The round tune “Frère Jacques” (Brother John) is known across cultures and languages in Europe. In German, it’s called “Bruder Martin” or “Bruder Jakob.”
In the third movement of his Symphony no. 1 in D minor, Gustav Mahler presents us with a sardonic, funeral-march like version of the song in minor. He was inspired by a work of visual art, the woodcut “The Hunter’s Funeral,” by Moritz von Schwind (above), an illustration of an ironic Austrian folktale about the burial of a hunter by the animals he would, in life, have preyed upon. In von Geschwind’s image, the animals at the rear of the procession are weeping dramatically into large handkerchief’s while the ones in the lead appear to be celebrating with music and banners.
How is this image an expression of irony?
In the middle of Mahler’s sonic funeral march, however, a village band, sounding very much like klezmerim — musicians hired for Jewish weddings in Mahler’s Bohemian hometown — breaks in, almost giving the effect of life interrupting death.
What does Mahler mean by this? Is his music also an illustration of irony?
In the first and second movements of the symphony, Mahler quotes from an earlier work of his own, the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Mahler wrote his own texts for this piece, and they expand greatly upon the Romantic themes of nature, wandering, loss, nostalgia, and grief familiar to us from the works of Schubert and others.
In fact, the song “Die zwei blauen Augen,” which Mahler reuses in Symphony no. 1, alludes to Schubert’s song “Der Lindenbaum,” from his own song cycle Die Winterreise, which is similarly about a man wandering on foot through nature away from his rejected love. Here is our old friend Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it.
Note that the term “lime tree” is the British term for what we, in North America, call the linden or basswood tree; it’s a tree that has long had significance in Germanic folklore as an emblem both of love and death.
Why do you think Mahler re-used this music? What meaning does it have in its new context?
This 1970 poem by Alice Notley captures and distills the failure of Romanticism’s program:
“I’ve meant to tell you many things about my life, …” I’ve meant to tell you many things about my life, & every time the moment has conquered me. I’m strangely unhappy because the pattern of my life is complicated, because my nature is hopelessly complicated; & out of this, to my sorrow, pain to you must grow. The centre of me is always & eternally a terrible pain-
a curious wild pain—a searching beyond what the world contains, something transfigured & infinite—I don’t find it, I don’t think it is to be found.
It’s like passionate love for a ghost. At times it fills me with rage, at times with wild despair. It’s the source of gentleness & cruelty & work
The stirring “Ride of the Valykyries” opens Act III of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Eight of the nine Valkyries, the warrior daughters of Wotan, ride their horses onto the battlefield to gather up the dead heroes and take them to Valhalla, the home of the gods. They await their sister Brünnhilde, who arrives with Sieglinde on her horse.
A purple glow shines from afar, Golden now the bright day sinks, One by one the silver stars Awaken in the skies. And the Queen of the Day Bows her head and goes to sleep; One more greeting, now goodbye! No farewell! No departure!
Shadows cover the broad earth, Night lies on the meadows. Pray be still now, poor heart, That the day has wearied so! O appear, gently, mildly, Sweet image in my dreams. One more greeting, now goodbye! No farewell! No departure!
Ah, hot tears run down my cheeks; Now a feeling of bliss, Now a painful, fearful longing Is set to break my heart. Only dreams can restore That happiness too quickly vanished. One more greeting, now goodbye! No farewell! No departure!
When I gaze into the dusk, And the sun sets, I think of all the pain That I have endured. Ah, perhaps the morrow Will banish all cares. So be of good cheer! Goodbye! No farewell! No departure!
What Romantic themes can you identify in the text and in the music?
The conflict between Brahms and his posse, and Wagner and his, resulted in a “manifesto” written by Brahms and published in the Berliner Musik-Zeitung Echo in 1860:
The undersigned have long followed with regret the proceedings of a certain party whose organ is Brendel’s Zeitschrift für Musik. The said Zeitschrift unceasingly promulgates the theory that the most prominent striving musicians are in accord with the aims represented in its pages, that they recognise in the compositions of the leaders of the new school works of artistic value, and that the contention for and against the so-called Music of the Future has been finally fought out, especially in North Germany, and decided in its favour. The undersigned regard it as their duty to protest against such a distortion of fact, and declare, at least for their own part, that they do not acknowledge the principles avowed by the Zeitschrift, and that they can only lament and condemn the productions of the leaders and pupils of the so-called New-German school, which on the one hand apply those principles practically, and on the other necessitate the constant setting up of new and unheard-of theories which are contrary to the very nature of music.
Wagner was outraged by this screed, and branded its authors “Jews,” one of his favorite epithets.
A few days later, an answer appeared in the NeueZeitschrift:
Dread Mr. Editor,
All is out!——I learn that a political coup has been carried out, the entire new world rooted out stump and branch, and Weimar and Leipzig, especially, struck out of the musical map of the world. To compass this end, a widely outreaching letter was thought out and sent out to the chosen-out faithful of all lands, in which strongly outspoken protest was made against the increasing epidemic of the Music of the Future. Amongst the select of the out-worthies [paragons] are to be reckoned several outsiders whose names, however, the modern historian of art has not been able to find out. Nevertheless, should the avalanche of signatures widen out sufficiently, the storm will break out suddenly. Although the strictest secrecy has been enjoined upon the chosen-out by the hatchers-out of this musico-tragic out-and-outer, I have succeeded in obtaining sight of the original, and I am glad, dread Mr. Editor, to be able to communicate to you, in what follows, the contents of this aptly conceived state paper—I remain, yours most truly,
Office of the Music of the Future [Zukunftsmusik]
In spite of this mocking response, the anxiety over who would inherit the mantle of Beethoven caused real anxiety among culture-minded Germans; David Thatcher goes so far as to call the Absolute vs. Program Music dispute a “civil war”; indeed, it’s even been called “The War of the Romantics.” Brahms and Wagner were each competing, as it were, to wear the mantle of Beethoven, and to carry the genius of Germanic music into a new era. As conductor Russell Ger puts it:
From our perspective it seems fantastically overblown. Could people really get that worked up about something like this? Well, unfortunately we have a tragic parallel in the two great rap artists Biggie and 2Pac. The feud between these musicians resulted in two gang-related homicides, with both men being cut down in their prime. This is equally beyond comprehension.
In the 19th Century, the conflict was somewhat more restrained, with only occasional outbursts of physical violence at concerts. The war was predominantly restricted to vociferous condemnations in print and vocal denunciations at performances.
Brahms despised Liszt’s music, and was widely believed to hold the same low opinion of Wagner’s. Liszt was a great supporter of Wagner; his daughter Cosima became Wagner’s second wife. Wagner, in turn, hated Brahms and everything he believed Brahms stood for. As Wagner’s defender, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, put it:
What does Johannes Brahms matter now? His good fortune was a German misunderstanding: he was taken for Wagner’s antagonist — an antagonist was needed. That does not make for necessary music, that makes, above all, for too much music.-If one is not rich one should have pride enough for poverty. The sympathy Brahms inspires undeniably at certain points . . . long seemed enigmatic to me — until finally I discovered, almost by accident, that he affects a certain type of man. His is the melancholy of impotence; he does not create out of an abundance, he languishes for abundance. If we discount what he imitates [e.g., Beethoven], what he borrows from great old or exotic-modern styles — he is a master of imitation — what remains as specifically his is yearning. This is felt by all who are full of yearning and dissatisfaction of any kind. He is too little a person . . . This is understood by those . . . on the periphery [of socity] and they love him for that. In particular, he is the musician for a certain type of dissatisfied women . . . . Brahms is touching as long as he is secretly enraptured or mourns for himself — in this he is “modern”; he becomes cold and of no further concern to us as soon as he becomes the heir of the classical composers. People like to call Brahms the heir of Beethoven: I know no more cautious euphemism.
In brief, Nietzsche says that Brahms is impotent, small-minded, with no original ideas, and appeals only to people with frustrated lives. Do you agree?
Whatever the case, Brahms quite clearly paid homage to Wagner in the second movement of his Symphony no. 1 in C minor, op. 68.
The symphony’s second movement contains several obvious allusions to Wagner’s groundbreaking “Tristan chord” (movement 2 starts at 12:52):
The Tristan chord occurs first in the prelude of Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde, and consists of F-B-D#-G#: an augmented fourth, sixth, and ninth. Any chord that contained these intervallic relationships became known as a Tristan chord.
More on the Tristan chord:
Brahms was a collector of manuscript scores, and had an autograph score of a scene from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. When Wagner found out, he demanded that Brahms return it to him. They exchanged frosty letters, which you can read here, and Brahms eventually did return the score. Wagner relented by sending him a first-edition of Das Rheingold.
This is one of my favorite versions of the opera, produced for film, not the stage, in a 1975. No subtitles, but beautifully and sensitively performed.
Orientalism: “La Japonaise (Mme. Monet in Kimono” (Claude Monet, 1875).
Photo from Operation Babylift, Saigon, 1975: a U.S. Naval officer about to take a Vietnamese orphan, one of thousands, onboard a plane to be adopted in America. For more on Operation Babylift, go here:
A French film version of the complete opera made in 1996: this is the one we will be analyzing in class.
In 2018, Pacific Opera Project presented an ambitious production of Butterfly in Japanese and English, NOT Italian, because Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton would have communicated in their respective languages. The English sections have Japanese subtitles, and the Japanese sections have English subtitles.
The opposite of orientalism? More than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned without charge during World War II:
For more, go here to the fascinating 50 Objects/Stories site:
How did the poetry of Ossian (really, James MacPherson) influence Italian opera in the nineteenth century?
Why was Ossian — later acknowledged to be a fraud — so important to the Romantic generation in Italy?
Could it be because these supposedly ancient poems spoke to the longing for a unified culture and community, one based on spiritual aspirations rather than on the arbitrary borders set out by the various monarchies of Europe? In other words: because “Ossian,” as a Scottish poet, addressed issues of the time — including the longing for nationhood among diverse peoples — in a way that would surely have been censored or suppressed if the poems had been “modern”?
Ossianism, as a kind of cultural virus . . . spread quickly and widely. In Britain, which had recently suppressed a series of insurrections in Scotland and solidified its domain over the recently formed “United Kingdom,” these Ossianic characteristics . . . promoted Scottish nationalism and undermined English authority.
So, for all of his purported ancientness, Ossian is about resurgence, rebirth — risorgimento in Italian. The Italian Risorgimento was the political and artistic movement dedicated to Italian liberation and unification.
So we go from early Italian Romantic opera, like this:
to overtly nationalist and revolutionary Italian Romantic opera, like this:
Schubert’s room, as drawn by his friend Moritz von Schwind, 1821.
Franz Schubert at age 16.
Franz von Schober.
The Austrian poet Franz von Schober (1796-1882) was evidently the driving force behind the Schubertiades, the semi-private salon gatherings at which Franz Schubert premiered many of his Lieder. Schober was in fact such a close friend of Schubert’s that together they were known as “Schobert” among their circle of friends, a mashup of their names à la Javanka or Brangelina.
Schubert’s setting of Schober’s poem “An die Music” (To Music) has become one of his best-loved Lieder. In the text, the poet addresses music as an allegorical figure of healing:
You, noble Art, in how many grey hours, When life’s mad tumult wraps around me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love, Have you transported me into a better world, Transported into a better world!
Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp, A sweet, divine harmony from you
Unlocked to me the heaven of better times, You, noble Art, I thank you for it, You, noble Art, I thank you!
The song starts almost without starting: the voice and piano begin together, without any introduction. Although the song is a setting of a poem by the great German poet, playwright, novelist, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schubert has attempted to imitate a folksong. The song is strophic, cheerful, and deceptively simple. It’s as if Schubert is trying to evoke the naturalism of an actual folksong. Why does he do this?
The opening statement of Schubert’s melody mimics Pamina and Papageno’s duet, “Könnte jeder brave Mann,” in Act 1 of Mozart’s 1791 opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute):
In a certain sense, Schubert’s elevation of the Lied to a high art was an act of resistance, a turning away from the rigors of “serious” musical form and towards greater simplicity and accessibility. His use of a folklike form in “Heidenröslein” — while setting Goethe, no less — seems like a deliberate and even a studied choice. What is more, the childlike strophic simplicity of the song highlights another aspect of Schubert’s compositional philosophy: irony.
What is irony?
This print, “The Hunter’s Funeral” by Schubert’s friend Moritz von Schwind, is a good example of irony.
Another way that Schubert composes irony is in his frequent switching between parallel major and minor, as here, in his song “Lachen und Weinen” (Laughing and Weeping), where he moves between A-flat major and A-flat minor, in a kind of sonic illustration of the poem by Friedrich Rückert:
Schubert extends this technique to his instrumental chamber music. Listen to the beginning of his String Quartet in G Major. What makes it major, really?
His String Quintet in C Major:
Is it safe to say that Schubert, in his intermixing of parallel major and minor modalities, is expressing what cannot be said in words — emotional ambiguity? Why do you think he does this?
Incidentally, about 100 German composers wrote their own musical settings of “Heidenröslein.” The composer Heinrich Werner (1800-1833) set the poem in 1827, in a version whose popularity would make it almost a kind of folksong itself. Here it is arranged for four voices:
The theme of Death and the Maiden comes from the Middle Ages, where the visual motif of the danse macabre or Totentanz (the dance of death) was a popular decoration in painting and architecture. The danse macabre usually shows the allegorical figure of Death leading an unsuspecting group of the living in a round dance which ends in the grave or with a plunge from a cliff. The dancers generally include all ages and social classes, showing the universality and inevitability of death. Here, Death compels a prince and a bishop to dance.
The sub-allegory of Death and the Maiden adds an erotic element:
Schubert wrote a Lied called “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” to a poem by Matthias Claudius. In translation:
Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, dear,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.
Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!
Later, he used the Lied as the basis for an entire string quartet:
Why do you think he was so interested in this theme?