18 November 2014

Das Berliner Requiem: First & Second Reports on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch

From the classic, 1970s, DG recording by David Atherton and the London Sinfonietta, these are two of my favorite pieces ever and come from Kurt Weill's Das Berliner Requiem (1929), a cantata setting of poems by Bertolt Brecht, which itself, more than anything else, is about the German experience of the aftermath of World War I. As you will see....

As it is ever inappropriate to divorce the salt and pepper at the dinner table, I refuse to divorce the first Bericht, or Report, from the second, in this truly incredible one-two punch (a dreadful pun, here) of Weill-Brecht, in this strange and beguiling, this deeply upsetting and unsettling, this compelling piece. Its ferocity may surprise you. And so, first, The First Report on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch. All translations, which follow Brecht's original German, are mine, flaws and all.

IV. Erster Bericht über den Unbekannten Soldaten unter dem Triumphbogen

Wir kamen von den Gebirgen und vom Weltmeer,
Um ihn zu erschlagen.
Wir fingen ihn mit Stricken, langend
Von Moskau bis zur Stadt Marseille
Und stellten auf Kanonen, ihn erreichend
An jedem Punkt, wo er hinfliehen konnte,
Wenn er uns sah.
Wir versammelten uns vier Jahre lang,
Legten nieder unsere Arbeit und standen
In den zerfallenen Städten, uns zurufend in vielen Sprachen
Von den Gebirgen bis zum Weltmeer,
Wo er sei.
So erschlugen wir ihn im vierten Jahr.
Dabei waren,
Die er war geboren zu sehn
Um sich stehend zur Zeit seines Todes:
Wir alle.
Und dabei war eine Frau, die ihn geboren hatte
Und die geschwiegen hatte, als wir ihn holten.
Der Schoß sei ihr ausgerissen,
Als sie ihn aber erschlagen hatten,
Richteten wir ihn zu, dass er sein Gesicht verlor
Durch die Spuren unsrer Fäuste.
So machten wir ihn unkenntlich,
Dass er keines Menschen Sohn mehr sei.
Und gruben ihn aus unter dem Erz,
Trugen ihn heim in unsere Stadt und
Begruben ihn unter dem Stein, und zwar unter einem Bogen, genannt
Bogen des Triumphs,
Welcher wog tausend Zentner, dass
Der Unbekannte Soldat
Keinesfalls aufstünde am Tag des Gerichts
Und unkenntlich
Wandelte vor Gott,
Dennoch wieder im Licht
Und bezeichnete uns Kenntliche
Zur Gerechtigkeit.

IV. First Report on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch

We came from the mountains and the oceans,
To strike him dead.
We caught him with ropes, strung
From Moscow to the city of Marseille
And aimed cannon, so as to reach him
At any point to where he should flee,
When he saw us.
We gathered for four years,
Laid down our work and were
In the ruined cities, calling to each other in many languages,
From the mountains to the oceans,
Where he was.
So we killed him in the fourth year.
It was to be
That he was born to see
Standing before him at the time of his death:
All of us.
And there was the woman who bore him
And who was silent when we got him.
Let her cunt be ripped out.
And when we had slain him,
We turned on him so that he lost his face
Through the traces of our fists.
So we made him unrecognizable,
That he was no man's son, anymore.
And dug him out from under the steel,
Carried him home to our city and
Buried him under the stone, and indeed under an arch, called the
Arch of Triumph,
Which weighed a thousand talents, so that
The unknown soldier
Under no circumstances should rise on Judgment Day
and, unrecognizable,
Walk before God,
Yet again in the light
And call us the knowable
To justice.

Great poem: Bertolt Brecht, 1919
Serviceable translation: Attributed to L. Steve Schmersal, November 2014

The reason I am thinking about this now--and writing about it at all, here--is because this second (or fifth) movement, this Bericht, this report, this recitative, this solo, by the wonderful Benjamin Luxon, is sung almost entirely over a Hammond organ, and my friend, the composer, Gordon Beeferman, has just acquired a Hammond, which required me to regale him about this piece for not a little while. I write this for you, Gordon.

In Settling the Score, Ned Rorem writes at some length about how some composers are constitutionally fast or slow (off-topic, but I feel the need to share, Rorem also says that one can hear Weill in Bach but not the other way around--a fascinating and paradoxical assertion), and that Weill is of the fast variety, that even in his slow music you hear the stillness of atoms spinning, spinning, spinning. This observation is nowhere more legible than in his setting of Brecht's great poem to--or "report on," but always very much to--the Unknown Soldier, in which the Hammond sounds like a squeezebox, devolving, dissolving in its own solution, into a single note repeated figure before the woodwinds take over. The suspense of the stillness of atoms spinning.

V. Zweiter Bericht über den Unbekannten Soldaten unter dem Triumphbogen

Alles, was ich euch sagte
Über Ermordung und Tod des Unbekannten Soldaten
Und die Verwüstung seines Gesichts,
Auch was ich euch sagte über die Bemühung seiner Mörder,
Ihn zu hindern am Wiederkommen,
Ist wahr.
Aber er kommt nicht wieder
Sein Gesicht war lebendig wie das eure,
Bis es zerschmettert wurde und nicht mehr war.
Und er ward
Nicht mehr gesehen auf dieser Welt,
Weder ganz noch zerschmettert,
Weder heute noch am Ende der Tage
Und sein Mund
Wird nicht reden am Jüngsten Gericht.
Es wird kein Gericht sein,
Sondern euer Bruder
Ist tot und tot ist der Stein über ihm,
Und ich bedaure
Jeglichen Hohn, und ziehe zurück meine Klage.
Aber ich bitte euch, da ihr ihn
Nun einmal erschlagen habt,
Still! Fangt nicht von neuen an
Zu streiten, da er doch tot ist.
Aber doch bitte ich, da ihr ihn also
Erschlagen habt:
Entfernt wenigstens
Den Stein über ihm,
Denn dieses Triumphgeheul
Ist doch nicht nötig und macht
Mir Kummer, denn mich,
Der ich den Erschlagenen
Schon vergessen hatte, erinnert er
Täglich an euch, die ihr noch
Lebt, und die ihr
Immer noch nicht erschlagen seid.
Warum denn nicht?

V. Second Report on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch

Everything I told you
About the murder and death of the Unknown Soldier
And the devastation of his face,
Also what I told you about the effort of his murderers,
To prevent him from coming back,
Is true.
But he will not come back
His face was alive like yours,
Until it was broken, and was no more.
And he was
Not seen in this world,
Whole or crushed,
Neither today nor at the End of Days,
And his mouth
Will not speak on the Day of Judgment.
There will be no judgment,
But your brother
Is dead and dead is the stone above him,
And I regret
Any scorn, and withdraw my complaint.
But I ask you, because now that
You have slain him:
Quiet! Do not start anew
To argue, because he is dead.
But I ask, because you
Have so slain him:
Remove, at least,
The stone above him,
For this howl of triumph
Is unnecessary and makes
Great sorrow for me,
The one who had the slain man
Forgotten, it reminds
Me daily of you who still
Live, and who
Have still not been killed.
Why not?

Great poem: Bertolt Brecht, 1919
Serviceable translation: Attributed to L. Steve Schmersal, November 2014

16 November 2014

Mrs Stechschulte

/MISS iz SHTEK shuhl tee/

O Mnemosyne! I
Cry unto you! Mother
Of the nine Muses, the
Titan of Memory!
Help me, help me, help me
To remember, in these sixes,

Mrs Stechschulte, the
Teacher of my Second
Grade! In the grocery
Store, I walked past her, my
Mother asked why I did
Not say hello. "To whom?"
I replied. "To Mrs Stechschulte,"

My mother said, "She just
Said 'Hi' to you." I looked
Around, but my teacher
Had vanished. Even then,
My facial recognition
Software was faulty. O

Mrs Stechschulte! I
Still look for you, in store
And street, home and soul, in
The vast plain of my mind,
Yet, lo, you are never
There. It is only me,

Hoping to say hello.

L. Steve Schmersal, /MISS iz SHTEK shuhl tee/, November 2014