Neue Lied, Part 2: And we felt, this was our measure.

Sadly, I cannot think of a time when the world was without war. It is as old as humankind. The sociobiology of our species.  While many lieds talk of other distinctly human qualities: love, longing, nature, beauty, and even death, there are few that detail  the stark bleakness of war. And in the 19th century, when lieder was truly born, there were plenty to choose from:–99.  Perhaps some German Romantics chose to avoid it.

However, even war has elements that can be painted with a romantic brush:  young people dreaming of going off and fighting for a noble cause, returning home in a hail of glory. Those who haven’t fought tend to look at it with a lens of ‘other’: in movies, in books, on TV–we are not there, so we only see the edited view.  I don’t mean to demean those who protect our freedoms. To the contrary: we truly cannot appreciate the depths of darkness that embody war without actually fighting in one.

In 2015 we are in the midst of the centennial anniversary of WWI. This fact did not escape composer Erling Wold, who is working another project in Europe honoring this event. When invited to participate in the neue lieder project, his mind was immediately drawn to the idea of this seemingly pointless, stark, harsh war as a source of text. Which consequently drew him to the wonders of the Google search.

He came upon this poem by Rudolf Binding called “Schlacht-Das Maß” (“Battle- The Measure”). Binding was a true intellectual: studying medicine and law before his tour of duty in WWI. It can be said, that his experience changed his life.  Binding’s diary and letters, A Fatalist at War, was published in 1927 and he amassed quite a number of writings on the subject throughout later years. His collected war poems, stories and recollections were not published until after his death in 1938, but their potency reveal the depths to which this war impacted his being.

This poem, set with incredible scope by Erling, paints the bleak landscape of war with a relentless meter and determination of purpose:

Die Erde drängt sich zitternd an uns heran.
Das Feld steht auf wie ein Mensch vom Lager.
Saaten bewaffneter Männer sprießen
aus unsichtbaren Samen
in den Furchen zutag.
Schauerlich groß blühn grünschwarze Kelche
Erdstaub und giftige Gase
allenthalben empor.
Aufgeschreckt rasend
springen Fontänen aus trockenem Grund.
Auf Feuer gekreuzigt
fahren Menschenleiber zum Himmel,
zerstieben mit einer Grimasse,
schwarze verkohlte Sterne:
Erde und Gebein.

Rauchterrassen wälzen sich über uns hin.
In schweren Wettern rauscht Eisen nieder.
Blitze tasten heran.
Donner erwürgt uns.
Heulender Abgrund bäumt sich herauf
allüberall, und die Sonne schleift
Dunkel verpestete Mähnen in unseren Atem.
Unentrinnbar hält uns der Himmel
unter sich hingebannt:
unheimliches Basiliskenauge
Über kleinem Getier.

Einsam liegen wir da in der Not der Schlacht;
wir wußten, daß jeder einsam war.
Aber wir wußten auch dies:
Einmal vor Unerbittlichem stehn,
wo Gebete entrechtet, Gewinsel zu Gott
lächerlich ist,
wo keines Mutter sich nach uns umsieht,
kein Weib unsern Weg kreuzt,
wo alles o h n e Liebe ist,
wo nur die Wirklichkeit herrscht,
grausig und groß,
solches macht sicher und stolz.
Unvergeßlich und tiefer
rührt es ans Herz des Menschen
als alle Liebe der Welt.

Und wir fühlen: dies war das Maß.


The soil trembling presses to us.
The field stands up like a man from the bed.
Crops of armed men grow
From invisible seeds
In the furrows.
Eerily big green-black goblets let
Soil dust and poisonous gases
Bloom everywhere.
Alarmdly raving
Fountains arise from dry grounds.
Crucified on fire
Human bodies go to heaven,
Burst with an antic,
Black charred stars:
Soil and bones.

Terraces of smoke roll over us.
In thunderstorms, iron rains down.
Levins feel their ways.
Thunder strangles us.
Wailing abyss rears up
Everywhere, and the Sun grinds
Dark mephitic manes in our breath.
Inescapably heaven holds us
Bound below:
Sinister basilisk's eye
Over small animals.

Desolate we lie there in the misery of battle;
We knew that everyone was desolate.
But we also knew this:
Standing before the remorseless once,
Where prayer is futile, where canting to God
Is ridiculous,
Wher no mother looks for us,
Where no woman crosses our path,
Where everything is  w i t h o u t  love,
Where only reality reigns,
Gruesome and grand,
That makes firm and proud.
Unforgettable and much deeper
It touches the heart of man
Than all the love in the world.

And we felt: This was the measure.

Interestingly, Erling discovered afterwards that the ending of Binding’s poem was also used in the iconic movie Das Boot, which although set in WWII plays homage to its predecessor. The final sentence: “And we felt: This was the measure” holds the key to the entire sentiment: one can experience sheer terror, brutality, and horror. Yet, to do so is honorable. It was their purpose, and one is ‘measured’ by partaking.

I have to say, I fell in love with Erling’s piece immediately. There was something unique about it that went beyond lied. It is operatic in its own way, painting pictures in your mind as you go through it.  (And I confess, I became carried away with these pictures, contemplating creating videography, staging, or performance art for the piece. The jury is still out on whether that will happen–after all, it is a lieder concert–but my hope is the audience can ‘see’ what I see. (:). The beginning starts with this steady quarter beat, which conjures marching into the abyss. The beat never wanes, until it reaches an almost hymn-like pause. The re-entering of the singer, in a lyrical moment “einsam lagen wir da” returns to the march, before diving into a relentless arpeggiated piano, full of supportive energy which builds to the conclusion “and we felt: this was our measure”.  This sentence is repeated, almost questioning, back to the quartered piano and ends without a true ending. After all, does it ever end?

Neue lied, part 1: Eingang (Entrance)

Of course I choose the song with the title “Entrance” to jumpstart the blog about neue lieder. So here we ‘enter’….(;

One of my favorite things about performing new vocal music by living composers is learning what drew them to the text. The words are the seed from which the music blooms, and as a singer, we often have to pay equal (if not more) attention to verbal nuances–their meaning, their rhythms, their resonances, their subtext– as we channel the composer’s intentions. The saying ‘prima la musica, poi le parole’ in vocal music is usually the anomaly, not the norm.

Of course, when I had the opportunity to meet with the incredible David Conte to work on his ‘Eingang’ (‘Entrance’) from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the questions I posed was ‘what drew you to this text?’. It must be said, unlike the other neue lieder in the program, this song was originally set in English translation: the original German was   incorporated specifically for this concert, with only subtle musical adaptations. For Conte, the choice was simple: it was a poem translated by his friend, poet and former NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia. Gioia is known of course for volumes of his own poetry in addition to his affinity for classical music (in addition to his collaborations with composers, he had an interest in composing himself). So the marriage of a poetic translation of Rilke by Gioia with the music of Conte under the umbrella of friendship is a lovely one. Sometimes it is the people that guide us to a text, and that becomes the impetus for a composer to write.

Conte’s setting (in both German and English) is truly guided by the rhythm and meaning of the words.  The subtle shape and tempi changes are critical to its success and flow perfectly with the poem’s intentions:

“Wer du auch seist: am Abend tritt hinaus
aus deiner Stube, drin du alles weißt;
als letztes vor der Ferne liegt dein Haus:
wer du auch seist.
Mit deinen Augen, welche müde kaum
von der verbrauchten Schwelle sich befrein,
hebst du ganz langsam einen schwarzen Baum
und stellst ihn vor den Himmel: schlank, allein.
Und hast die Welt gemacht. Und sie ist groß
und wie ein Wort, das noch im Schweigen reift.
Und wie dein Wille ihren Sinn begreift,
lassen sie deine Augen zärtllich los…”

“Whoever you are: step out of the doors tonight,
Out of the room that lets you feel secure,
Infinity is open to your sight.
Whoever you are.
With eyes that have forgotten how to see
From viewing things already to unknown,
Lift up into the dark a huge black tree
And put in the heavn’s.
Tall, alone.
And you have made the world and all you see.
It ripeness like the words stolen your mouth, your mouth.
And when at last you comprehend its truth,
Then close your eyes and gently set it free…”

The text drives the music, not the other way around. Elements of Conte’s pedigree abound (he was one of Nadia Boulanger’s students) with impressionistic textures and harmonies that feel organic yet interesting. It has a simple elegance that draws the listener to both the words and the music in way that all art song should (and is a reason why many singers love to perform Conte’s pieces. He is singer friendly and audience friendly). I feel honored he allowed me to include his piece in this program and I look forward to bringing it to a new (German) life!

In pairing Conte’s piece with an alte lied, I had many choices ahead of me, since the theme of release and freedom, entrance into a new world in love or death is ubiquitous in lieder…I took the pairing very seriously since I wanted to truly honor both text and music, and offer the audience a window into the evolution of the genre and how it remains accessible. Alas, that is in fact the entire purpose of the concert! To this end, this particular pairing is perhaps the most rebellious. (;

In choosing Webern’s ‘Eingang’ I was not simply going for parallels in title (Webern’s setting is a poem by Stefan George, not Rilke). The essence of message is similar (albeit darker), as is the direction of text in the piece, like Conte’s. However, the harmonic language of Webern, tonally and rhythmically complex, offers a stark contrast to the melodic beauty of many composers in this program. It is beauty in its own way, one to which I am drawn, but I wanted to show the audience (not all of whom may have an affinity to 12-tone music) that ‘alte lied’ in this context can be, in fact, more ‘neue’ to their ears. It’s a stark example of the freedom today’s composers have to RETURN to melody if they so choose…their palette is wider than ever, and the harmonic landscape equally diverse.  That is what makes this an exciting time for composers. The possibilities are endless. I am honored that they have allowed me to showcase their talents in this genre. We need their voices. Enter…