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Harmonizing piano and poetry

“Music is the universal language of mankind — poetry their universal pastime and delight,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his 1833 novel “Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea.” Historically, poets often cite music as inspiration, and musicians often consider their work a form of poetry. These comparisons link the two arts but beg the question — what would it look like to put them side-by-side, not in the form of a song, but by presenting both disciplines together while still preserving the individual sanctity of each? The Princeton University Concerts’s upcoming event, featuring Grammy-winning pianist Richard Goode and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams, will offer students an opportunity to experience these arts together from two masters of their respective crafts.

Richard Goode began playing the piano when he was six years old. He recalled that originally he thought of the piano as a skill to acquire in pursuit of the violin, but he soon realized that the piano was his instrument. Goode has since toured worldwide and played as a soloist with many major orchestras, including New York Philharmonic with David Zinman and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin with Herbert Blomstedt. Goode’s recording of Brahms’s sonatas with clarinetist Richard Stolzman won a Grammy Award for “Best Chamber Music Performance” in 1983.

When Princeton University Concerts director Marna Seltzer reached out to Goode about the partnership, Goode was eager to participate. In the 1970s, Goode actually participated in a similar joint music and poetry concert.

“It was not the greatest success,” Goode said. “We tried to make harmony between pieces that were played and the poems that were read.”

Goode recalled the concert being too disjointed without enough connection between the pieces. However, when he learned that C.K. Williams would join him as the poet, Goode thought that there was something special about this partnership, especially considering Williams’s talent and personal love of music.

“Also he [Williams] himself loves music tremendously,” Goode said, after noting the remarkable power and range of Williams’s poetry.

The evolution of the program was continuous and collaborative. Initially, Williams was interested in developing the concert around music that was important in his childhood. However, Goode found this approach thematically limiting and suggested that the two artists begin with the poems. He wanted to pursue an avenue of finding music that complemented and enhanced Williams’s work. To this end, Williams sent Goode different pieces, and then Goode played different selections of music that he felt worked with the poetry. The two decided together which pairings worked best, and those choices will be featured in the concert.

Goode recalled that two composers in particular continually came into conversation. The first, Ludwig van Beethoven, is a favorite of both artists. Goode was the first American-born pianist to record a complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas. Using the composer as inspiration, Williams wrote a new poem, “Beethoven Invents the Species Again,” which will be debuted at the upcoming concert.

“He [Williams] read it to me and my wife as we sat at the kitchen table, and we just loved it,” Goode said of hearing Williams’s new poem for the first time. “It was wonderful. Everyone will hear the premiere of this poem, and that will be very exciting.”

The second artist that stood out in their discussions was Czech composer Leos Janácek. Goode found the “emotional immediacy” of Williams’s poetry striking and saw it complementing Janácek’s pieces well. Goode will play two of Janácek’s compositions, “A Blown Away Leaf” from “On an Overgrown Path” and “No. 4 (Presto)” from “In the Mists.” Williams will read “Breeze with Flowers,” “Garden” and “Dust” preceding these pieces.

“You can’t play anything more direct than Janácek or say something more direct than what Charlie [Williams] is saying,” Goode said. “That was one composer we found an affinity between with the music and poetry.”

Goode is optimistic about the partnership of poetry and piano in the upcoming concert. However, he noted that the goal was not to say, “this equals that.”

“Music doesn’t say anything the way words do,” Goode said. “Music has its own meaning.”

Goode explained that the concert does not aim to put music and poetry together in a literal sense, but rather to allow them to occupy the same space and enhance each other. He hopes to achieve a kind of harmony and synchrony between the two art forms, as they respond to each other.

“These are wonderful poems and pieces, and some new vibration will come about,” Goode said. “Hopefully, by putting them side-by-side, something new will be said by each.”

C.K. Williams and Richard Goode will deliver their concert on March 9 at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium.

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