Monday, July 9, 2007

Brunch with the German Romantics

Casper David Friedrich: Cloister

Gothic monument by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Viktoria Park, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Caspar David Friedrich: The Cross on the Mountain

Caspar David Friedrich: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

During Sunday brunch at Yorckschloesschen, Robert Morley walks by and joins me at my table. He also has his laptop, and goes to the online site of Bremer Sprachblog, which teaches German. Robert reads some highly complicated sentences aloud, commenting, "Listen to this. This is fabulous!"

Well, Robert, many people think the German language is ugly, guttural. That impression comes from all those World War II movies produced by Hollywood. But German is actually a beautiful language. I had the pleasure one evening of hearing the great German actress, Edith Clever, read portions of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) in the original language. It was extremely expressive and emotional.

I think that lyric German poetry, particularly of the Romantic poets, was in many ways a verbal form of the chiaroscuro found in the influential paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. I saw the Friedrich collection at Schloss Charlottenburg here in Berlin and instantly remembered passages from Goslar, Faust and Der Erlkönig. Poets such as Goethe, Rilke, Schiller, Heine, Brentano, Arnim, Eichendorff and E.T.A. Hoffmann (who, by the way, is buried 4 blocks from my apartment) often echoed Friedrich’s penchant for symbolism and double meanings. Darkness and light, a sense of the Gothic, the depiction of dreams and German mythology permeate their poetry. To me, the sheer descriptiveness, the actual sound of the language, has an innate musicality and tactile feel. No wonder that these qualities inspired great Lieder. I cannot imagine the artistic void that would exist if these poets had never lived.

One of the first German poems I ever learned comes instantly to mind, Ich grolle nicht by Heinrich Heine which inspired Robert Schumann to compose the perfect song. I include it below with an English translation:

Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,
Ewig verlornes Lieb! Ich grolle nicht.
Wie du auch strahlst in Diamantenpracht,
Es fällt kein Strahl in deines Herzens Nacht.

Das weiß ich längst. Ich sah dich ja im Traum, Und sah die Nacht in deines Herzens Raum, Und sah die Schlange, die dir am Herzen frisst, Ich sah, mein Lieb, wie sehr du elend bist.

I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking,
Love lost forever! I bear no grudge.
However you may shine in diamonds splendour,
no ray of light falls in the night of your heart.

I have long known this.

I saw you in my dream,
and saw the night in the space of your heart,
and saw the snake that eats at your heart,
I saw, my love, how very miserable you are.

So yes, Robert, it is a fabulous language.

© Alexander Frey, 2007

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Messiaen and Die Berliner Luft

Gorgeous weather this morning, and after a brisk walk, I bury myself in my work.

The scores on the desk to study for next season: Bernstein's Peter Pan and West Side Story, Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) and Firebird (L'Oiseau de feu), Mahler 5th symphony. The piano concertos to play-Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, Grieg A minor, Mozart A major K. 488. And that's only part of the repertoire.
3 CDs to prepare for and record. And some solo recitals.

I look out of my studio windows just above the treetops. The sky has suddenly become dark as rainclouds summon up yet another storm. I do like summer storms. The rain purifies the air, releasing the fragrances of the earth.

Unknown to many, the city of Berlin actually sits on top of a massive water table. The air in this metropolis is unusually clean and fresh for a large city. That is because the earth is constantly being saturated with water from underneath. The air is always being cleansed and purified. That is why there is the old song, "Berliner Luft" (Berlin Air).

Das ist die Berliner Luft Luft Luft,
so mit ihrem holden Duft Duft Duft,
wo nur selten was verpufft pufft pufft......

Whenever I arrive back in Berlin and step out of the airport terminal, I take a deep breath. The air is so different and fresh. Die Berliner Luft.

Craig Urquhart and I go to a concert last night of the Konzerthausorchester performed in Berlin's beautiful Schinkel-designed Konzerthaus, (see photo above). The orchestra is the reconstituted Berlin Symphony Orchestra (Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester). The program, of which some works are unfamiliar to me, was highly interesting. Stravinsky's Greeting Prelude, Berlioz Le Corsaire overture, Messiaen's Réveil des oiseaux, Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu. And those are just the works on the first half which was very long due to the moderator who gave long winded explanations between each piece of music.

I have loved Messiaen's music ever since I was a little boy entranced by the organ. But the Réveil des oiseaux, consisting mostly of the composer's transcriptions of birdsong, struck me the same way as his Canyons aux étoiles which I heard performed with orchestra featuring Messiaen's wife, the great pianist Yvonne Loriod, as soloist in Denver in 1998-superb music and ideas but way too repetitive and overly long. You are completely claimed by the opening 15 minutes only to be wandering for the next 30 or so through an endless chain of dominant seventh chords. Loriod's breathtaking performance and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra's ravishing playing were magnificent, but the sheer length and repetition of the work were tiresome. The piece does convey a great musical picture of the work's inspiration, Utah's Brice Canyon, but one can say the same thing in fewer paragraphs to greater effect.

And yet almost the rest of Messiaen's music leaves me completely transfixed. His sound world is a wonderful place to be where the colors and hues are infinite.

The Zimmermann work hits us similarly due its length. Though not as cerebral as the Messiaen, Zimmermann quotes entire portions of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and Berlioz' March to the Gallows from the Symphonie Fantastique whenever he can't seem to find a melody on his own. It cheapens what could have stood as a fine work.

We cut out to the new 5-star Hotel Roma for martinis before going down the street for a magnificent Italian dinner.

© Alexander Frey, 2007