Three Des Knaben Wunderhorn Songs
The collection of German folk poetry published between 1805 and 1808 under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) had an enormous influence on the development of German lyric poetry and song in the 19th century, and the artless simplicity of these verses was particularly attractive to Gustav Mahler. Over half of his solo songs derive from this collection, many in both chamber and orchestral versions, and some even found their way into his symphonies, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Symphonies in particular.
Growing up in the Moravian garrison town of Jihlava, Mahler heard a great deal of military music when young and a number of his settings reflect his early fascination with this kind of music. There is, however, a tragic undertow in the military songs he chose to set from the Wunderhorn collection. Their mood is sombre, occasionally even macabre. They glint with an irony that pays tribute to the dark subtext lying beneath their childlike surface of story-telling.
Revelge (Reveille) marches to the tramping beat of a drummer wounded in battle who rouses the mortal remains of his fallen comrades to a ghastly advance against the foe. The mock-gleeful refrain of tralali, tralaley underscores the eerie ‘esprit de corpse’ of this grotesque procession.
Der Tamboursg’sell (The drummer boy) features another doomed drummer, this time marching to the gallows for the crime of desertion. Regular drum rolls mark the pace of this funeral procession while major-minor alternations in the harmony give voice to the boy’s wavering psychological state.
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the splendid trumpets sound) is a variant of the medieval Tagelied, depicting the reluctant separation of lovers at dawn. Distant trumpet fanfares symbolize the soldier’s call of duty but the “green heath” of battle he must hasten to will be his new home, in death.
Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied
The death of the promising 28-year-old composer-turned-soldier Rudi Stephan, victim of a sniper’s bullet on the Eastern Front, is one of the great losses that WWI inflicted on Western music. His song collection Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied (I want to sing you a high song) sets poems by Gerda von Robertus, the pseudonym of Gertrud Emily von Schlieben (1873-1939). Hohelied is the German term for the Song of Solomon and Stephan’s sultry and sensual settings attempt to express the power of love as both spiritual and erotic, in imitation of the Biblical text.
These songs, with their simple piano accompaniments, are exquisite miniatures that move forward in unhurried waves of emotion, luminously depicting in gently dissonant but firmly tonal harmonies the bittersweet yearning and imaginative wanderings of the lover’s heart.
The background strumming of the ancient lyre and the rippling of the ocean waves can be heard in the piano part of Kythere (Cythera), that describes a voyage to the perfume-scented isle of the love-goddess Venus. The pouncing potential of the lover-as-panther can be heard in the jumpy rhythms of Pantherlied (Panther song). Infinite delicacy in both the voice and piano parts of Abendfrieden (Evening peace) evokes the stillness of the twilight hours.
The mysterious exoticism of In Nachbars Garten (In the neighbours garden) paints the painful joy of witnessing love from afar. The steady pace of Glück zu Zweien counts the steps of a pair of lovers climbing ever higher to take in the vistas that their own togetherness presents to them. And finally, the unearthly stillness of Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied (I want to sing you a high song) evokes night as the geographic centre of love’s domain.
A Shropshire Lad
Many a British soldier in the Great War carried with him to the front a copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and the attraction would be easy to see. The poems in this collection by Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), published in 1896, were written in the straightforward language of the English farmer, laid out in the simple rhythmic patterns of English folk song. They present an idealized picture of country life, used as a lens through which to view the harsh realities of war and death. The stark fatalism of these poems, studded with their nostalgic reminders of home, would have appealed to those living in the trenches in France, many of them destined to be, in Housman’s casually chilling phrase, “lads that will never be old.”
George Butterworth, a graduate of Eton, Oxford, and the Royal College of Music, was killed in the Great War. A few years before the outbreak of hostilities, he composed two sets of songs to the poems in this collection, the first of which we will hear this evening. These settings give pride of place to the voice, to which the piano offers an extremely sparse accompaniment, with many modal turns
of harmony that evoke a folk-song-like style of expression. None more so than the last and most celebrated song of the set, Is my team ploughing?, an almost speech-like rendering in dialogue of the meeting between a dead soldier’s ghost and his best friend, still alive, who is reluctant to reveal with whose sweetheart he now lays down at night.
Four Walt Whitman Settings
Kurt Weill is best known for his hit tune “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera, which he composed in collaboration with Bertold Brecht in 1928 as reworking of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera of 1728. As a successful Jewish composer of stage music he came to the attention of the Nazi regime and was forced to flee in 1933. He eventually settled in New York in 1935, where he took to his new home with relish and began to write for the Broadway stage.
Immediately after Pearl Harbour, he set to work on a contribution to the war effort: composing songs to texts by the American poet Walt Whitman. Three Whitman songs were completed in 1942. A fourth was added in 1947. All four deal with the most compelling event of Whitman’s time, the American Civil War.
Beat! Beat! Drums! is a vigorous call to battle that Weill sets as a stomping march in a modernist idiom very close to the polemical style of his earlier theatre works.
O Captain! My Captain! is Whitman’s tribute to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Its style is definitely Broadway, which gives this lament an all-the-more common touch as a tribute piece.
Come up from the Fields, Father tells the story of the arrival of a letter from the army to tell a family that their only son is dead. The fulsome piano accompaniment gives this tragic scene its full measure of dignity.
Dirge for Two Veterans commemorates the death of a father and son in the same battle, juxtaposing the beauty of a landscape at dusk with the sense of loss that these twin deaths brings. In painting the scene, Weill gives each sentiment a different harmonic colouring.
Four Songs from Who Are These Children Op. 84
Scottish poet William Soutar (1898-1943) wrote poetry in Scots dialect in his poems for children, and in standard English in his more serious verse. Benjamin Britten used both kinds of poems by Soutar in his Who Are These Children, a work that jarringly contrasts the wide-eyed innocence of childhood with the destructive power of war. It is this latter power, the power to destroy, that occupies the four songs in standard English from this song cycle being presented by Mr. Bostridge and Ms. Du this evening.
Nightmare is ostensibly about the chopping down of a tree by “a dark shape,” but its symbolic resonance is much more powerful. Britten paints the tree’s dreamlike existence in the piano’s right-hand ostinato figures, the “murderer” of that dream in ominously low left-hand octaves.
Slaughter pits the voice, struggling to tell its tale, against a restless toccata- chatter of piano cuts and thrusts ranging widely over the keyboard, emblematic of the disconnect between the power to destroy and the power of bearing witness to that destruction. This is a scene in which “wise men are made dumb.”
Who are these children? paints a country scene as absurd as it is gallingly immoral: an elegant fox-hunting party rides through town on horseback during a world war that sees bombs falling on cities. Britten first paints the prancing procession of rich folk before switching his musical sympathies to the children onlookers, recently escaped from “fire and smoke,” whose uncomprehending stare sums up the poet’s indignation.
An eerie calm pervades The Children, a song that pictures the bodies of children lying in the streets after a bombing raid. The world seems unconcerned, and “the stars move to their places” as if nothing unusual had happened. Britten’s use of a rippling ostinato figure in the treble of the piano part represents the moral bewilderment that such a horrific scene would provoke in any thinking person.
Donald G. Gíslason 2016