproduced on the cassette tape itself. See also KN, 557-58.

Cf. The Apmonia website compiled and written by A. Ruch, . This site contains key biographical information about Feldman as well as analyses of each of the “Beckett” pieces.

[3] Jonathan Kalb, “The Mediated Quixote: The Radio and Television Plays, and Film,” in The Cambridge companion to Beckett, ed. John Pilling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 132.

[4] Katharine Worth implies the same thing throughout “Words and Music Perhaps.” Humphrey Searle is praised for underscoring Beckett’s meanings; his position is assumed to be secondary.

Gregory Whitehead, “Out of the Dark. Notes on the Nobodies of Radio Art,” in Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-garde , ed. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1992), p. 254.

See, for example, John Fletcher and John Spurling, Beckett: A Study of his Plays (London: Hill & Wang, 1972), pp. 99-100; Eugene Webb, The Plays of Samuel Beckett (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972), p. 102; Vivian Mercier, BeckettBeckett: The Classic Study of a Modern Genius (London: Souvenir Press, 1993), p. 155.

Clas Zilliacus, Beckett and Broadcasting: A Study of the Works of Samuel Beckett for and in Radio and Television (Abo: Abo Akademi, 1976), p. 95.

See “Words and Music,” Collected Shorter Plays (New York: Grove Press, 1984), p. 132. All further references are to this text (pp. 127-34). All subsequent references to the play are to this text.

Herbert Lindenberger, Opera, The Extravagant Art (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984), pp. 108-109 and see Chapter 3 passim.