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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_1800–99. 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?